There were at least five movies in production in 1949 that dealt with racial issues. Of those producer Darryl F. Zanuck‘s Pinky generated the most buzz. Throughout his storied career, Zanuck proved that he was as adept at crowd pleasing entertainment as he was at message pictures. He had by that point produced such classics as Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). To follow Kazan’s Oscar winner as producer Zanuck chose a screen adaptation of a novel titled Quality by Cid Ricketts Sumner. He assigned screenwriting duties to Dudley Nichols and Philip Dunne for the movie retitled Pinky and John Ford was hired to direct.
Pinky focuses on racial prejudice in the Deep South. It tells the story of a light-skinned black woman who returns home to Mississippi after attending nursing school in the North. Immediately upon arriving home Pinky, whose real name is Patricia Johnson, is reminded of the horrific manner in which blacks are treated in places like Mississippi. A moral dilemma arises. Should Pinky return north where she can live (a lie) as a white woman and be treated with respect? Or, does she stay in Mississippi and live as whom she really is? The former would involve lying to the white man Pinky has fallen in love with and it would mean negating her granny, Dicey Johnson, who raised her and sacrificed all to give her an education. Conversely, staying in Mississippi would mean being subjected to cruel behavior born of the constant double standard of inequality.
Under Darryl Zanuck’s tutelage, Pinky was destined for controversy from the get-go. To start with he hired Jeanne Crain to play the title role never seriously considering black actors. In fact, Nina Mae McKinney who plays a smaller part in the picture would have been great as Pinky. Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne were two other great possibilities. But Zanuck went with the choice he thought would attract a larger audience and putting aside the casting issue, Jeanne Crain is quite good in the role. The performance would garner her the only Academy Award nomination of her career.
To play the other major characters in Pinky Zanuck went with a double dose of Ethel gravitas. Ethel Barrymore plays Miss Em, a white elderly landowner and employer of Pinky’s grandmother, Dicey Johnson played by Ethel Waters. One could argue that the roles of Miss Em and Dicey fall too far within the stereotypes of the domineering white landowner and poor black servant, but both Barrymore and Waters manage affecting, sweet performances beyond the familiar. The friendship between the two women is believable and heartfelt. Both actors received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress for their efforts. Of the two Ethel Waters’ turn as Dicey is particularly moving as is the historic nomination she received. Waters was only the second black woman to be nominated after Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939).
Rounding out the talented cast of Pinky are a few notables familiar from other well-known classics. William Lundigan plays Dr. Thomas Adams, the white man from Boston who falls in love with Pinky, Griff Barnett plays town doctor Joe McGill who cares for the ailing Miss Em, Basil Ruysdael plays Judge Walker who represents Pinky in the big trial, and Frederick O’Neal plays Jake Waters, a friend and neighbor of the Johnsons. By far the player that affects me most deeply is character actor Evelyn Varden who plays Melba Wooley, Miss Em’s hateful, entitled cousin. The scene that is most upsetting for me in Pinky is due to this character. Pinky goes to the local convenience store to buy a veil to wear to Miss Em’s funeral. A female clerk is about to take her money when Melba Wooley walks in and sees Pinky at the counter. Melba immediately makes a ruckus about the store policy yelling up to the manager to complain about “Negros” being served before whites. The scene is terribly upsetting on many levels for obvious reasons made more so when the manager takes over the sale of the veil jacking up the price after realizing Pinky is black. Melba Wooley is the main villain in the movie ultimately challenging Miss Em’s will and testament, which triggers a sensational trial because the old woman left her house and land to Pinky.
Shooting on Pinky was well under way when Darryl Zanuck was forced to replace John Ford as director. The rough Mr. Ford was not a good match for either of the Ethels. Barrymore would not stand for his manner, the manner to which Ford became accustomed to while working with actors such as John Wayne who thrived under his no-nonsense style. Ethel Waters also had a disagreeable time working with Ford according to Donald Bogle who delves deep into Pinky in his Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. To quell issues on the set and to ensure the much-anticipated Pinky came off without a hitch Zanuck called upon Elia Kazan to take over directing duties. Kazan agreed to begin shooting from scratch and his actor’s director signature is evident in the performances. In addition, the feelings conveyed in Pinky’s struggle for self-awareness hit the mark as does the candor with which some aspects of discrimination are conveyed.
