In December, as I was reading blogs that I enjoy, I found out about an upcoming blogathon, The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon. The three ladies hosting it, their goal was for bloggers to focus on the history of films during the time frame from 1915 through 1950. I signed up for the year 1949 and decided to focus on one specific film, one film that dared to tackle a topic that Hollywood hadn’t really looked at in much depth. Be sure to visit these awesome hostesses’ blogs to read about the films that encompassed these specific years: Ruth at Silver Screenings, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, and Fritzi at Movies Silently.
In 1949 America’s economic prosperity was on the rise, television had started entering American households, and a book that had been written in 1946 that looked at racial issues in the South caught the eye of producer Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox. The book was titled Quality and was written by Mississippi native Cid Ricketts Sumner. A screenplay was ordered which was written by Philip Dunne, Dudley Nichols, and with collaborations by actress Jane White, who’s father, Walter White, was the Executive Secretary of the NAACP. The movie that evolved was Pinky.
The plot of Pinky is pretty straightforward. A young black girl,Pinky,(Jeanne Crain) who could pass for white due to the lightness of her skin, is raised by her black Grandmother Dicey(Ethel Waters), a laundress, in a sleepy, little Southern town. Dicey saves enough money to send Pinky north where she can attend a convent school. Pinky graduates and then enrolls in a 3 year nurse training school in Boston. She also meets a young doctor, Tom Adams(William Lundigan) and they fall in love. Tom wants to marry Pinky, who has gone by the name Patricia while living in the north. Pinky doesn’t know what to do so she hops the next train and travels back to her hometown. Dicey is overjoyed to see Pinky again and assumes that she’ll use her nursing training to help the poor in their community. She is disappointed when Pinky firmly tells her that she is only home for a visit and that she’ll soon be going back to Boston. Pinky is at a crossroads. She knows she is disappointing Dicey and she knows she isn’t being honest with Tom, as she hasn’t revealed to him that she is really black. She also hasn’t told Dicey about Tom. Back in her hometown, she isn’t welcomed by the black community, who view her with distain for passing as white, despite the respect that they all have for her Grandmother. Pinky needs guidance as to who she really is, how she wants to live her life, and then more complications set in.
Dicey gave money that was to be sent to Pinky’s school to local con artist Jake Waters(Frederick O’Neal) and he didn’t send all of the money as he was supposed to do. Dicey has found out about this dishonesty and Pinky decides to confront Jake and get the money back. He does give Pinky what he can, $15 of his wife’s money, and his wife, Rozelia(Nina Mae McKinney), comes home as Pinky is walking out with the money. There is an altercation between the two women in the street and the local police happen to be in the area. The two officers(one played by an uncredited Arthur Hunnicutt) treat Jake and Rozelia with disdain and disrespect and treat Pinky with utmost respect. When Rozelia tells them that Pinky is “colored”, the officers immediately treat Pinky with disrespect and rudeness. After a meeting with Judge Walker(Basil Ruysdael), Jake and Rozelia promise to not to get into trouble anymore, and they are dismissed. Judge Walker keeps Pinky behind to inquire about her education, to tell her how much respect he has for her Grandmother, and to remind Pinky that she needs to be a credit to her Grandmother.
When Miss Em(Ethel Barrymore), the wealthiest woman in town, has a heart attack, Dicey talks with Dr. Joe(Griff Barnett) and learns that a nurse will be needed to sit with Miss Em until she has made a strong recovery. Dicey insists Pinky do this job as a payment of a debt since Miss Em cared for Dicey the last time that she was ill. Pinky dislikes Miss Em, who was rude to her when she was a child and has always treated her as an inferior person. Pinky finally agrees to do the job for Dicey’s sake and also tells Dicey that as soon as the nursing job is over she’ll be traveling back to Boston. Miss Em has a way with challenging Pinky’s doubts about herself and through a Will, and the challenge of its legality by an odious relative of Miss Em’s(Evelyn Varden), Pinky has to fight for her rights in a courtroom, learns more truths about Tom and herself, and at the end of the movie, makes her decision of what to do with her life that is true to herself and true to her own identity.
John Ford was the original director for Pinky, but he didn’t get on with the cast, he didn’t grasp the storyline as producer Zanuck envisioned it, and after watching the rushes and being disappointed with them, Zanuck fired Ford after one week on the job. Elia Kazan had made a name for himself by directing dramas on Broadway, and for directing a Best Picture Oscar for Gentlemen’s Agreement and for winning Best Director for that film too, all of which helped Twentieth Century Fox’s coffers. Zanuck hired Kazan to take over the directing for Pinky. Kazan has stated how he found a demoralized cast, unsure of their acting abilities after one week of working with John Ford. Kazan came in and decided to do many read throughs of the script, to get the cast more at ease with the story and with their acting abilities. Kazan wanted to travel to the South for the filming but was told no by Zanuck. With the talent of Joe MacDonald, Director of Photography and Atillio Gabani operating the camera , the movie really looks like it was filmed in a southern town and not a Hollywood backlot and soundstage.
Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge both wanted to play the lead role of Pinky, but due to Hollywood’s censure board that stated there couldn’t be any interracial kissing scenes, the part of Pinky went to actress Jeanne Crain. Ethel Waters was cast as Grandma Dicey, Ethel Barrymore was cast as Miss Em, and William Lundigan was cast as Dr. Tom. The film impacted critics and audiences alike. Crain was a nominee for Best Actress for the Academy Awards in 1950, and her co-stars, Waters and Barrymore, were both nominated for Best Supporting Actresses.
Why did I choose this movie for my pick? Up until 1949, racial issues in movies weren’t explored. With the end of WWII, President Truman appointed advisors to evaluate desegregating the US military and from my readings on that topic and others about race in America, the late 1940s and early 1950s would prove to have watershed moments and issues that would ultimately lead to the end of Jim Crow laws and the theory that “Seperate but Equal” was a fine solution to racial issues in the US.
When I first saw Pinky, I was a college student and I stumbled upon it by accident one day, perusing the cable channels. The unusual topic matter, being made in the 1949, held my attention. What was this lady going to do? Marry the man who says he loves her? Turn her back on her Grandmother that raised her? Turn her back on her community who clearly could use her talents and skill set at training nurses in her town? Accept her fiance’s idea of both of them moving to Denver and a new life where no one would have to know of her background? The movie posed a lot of questions that wouldn’t show the answers until the final scene. I felt sorry for Pinky as I watched the movie, and grew irritated and angry as to how she was treated by some of the movie’s characters. Pinky was a startling movie for 1949 and the majority of the critics praised it and audiences flocked to see it; it wasn’t shunned at all in Southern cities and towns across the US as some at Twentieth Century Fox feared would happen.
To see Pinky, it has been put on dvd and is available at Amazon.com, it is available to purchase from Turner Classic Movies, and some kind soul has put the entire movie on Youtube! With a lilting, moving score by Alfred Newman, excellent directing by Elia Kazan, and an excellent cast, please seek out Pinky! A daring movie for 1949.