Pinky

PINKY—the crucible of the Second World War did more than devastate nations and break up empires. The dislocating horror (death camps, pulverized cities, terrifying weapons) filtered through art (via cinema) in more graphic portrayals of violence, a fascination with trauma and psychology, cynicism embodied by film noir: overall social upheaval. The success of “issue” pictures like Gentleman’s Agreement and President Truman’s desegregation of the Armed Forces (over a million African-Americans had served) made a logical and way overdue springboard for screen stories dealing with race in America and 1949 witnessed a quartet. Lost Boundaries, forgotten today, did well at the time. Home Of The Brave made a critical stir yet wasn’t much of a moneymaker.  Intruder In The Dust, regarded by many critics as the best, barely rippled at the box office. Based on the novel “Quality” by Cid Ricketts Sumner, Pinky, given marching orders by pulse aware producer Darryl F. Zanuck was by far the most successful, its gross of $10,600,000 making it the 6th most-seen film of the year. Plus it pulled down a trio of Oscar nominations for its acting. Despite core weaknesses, and being obviously dated, it’s still— thanks to the cast and direction—an affecting drama. The woke who stalk among us may never grasp it, but you do have to start somewhere.

‘Patricia “Pinky” Johnson (Jeanne Crain, 23) returns to Mississippi. Though black, her light skin tone enabled her to “pass” for white in the North, where she went through nursing school. Revisiting her hometown to see her washerwoman grandmother ‘Dicey’ (Ethel Waters, 52), Pinky soon finds that down-home bigotry is still locked in place, accompanied by threats: personal, public and official. Private matters that call for taking a stand include helping care for Dicey’s dying friend and neighbor, white landowner ‘Miss Em’ (Ethel Barrymore, 69), and Pinky’s secret love affair with a northern, white doctor (William Lundigan) who arrives in time for a number of surprising revelations.

What still works in problematic Pinky are the quality performances, several appropriately disturbing scenes centered on casual racist behavior and Elia Kazan’s sensitive direction. Other than the problem of Crain’s physical appearance (her casting and decided whiteness a minor or major deal depending on the viewer’s proclivities) there’s nothing wrong with her performance. Waters is a natural, Barrymore in fine form, Lundigan low-keyed and likable. At Oscar-time, Crain was nominated for Best Actress (her only time in the running), both the Ethel’s for Supporting Actress; Barrymore in her last of four nominations (she won her first, None But The Lonely Heart), Waters in her one shot, ten years after the last black nominee, Hattie McDaniel, took home the trophy for Gone With The Wind.

There are some terrific supporting turns. Evelyn Varden (56, her first film) as haughty, scheming bigot ‘Melba Wooley’ is so vile she seems to be paging future witch Marjorie Taylor Greene. Frederick O’Neal claims his scenes as slippery rascal ‘Jake Walters’, and trailblazer Nina Mae McKinney (“The Black Garbo”) is fiery ‘Rozelia’, showing that hate isn’t conveniently confined to ignorant rednecks. **

Mutual venom started the shoot off on a sour note: assigned director John Ford and Ethel Waters detested each other. Ford left the project after a week, replaced by the better choice (for this material) of Kazan. Dudley Nichol’s first go at the script was reworked by Philip Dunne. Some feel the film’s pat (if emotionally satisfying) resolution reinforces segregation (some people can see Jesus in a pizza), and certainly punches are pulled. Why? Uh, because it was 19forty-nine, and the business part of show business didn’t want to lose revenue in the numerous States that officially practiced segregation (as well as many non-Dixie locations that did it off the books). The casting of ivory-tinted Crain gets many in a twist, but there simply was no way, at the time, that more plausible picks like Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge would get the part. Places where the script really goes to the woodshed are Pinky’s sketchy motivations and in the verdict reached in the climactic trial, which would never go down like that except in Hollywood wish-making. So, yes, the film is make-believe from the start to finish, but its heart was in the right place even if the head was up the Swanee without a Jolson. It moved people, and if moved they may be more inclined to change their minds or outlook. You’re not going to magically evaporate 350 years of wrongs in one night over popcorn. The saddest thing about watching Pinky or many of the other “pioneer” dramas is that, over a half-century gone by, recent and current characters, events and movements show that there are too many fellow citizens (of all shades) who will never be reached by logic or compassion.

With Basil Ruysdael, Griff Barnett, Arthur Hunnicutt, William Hansen, Juanita Moore, Paul Brinegar. 102 minutes.

* Much-lauded Frederick O’Neal founded the American Negro Theater and was the first African-American president of the Actor’s Equity Association. Among his many achievements: in the 40’s he gave free acting lessons to a young Bahamian named Sidney Poitier, and in the early 1970’s landed on the “master list of Nixon political opponents”. Right the f-on!

 

 

 

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