I’d be remiss not to mention the only fault I find in Pinky’s story and that is that the movie offers no explanation as to why the main character is a light-skinned black woman. I would have liked some history in that regard because the color of her skin is central to the plot. I assume, but am not told, that there is a familial connection between Miss Em and the Johnsons. There is no mention of Pinky’s parents or of Dicey’s husband, who may well have been a white man. That would explain Pinky’s skin color as well as Miss Em’s affection for her. Pinky serves as Miss Em’s nurse through the older woman’s last days, but it feels as though the connection is deeper than even Pinky herself knows. I understand that mention of an interracial coupling would have resulted in serious censorship issues well beyond what the movie was subjected to, but in a perfect world it would allow for a more complete story.
Pinky opened at the Rivoli Theatre in New York on September 29, 1949 to mixed reviews. Some publications were disappointed with the movie’s missed opportunities to advance race relations and others opined that the movie was right on target. No matter what people said and despite the controversy that ensued audiences flocked to Pinky. The movie broke attendance records at the Rivoli and followed suit in theaters across the country becoming the fourth highest grossing film of 1949.
“Let us examine our conscience. Let us look into our attitude and our tradition. Let us take care lest it be said of us that here there is neither law nor justice.” – Justice Walker in Pinky
As was the case with many states across the country Texas had a long history of censorship before Kazan’s Pinky was ever made. We know that reasons for censorship ran the gamut from violence to adult content, but I think it is fair to say that no issue riled people as did matters of race. That was illustrated when Pinky made it to Marshall, Texas and three censors fought to have it banned. The specific reasons for banning Pinky as cited by the censors are equal parts alarming and absurd as is the decision of the Texas Court. The three objected to (using their language): 1. a white man (Dr. Thomas Adams in the movie) retaining his love for a woman (Pinky) after learning that she is a Negro, 2. A white man kissing and embracing a Negro woman and 3. (a scene in which) two white ruffians assault Pinky after she has told them she is colored. Based on those complaints the Texas Supreme Court decided Pinky should be banned. The Texas Court based that decision on precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1915 Mutual case, which stated that free speech did not extend to motion pictures.
The decision of the Texas Supreme Court was significant in that they dropped the ball big time. Just weeks before that court rendered a decision the influential Miracle case involving Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 film, The Miracle (L’amore) was handed down. Rossellini’s movie had been targeted by censors and the Catholic Legion of Decency for being sacrilegious, but the U. S. Supreme Court found that a film couldn’t be banned under the First Amendment. Well, not only did the Texas Court ignore The Miracle decision, it ignored the free speech issue completely, which is disturbing. Luckily one unsuspecting theater owner named W. L. Gelling saved the day.
Due to the decision of the Texas Supreme Court theater owners could not obtain a license to screen Pinky. Screening a movie without a license could result in a fine and a misdemeanor charge. Such was the case for W. L. Gelling who managed a local theater and had the audacity to screen Pinky. Mr. Gelling was fined $200 and took the matter to court. Unfortunately, the conviction was affirmed by the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas, which agreed that the local Board of Censors could “deny a license for the showing of a motion picture, which the Board is ‘of the opinion’ is ‘of such character as to be prejudicial to the best interests of the people of said City.”
What a crock! And W. L. Gelling thought so too as he continued his quest for justice all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction citing The Miracle case, which extended first amendment rights to motion pictures. Glory be. Pinky could be screened everywhere albeit with a “not suitable for children” warning, but I’ll take it.
One doesn’t have to think long and hard to come up with examples of the inequality inherent in our society today. But in many ways we’ve progressed immensely since the Civil Rights movement. There are now policies in place to further the cause of equality and no doubt Pinky played a small role in that progress. Darryl Zanuck hoped for a hit movie, which he got, but he and no one else associated with Pinky could have guessed it would be historic. Jeanne Crain’s popularity soared thanks to this movie. Ethel Waters’ career was revitalized thanks to this movie. And thanks to this movie a kiss is just a kiss and not cause for a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Pinky is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Banned and Blacklisted Blogathon. I chose it because it’s stayed with me and I strongly suggest you watch it. But first you must visit the CMBA to access other entries on this most interesting topic. I’m heading over there myself.