Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This odd Darryl F. Zanuck picture shows the limitations of his brand of 'social issue' filmmaking at Fox in the late 1940s. After tackling anti-Semitisim (Gentleman's Agreement) and mental health care The Snake Pit, 1949 became the year to make a big statement about race prejudice. Independent filmmakers, mainly Stanley Kramer, were mining the same kind of content, but Zanuck's story took on a core race issue - racially mixed romance and intermarriage. He lined up the prestigious John Ford to direct.
Pinky became a successful release; it was Fox's highest grossing picture for 1949. But for all of Zanuck's good intentions it's a disorted, almost ridiculous film compromised by commercial concerns and narrow thinking. Its ultimate message supports the idea of segregation. Pinky had no problem finding distribution in the South while other films suggesting racial equality were banned.
Patricia "Pinky" Johnson (Jeanne Crain) returns to her Southern backwater town, to the delight of her grandmother Dicey (Ethel Waters), who saved and scrimped to send her to nursing school in Boston. Pinky is so light-skinned that she's been passing for white up north, and the visit is prompted because a Dr. Thomas Adams (William Lundigan) has fallen in love with her, and she wants to marry him. But he doesn't yet know that she has a black 'granny.' Dicey gets Pinky to nurse for Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore), the lady in the big house, even though Pinky despises the woman who treated her so poorly when she was young. To her surprise, Pinky finds she likes Miss Em. But she's troubled by the advice both older women give her ... to be herself, and not to 'run away' from her race identity.
Pinky is a fascinating, highly watchable entertainment with good performances from its trio of female stars. Only under closer examination does it crumble in stature. It's like a mousetrap designed by cats - viewers with progressive ideas about integration must have thrown up their arms in frustration.
The original poster blurb reads "The poignant story of a girl who fell desperately in love," a phrase that has almost nothing to do with this picture. The audience spends most of the film staring at the lovely Fox star Jeanne Crain, wondering if she 'passes for black' when her character is supposed to be black passing for white. When Pinky is victimized by predjudice, white viewers are thinking not of the indignities suffered by African-Americans, but instead how terrible it is that an obviously white woman is being mislabeled. The film is crippled from the outset by using a very Anglo actress to play a light-skinned black woman. This practice was common all through the 1930s. By 1959, when Hollywood was supposed to have become more mature on the issue, non- African-American actress Susan Kohner ended up playing the maid's daughter "passing for white" in the remake of Imitation of Life. Pinky is Fox's big 'race issue' movie of 1949, but although Ethel Waters' image adorns the poster, the only names listed are those of the white stars.
Pinky is about the pitfalls of passing for white, and it collapses into a case of mixed messages. When the locals discover that pretty Patricia Johnson is really the mulatto Pinky (a name that should be considered a slight, but isn't), she's treated like dirt. Lawmen assume she's carrying a knife, and a judge assumes she's a troublemaker without asking questions. Two creeps try to rape her in the road, an episode that interestingly is not half as infuriating as Pinky's treatment by Evelyn Varden's despicable Melba Wooley. In a dry goods store Pinky is accused of stealing and the clerks are browbeaten for waiting on her before a 'white woman.' When the store owner realizes she's black, he raises the price of her merchandise. We've seen dozens of interchangeable rape scenes, but this petty tyranny is difficult to forget.
Illogic runs pretty thick through both the premise and plot. Why Pinky comes back to her backwater town is unclear. Why she couldn't tell her beau the truth in Boston isn't clear. She's more concerned about her bloodline problems than she is in love with him, so we're never concerned for their relationship.
Ethel Waters' performs Pinky's long-suffering Granny Dicey beautifully, but as pointed out by disc commentator Kenneth Geist, her situation makes no sense. Dicey has somehow supported herself and sent Pinky through nursing school by washing laundry, and appears to do all of her work for her neighbor Miss Em for free. In fact, Dicey and Pinky wait on the bedridden Miss Em like servants; Pinky is a trained nurse but also does laundry, housekeeping and butler chores. Miss Em's run-down mansion sits right next door to Dicey's crumbling shack, forming a contrast like a political cartoon. Dicey talks about their complete friendship, but even if Miss Em only accepts Dicey as an 'inferior friend' we wonder why she doesn't have her move into the servant's quarters. Dicey and a no-good neighbor conspire to keep Pinky home by ruining her romance, a dishonesty that we're supposed to "understand."
The story works itself out in a way that goes against the book's more cynical conclusion, but still strikes us as strange. (spoilers) Pinky's choices for the future are funneled into the race issue and have nothing to do with love. Dr. Adams offers Pinky marriage but wants her to keep hiding her racial background. His plan is to 'run away' to a new city and start afresh. Even Pinky's detractors can figure out that there's every likelihood that she'll have very dark children with Dr. Adams, something that the lovestruck but thoughtless Doctor hasn't considered - or is he going to ask Pinky if they can adopt?
Everyone keeps advising Pinky to 'accept her race' and 'be what she is,' when the movie makes us think that being a black woman in the south is a sure ticket to misery. After a rather unbelievable trial scene -- that reassures us that even in the land of Dixie, the law protects poor blacks -- Pinky is elevated to 'great and noble' status, providing an uplifiting ending. Races don't mix after all, it seems.
Jeanne Crain, Ethel Waters and Ethel Barrymore are all very good and Pinky is an emotionally satisfying experience. Evelyn Varden (The Bad Seed is hissably venal, so good as an unforgivably vicious racist that we have to remind ourselves that the actress was probably a sweetheart. Nina Mae McKinney from Hallelujah has a sharp but convincing role as a troublemaking neighbor.
Fox's Cinema Classics Collection DVD of Pinky is in rougher shape than we'd expect, especially at the beginning, but it plays well and is scratch-free for most of its running time. The noirish lighting maximizes producer Zanuck's interior-exterior sets. Although shot completely on Fox sound stages Joe MacDonald manages to capture an acceptable southern atmosphere.
The disc comes with a trailer but the main attraction is a superlative commentary by author Kenneth Geist. He wades into the complicated race issue with a directness that makes his arguments compelling; his opinions and analysis are well-reasoned and he completely circumvents PC trepidation when discussing the facts of the film's production. Almost all of what I have written above comes directly from Geist. John Ford hated the assignment because he couldn't shoot on location. He had no interest in Ethel Waters or her character and left the film after about a week; Zanuck rushed Elia Kazan out as a replacement director. Kazan did a remarkable job of building up what could be improved on a script he thought contrived and weak in character motivations.
Geist disabuses us of the notion that black actors at this time were passive or 'grateful' for their roles and paints a fiery picture of Ethel Waters as bitter and jealous of her co-stars. She was also deeply into her faith and when unhappy with instructions was prone to tell people like John Ford that her only director was God. Geist's commentary is the most informative and insightful wisdom I've heard on the subject of race in film. He points out ironies we hadn't thought of - like the fact that, although William Lundigan and Jeanne Crain have the first interracial kissing scene in a Hollywood film, Southern parish censors weren't upset -- because both actors are white. Eight years later, a real "mixed kiss" between John Justin and Dorothy Dandridge in another Zanuck "racial barrier" film was still not permitted, because Dandridge was black. It makes sense without making any sense.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good and Excellent as a discussion piece
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary with Kenneth Geist, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 14, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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