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Based on Cid Ricketts Sumner's 1946 novel Quality (first serialized in the Ladies Home Journal), Pinky (1949) is about a mulatto woman (played by Jeanne Crain) passing for white in the North, who returns home to the South to visit her grandmother (singer-actress Ethel Waters). There she tends to the white Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore) and confronts racism head on, leading her to confess the truth of her paternity to her white fiancé (William Lundigan). In a memo to screenwriter Dudley Nichols, 20th Century-Fox head of production Darryl F. Zanuck wrote, "This is not a story about how to solve the Negro problem in the South or anywhere else. This is not a story particularly about race problems, segregation or discrimination. This is a story about one particular Negro girl who could easily pass as a white and who did pass for a while. This is the story of how and why she, as an individual, finally decided to be herself a Negress." His public stance was that the film was intended purely as entertainment, "I don't believe you could ever get me to read a book which was strictly about segregation of Negroes in America. Factual as it might be, I simply would not be bothered with it, and I am sure 99% of the American people would feel the same way." Despite this, Zanuck consulted with Walter White, then head of the NAACP. White and later his daughter, the actress Jane White, collaborated on the final version of the screenplay.
According to writer Judith Smith in her book Visions of Belonging, "White and his associate Roy Wilkins demanded that the script include material referring to the wartime call for an end to racial discrimination. They also demanded cuts of material that encouraged suspicion of civil rights agitation and militancy and acceptance of segregation. In August  Zanuck reminded people who was in charge by announcing in Variety that the production of the film had been 'virtually abandoned'. Privately he wrote a long memo to White and others conceding that it was possible to allow Pinky to confront Miss Em's paternal influence, but also insisting that the picture's success depended on its appeal to white audiences."
The first major change was to give the screenplay to Philip Dunne, who felt that the ending didn't work. Dunne felt that Pinky was "a very special colored girl who could pass for white, who has made up her mind which race she will belong to, who finally makes the hard decision to live as a Negro, and who is then subjected to persecution and slander because of that decision." Jane White felt that Dunne's ending in which Pinky leaves her white fiancé and turns Miss Em's house into a clinic for black children lacked credibility. As Smith wrote, "She wanted to see signs of the momentum toward racial equality. White rejected the script's association of visible race with the South, pre-modern backwardness, and accommodation to segregation, calling attention to its use of racial stereotyping in the characters of Granny, Jake, and Rozelia." In the end, it was what Zanuck thought that mattered and the film adopted the Dunne ending.
The second major change in the production of Pinky was the director. John Ford left the film after only a week of shooting that was so traumatic Ethel Waters described it as a "shock treatment", with Ford's abrasive personality making her "almost have a stroke". Zanuck was unhappy with the rushes he saw. "Ford's Negroes were like Aunt Jemima caricatures. I thought we're going to get into trouble. Jack said, 'I think you'd better put someone else on it." Ford was replaced with Elia Kazan, who had made Gentleman's Agreement (1947), another racially-themed film for the studio, and earning it an Academy Award in the process. The official reason for John Ford's departure was listed as a bad case of the shingles, which Kazan later admitted was a lie. "He pretended to have shingles. Some years later I said to Zanuck, 'Jack Ford never had shingles, did he?' And he said, 'Oh, hell, no. He just wanted to get out of it; he hated Ethel Waters and she sure as hell hated him.' Jack scared her to death and he knew she didn't want to work with him. I also think maybe he didn't like the whole project. Anyway, Zanuck wired me and asked if I'd come out. I wired back, 'I'll do it as a favor.' Firstly, I threw away whatever Ford had shot. It was poor. It showed a lack of interest and involvement. So, all the footage was mine. The only things that were not mine, which are a hell of a lot, were the script and the cast. It was the last time I ever allowed that. Jeanne Crain was a sweet girl, but she was like a Sunday school teacher. I did my best with her but she didn't have any fire. The only good thing about her face was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is part of what 'passing' is."
