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The working titles of this film were Quality and Crossover. The novel was originally published in an abridged form in the December 1945 issue of Ladies' Home Journal. At the time of the Ladies' Home Journal publication, the NAACP, in an internal memo dated December 27, 1945, written by Annette Peyser, included in the NAACP Papers at the Library of Congress, noted that the publication marked "the first time in any popular national magazine a short novel in which the protagonist was a Negro ... dealt with apparent sympathy and realism with Negro problems in white society." The NAACP, criticized the story, however, stating that it was "propaganda of the most insidious sort" because "each social or political problem presented is resolved most frequently through an advocacy of the status quo" rather than through "positive legal or social action." According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, author Cid Ricketts Sumner also wrote a play based on the book.
Motion picture rights to the novel were originally optioned in February 1948 by Nathan Dyches, a Twentieth Century-Fox publicist, according to news items and information in the legal records. Dyches acquired the rights to the story in April 1948 and formed Pomeroy Enterprises, Inc., with Harry Brand (the head of Fox publicity) and Nicholas Nayfack to make the film, then hired Richard G. Hubler to write a screenplay. Fox production chief Darryl F. Zanuck became interested in producing the film, and Jason S. Joy, Fox's liaison with the PCA, sent the office a synopsis for their approval. According to information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA was concerned that a film based on the story might lead to distribution and exhibition problems in the South. A PCA official worried that should the film be made the industry might be accused of siding with President Truman's civil rights program; that new local or state censor boards might be established, which could cause difficulties for the industry; and that its release might lead to a rise in Ku Klux Klan activity. The PCA chose not to issue a policy decision regarding the proposed film, however, or films dealing with similar subject matter, though they did point out their concerns to studio officials.
A year later, in February 1949, as Fox was about to put the film into production, PCA Director Joseph I. Breen urged the studio to "avoid physical contact between Negroes and whites, throughout this picture" in order to avoid offending audiences "in a number of sections of this country." In his response to Breen, Joy pointed out that the role of "Pinky" would be played by a white actress, and stated, "It is our intention ... to have many instances of physical contact between Dr. Chester [who became Dr. Thomas Adams in the final film] and Pinky. We believe these contacts to be absolutely necessary to the power of the story as it relates to these two unhappy people." PCA official Francis S. Harmon, a white Southerner, suggested to the studio "that Pinky should be shown to be the daughter of one of 'Miss Em's' male relatives. I know case after case where just such situations arose. There is a constant conflict in Southern life and thought around this point: that Southern white people condone or tolerate 'social equality' on the level of vice while shouting to high heaven their opposition to 'social equality' on the level of virtue. Those responsible for producing and directing this picture will miss a great opportunity if the picture fails to drive home the point that the very people who attack social equality on the level of virtue continue to accept illicit sex relations, of which Pinky and her kind are innocent and tragic victims." Zanuck, in replying to Harmon, noted, "we have consulted the Negro representatives of many different Negro point of views, and without exception they have objected to the suggestion of miscegenation."
Fox purchased the rights from Dyches after he and Brand realized that they could not produce the film independently. A letter dated May 3, 1948 in the Fox legal records notes that "because of the peculiar nature of the story [Zanuck] does not want any publicity given to it at this time as he would like to be the first in the field with this type of story." In August 1948, Variety reported, "Highly publicized production of 'message' pictures has been virtually abandoned by studios, with no attendant fanfare. Twentieth-Fox's Quality planned as a followup to Gentleman's Agreement has been placed on the shelf." A January 30, 1949 New York Times news item stated that Zanuck's personal project for 1949 was to be Pinky, based on a "free adaptation" of Quality by Dudley Nichols. They stated that the studio "is officially describing it as an original story by Nichols" and was not admitting its connection with Quality. At that time, John Ford was scheduled to direct the picture.
Zanuck sent a copy of the July 7, 1948 script by Dudley Nichols to the NAACP for their comments, and NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White gave copies to Arthur B. Spingarn, president of the NAACP; Poppy Cannon, a writer with whom White had collaborated; Roy Wilkins, editor of The Crisis, a journal published by the NAACP; and his daughter, Jane White, for their reactions. White and his associates reacted negatively to the script, which Cannon called "a bid for complete submission on the part of colored people." Cannon further stated, "Pinky, the heroine, is a silly sentimental little fool....[Granny] is a female Uncle Tom but she hasn't half the brains or courage of the original Uncle Tom. Among the other Negro characters there is not one decent or believable person." Jane White noted, "The point of view which this script holds is that any kind of action taken by Negroes to secure their rights is rebellion and inspired by 'Northern agitators.'" (The original novel and early scripts included the character of "Arch Naughton," a black newspaperman from New York and an activist, who tries to get Pinky to join him and give up being a nurse; in subsequent versions of the screenplay, that character was dropped, and some of his ideas were incorporated into Pinky's dialogue.) Walter White stated, "Had the story been written around the turn of the century, it would have been novel and even revolutionary. Today it is dated, inaccurate both as to the thinking of Negroes and intelligent Southern whites, and even dangerous in its advocacy of acceptance of the status quo." White suggested that Zanuck scrap the story and get another source for a new film dealing with African Americans.
