Pinky (1949)


(director: Elia Kazan; screenwriters: Philip Dunne/Dudley Nichols/based on the novel Pinky by Cid Ricketts Sumner; cinematographer: Joseph MacDonald; editor: Harmon Jones; music: Alfred Newman; 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), Dan Riss (Mr. Stanley), Griff Barnett (Dr. Joe McGill), Evelyn Varden (Melba Wooley), Frederick O’Neal (Jake Walters), Nina Mae McKinney (Rozelia); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Darryl F. Zanuck; Fox Home Video; 1949)

“This is a groundbreaking film despite its absurdly stiff way at looking at how blacks and whites interact.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Based on Cid Ricketts Sumner’s novel Pinky and written by Philip Dunne and Dudley Nichols. Elia Kazan (“East of Eden”/”Wild River”/”Gentleman’s Agreement”) took over directing this compromised social problem drama when John Ford backed out after a few weeks of shooting and had no enthusiasm for the story. It tells of a light-skinned young black woman, nicknamed “Pinky” Johnson (Jeanne Crain), who is sent by her dark-skinned black Granny (Ethel Waters) to study nursing in Boston and not only passes for white and lives as a free person but has a white fiance Dr. Thomas Adams (William Lundigan). Pinky is confused about the relationship, fearing society won’t accept it, and comes running back to Granny’s shack in the rural South and its segregation to find her true identity as a mulatto.

The old-fashioned Granny, stereotyped as the mammy figure, works for the feisty aristocratic white lady Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore), who becomes terminally ill and is nursed by Pinky until her death. Miss Em leaves her estate to Pinky, but her family contests the will because Pinky is black. In court, Pinky surprisingly wins the verdict. She then turns the estate into a nursing home and school for blacks, and rejects Dr. Adams’ marriage proposal when he comes knocking on her door in the South. She becomes a tragic figure who regains her racial pride but loses the man she loves.

Though many things about the film are unconvincing (for starters the white Crain as a black woman never passes the giggle test and the casting of a white as a Negro seems to be a chicken-hearted way to deal with the racial issues–it missed a chance to make a big statement by not casting Lena Horne in that role), it’s not as daring as it wants you to believe as it has little to say that was hip about racial relationships and interracial marriage (though for Hollywood, which for the most part previously ignored real black issues, this is a groundbreaking film despite its absurdly stiff way at looking at how blacks and whites interact), and it questionably has Pinky learn her life lessons from a stranger white woman and not her black Granny. But, at least, its sincerity and conviction seem real, and there are a few tender and moving moments. The film did very well at the box office.


REVIEWED ON 12/28/2007 GRADE: C+