Kazan found that he had his work cut out for him. "I rehearsed more on Pinky than on any of the earlier films. By the time I started to work on it, the actors were terrified. They all felt that they had a disaster. They had expected to work with Jack Ford and he had quit. He rejected them and they all felt very unworthy. You have no idea how fragile an actor's self-worth is. And if Ford didn't like something, he didn't try to put a good face on, especially in those days. He was already cantankerous. They all felt shunned, so I had some readings. I rehearsed a lot with Jeanne, because the minute I saw her I knew what the problem was. I think I used her quality pretty well. I tried to pass off her strained face and passivity as tension. I tried to at least make her internal movement a little more clear to her. Where it changed, where it developed, what she was seeking, what she was after, what we call the actions. [...] The first thing I did was relax her, made her feel, put my hand on her body a little bit. I don't mean sexually but like you do with a horse, you know, 'Just take it easy, calm down. I'm here and you're gonna be alright.' I did that with Ethel Waters, too. Ethel was interesting because she had a strange duality she was religious on the one hand and on the other full of hatred. I was interested in Ethel personally, I liked talking to her. So perhaps I worked more than I would have ordinarily, but I always worked a lot with all the actors. "
Kazan was able to get his way with almost everyone except the 20th Century-Fox front office. He wanted to shoot at least part of Pinky on location in the South, which the studio denied. "Almost everything was shot in the studio. Even the outdoor set, the village, was built indoors. The trees went up just so high, so you had to put the camera at eye level or slightly above eye level and shoot down. You had to frame on things in the middle foreground so that you didn't go over the edge of the set. Naturally, there was no dirt, no sweat, no water, no anything. That's why I say I don't like Pinky much."
African-American critics deplored the casting of Jeanne Crain (a white actress) in the role that Lena Horne had wanted, as well as noting that the studio couldn't seem to decide whether the film was "pro-Negro or follow[ing] the same old Hollywood trends in dealing with the subject." As a rebuttal, Philip Dunne wrote a piece entitled "Approach to Racism" in The New York Times stating that the film rejected "the long-standing taboo against films dealing with the problems of racial and religious prejudice." Crain herself said "So many people have told me not to stir anything up that I feel we've got to really move them into feeling for Pinky and her problems."
Mainstream film critics like Variety accused Zanuck of focusing on "entertainment above soapboxing", which was ironic given Zanuck's earlier insistence that the film was to be purely entertainment. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times thought the opposite, stating, "Now that our screen has contemplated some bitter evidence of anti-Negro bias as it has crashed with dramatic explosion upon individuals in the Army and in 'the North" (Home of the Brave and Lost Boundaries), it has remained for Darryl F. Zanuck and Twentieth Century-Fox to shift the scope of observation into that more noted arena of racism, the Deep South. And in Pinky, their film upon this subject, which opened at the Rivoli yesterday, they have come forth with a picture that is vivid, revealing and emotionally intense."
Elia Kazan may not have delivered another Gentleman's Agreement for Fox, but he did help Jeanne Crain get an Oscar® nomination for Best Actress, and Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters nominations as Best Supporting Actress. For him, "[T]he most memorable thing about making that picture was the party at the end of shooting. Ethel Waters had been so sweet, kissing me all the time and telling me how much she loved me and how grateful she was to me. She and I got drunk, and I said, 'Ethel, you don't really like any white man do you?' And she said, 'I don't like any of them. I'd never trust any of 'em.' When she got drunk she told the truth, and I liked her better for it. I thought, 'I don't blame her. I can understand that.'
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Elia Kazan; John Ford (uncredited)
Screenplay: Philip Dunne, Dudley Nichols; Cid Ricketts Sumner (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Art Direction: J. Russell Spencer, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Harmon Jones
Cast: Jeanne Crain (Patricia 'Pinky' Johnson), Ethel Barrymore (Miss Em), Ethel Waters (Pinky's Granny), William Lundigan (Dr. Thomas Adams), Basil Ruysdael (Judge Walker), Kenny Washington (Dr. Canady), Nina Mae McKinney (Rozelia), Griff Barnett (Dr. Joe McGill), Frederick O'Neal (Jake Walters), Evelyn Varden (Melba Wooley), Raymond Greenleaf (Judge Shoreham).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Crowther, Bosley "Pinky, Zanuck's Film Study of Anti-Negro Bias in Deep South, Shown at RIvoli", New York Times , 30 Sept 1949
Smith, Judith E. Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy
Young, Jeff Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films
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