In Zanuck's response to White, he expressed his "utter disagreement with the judgments rendered in your letter and those of your associates." He warned that in the current social and political climate, "A motion picture which deals with the Negro minority in the United States must be above all things non-propagandist. All it can hope to do, at its boldest, is to make the white majority experience emotionally the injustice and daily hurts suffered by colored people." Zanuck noted that the picture would have to be less confrontational so that it would appeal to and affect people with prejudices, and that "if the picture is not shown and seen in those regions where injustice and racial prejudice are strongest, no good can be accomplished."
Although Zanuck criticized the comments of White and the others, he praised Jane White for her "constructive criticism" (although he disagreed with many of her points) and suggested that she help in revising the script. She subsequently was hired by the studio and suggested changes and additions to the January 12, 1949 script by Philip Dunne. (Dunne was hired to replace Nichols in November 1948. In a May 1949 New York Times article, Dunne stated that Nichols "had to drop the job half finished because of a prior commitment elsewhere.") According to an Ebony article of September 1949, Jane White recommended "drastic changes" but they were not made. Her suggestions, according to a list in the Produced Scripts Collection, included adding a "dark-skinned Southern Negro character to manifest the forthright militance that Arch [who had been eliminated from the January 12, 1949 script] possessed." She wrote, "I would like to be made aware that here is a man who has lived all his life in the South, under its proscription, who has not been defeated or blunted, or made to shrink from his responsibilities as a Negro and a citizen." The character was not added, although a number of her other suggestions were accepted.
John Ford began directing Pinky in March 1949, but worked on it only about a week before he left because of illness, according to news items. In a Los Angeles Daily News article before he was replaced, Ford stated, "We are not attacking any section of the country or any group of people ... but we are attacking a bigotry that should have been uprooted from the American scene a long time ago." Elia Kazan replaced Ford, and according to a May 29, 1949 New York Times article, "Kazan said that, despite his admiration for Ford, he had redone the material shot by his colleague because he could not attempt to match the Ford style." The New York Times article stated that "scouting rumors to the contrary, Kazan confirmed the official studio explanation that the substitution was made because Ford was seriously ill." In his autobiography, Kazan states that Ford had a case of shingles, but also relates that Ford left the picture because of conflicts with actress Ethel Waters.
The finished film was accepted for showing in Atlanta, where it made its Southern debut. The Atlanta censor stated, "I know this picture is going to be painful to a great many Southerners. It will make them squirm, but at the same time it will make them realize how unlovely their attitudes are." The Roxy Theatre, where the Atlanta debut took place, opened its entire balcony to African Americans. (Previous policy was to limit blacks to just a few gallery seats.) After the first-day showing broke a box-office record, the film was booked for additional southern showings. In the East Texas town of Marshall, prior to a scheduled showing in February 1950, a censorship board was formed when theater owner W. L. Gelling refused to cancel the booking even though individuals and the Kiwanis Club complained. The board rejected the film for exhibition in the town, but Gelling presented it anyway, and he was arrested and fined. He appealed, backed by the PCA, who wanted to make the incident a test case of censorship, hoping that the Supreme Court would revoke their 1915 decision that motion pictures could not claim the same rights as the press. After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the lower court ruling, the Supreme Court, in June 1952, struck down the censor's decision, citing their decision from the previous week regarding the Italian film The Miracle. The issue of applying freedom of the press rights to motion pictures, however, was not decided at that time.
The film received three Academy Award nominations: Jeanne Crain for Best Actress and both Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters for Best Supporting Actress. It was highly praised by reviewers. Hollywood Reporter called the film a "brilliantly compelling presentation" and stated, "Its power is drawn from purely creative forces rather than the realism of documentation or the crutch of psychiatric exploration. Pinky is the kind of story the screen does best, a pictorial novel with a factual basis and with which there is that all-important element of self-identification. Neither white man nor Negro can appraise Pinky without thinking earnestly: 'What would I do under the same circumstances?'" New York Times, while appreciating that the film did not "skirt around the edges, intellectual or geographical, of racial discrimination," criticized it for coming "perilously close to denying the very equality it seems to espouse by accepting paternalism as the easiest and the happiest way out." On September 18, 1950, the Lux Radio Theatre presented a radio broadcast of Pinky starring Jeanne Crain, William Lundigan and Ethel Barrymore.