I thoroughly enjoyed re-watching “Pinky,” Elia Kazan’s exposé of racism in America for this Kazan Redux series. The review below was originally published on January 5, 2017 and has been slightly revised.
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Jeanne Crain, Ethel Waters, and Ethel Barrymore
20th Century Fox, 1949, 102 minutes
Always on the lookout for a “social message” script, 20th Century Fox liberal studio mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck, followed the success of “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (Best Picture, 1947), which tackled the issue of anti-Semitism, with “Pinky,” a film dealing with prejudice against African-Americans. Legendary director, John Ford, had already begun working on the film, but dropped out early in the production after clashes with actress, Ethel Waters. Zanuck enlisted Elia Kazan to replace Ford.
Patricia “Pinky” Johnson (Jeanne Crain) returns home to Alabama after graduating from nursing school in Boston. She is of mixed Caucasian and Black race, but has absolutely no physical characteristics common to Blacks and easily “passed” herself as racially “pure” White in the North. When her Black granny, Dicey (Ethel Waters), asks Pinky to nurse her dying friend, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore), matriarch of the nearby, crumbling former plantation, Pinky acquiesces after serious misgivings, but eventually befriends the old dame. All the while, Pinky encounters blatant racism whenever the White townsfolk discover she’s actually of mixed race. When her White boyfriend (William Lundigan) from up North tracks her down, he is startled to learn from Pinky that she is bi-racial, but wishes to continue the relationship. After Miss Em’s death, the entire town and most especially, Em’s racist cousin, Melba (portrayed by Evelyn Varden in a remarkable performance), is shocked to learn that she willed her estate to Pinky. Melba contests the will in court, but the judge unbelievably upholds it. Rejecting her suitor’s invitation to leave the town and conceal her true racial identity, Pinky turns the old plantation into “Miss Em’s Clinic and Nursery School” for Black nursing students and Black children.
In later interviews, Kazan stated that he was not altogether pleased with “Pinky” and referred to it as an emasculated morality play. The casting of white-as-the-driven-snow Jeanne Crain as the bi-racial protagonist ensured there would be few objections showing the film in the South, but it took the teeth out of the picture. Crain in the arms of William Lundigan was fine, but a light-skinned, African-American actress such as Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge (who had both solicited for the part) in the arms of a White actor at that time would have been entirely unacceptable. It is certainly difficult for the viewer to suspend belief and accept Crain as dark-skinned Water’s granddaughter, but “Pinky” does portray racism in a convincing manner in several scenes. “Pinky” may seem tame by today’s standards, but it was controversial when it was released in 1949.
Controversy aside, the cast is fantastic and I’ve come to appreciate “Pinky” a bit more with each viewing. Both Waters and Barrymore, the First Lady of the Theater, were nominated for Oscars for their portrayals. Most memorable in minor roles are Frederick O’Neal as rascally Jake Walters, Evelyn Varden as Melba Wooley, Nina Mae McKinney as Rozelia, and Basil Ruysdael as Judge Walker. Dan Riss as Wooley’s bombastic lawyer is absolutely delightful in his small role. Kazan was very critical of Jeanne Crain in several of his later writings and interviews for her extremely limited emotional scale. Of all the many actors Kazan directed in his nineteen films, I don’t believe he criticized anyone else so fiercely. Surprisingly, Crain was nominated for Best Actress for her tense, one-dimensional performance.
“Pinky” turned out to be much more than a liberal crusade for Zanuck; the controversial subject matter generated great interest among movie-goers resulting in “Pinky” being the highest-grossing film for Fox in 1949 despite some opposition in the South. With “Pinky,” Kazan continued to raise the suspicions and ire of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
At this point in his career, Kazan was chaffing against studio control. Like “Gentleman’s Agreement” before it, the director was forced to shoot “Pinky” largely in the studio and backlot. Kazan was still searching for his signature style when he directed “Pinky,” his fifth film, but he would find it while making his next picture, the gritty film noir thriller, “Panic in the Streets.”
Film historian, Kenneth Geist, provides an unremarkable commentary for the “Pinky” DVD. Unfortunately, his remarks have much more to do with the overall careers of Waters and Barrymore than with the details of “Pinky.” Also, the DVD picture quality is sub-par.
Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective
It’s hard to believe from today’s perspective how American Christians of yesteryear used the Bible to justify bigotry, intolerance, and persecution. No doubt more than a few sermons included such exhortations as, “Slavery’s in the Bible, so therefore it’s okay for us to own slaves” and “The Old Testament forbade intermarriage and intermingling with other ethnicities and races (those commandments were specifically for the Israelites) so we must do the same.” I was just a kid at the time of the civil rights marches and legislation, and race riots. America as a nation has come a long way since then, but still has a long way to go. We Christians should have no prejudices in regards to ethnicity and race.
Next up: We’ve already re-reviewed Kazan’s sixth film, “Panic in the Streets,” so on-deck is the director’s seventh film, “A Streetcar Named Desire”