Thursday, May 8, 2014

Movie of the Week: PINKY (Review)

Pinky was the featured film for the week of April 28-May 5.

From Wikipedia

Pinky, a light skinned black woman (played by Jeanne Crain), returns to her grandmother's house (Dicey Johnson, played by Ethel Waters) in the South after graduating from a Northern nursing school. Pinky tells her grandmother that she has been "passing" for white while at school in the North. In addition, Pinky has fallen in love with a young white doctor, Dr. Thomas Adams (William Lundigan), who knows nothing about her black heritage. Pinky says that she will return to the North, but Granny Johnson convinces her to stay and treat an ailing white woman, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore). Meanwhile, Dr. Canady (Kenny Washington), a black physician from another part of the state, visits Pinky and asks her to train some African American students, but she declines. Pinky nurses Miss Em but is resentful because she seems to feel that she is doing the same thing her grandmother did. Pinky and Miss Em slowly develop a mutual respect for one another. Mrs. Em leaves Pinky her property when she dies, but relatives of the deceased woman contest the new will in court. [IMDb Plot Summary - remainder contains spoilers]


I was going to do a video review for Pinky, but I know I would be better at getting my irritations and frustrations out in writing.



*Warning: Mention of Rape/Attempted Rape & Harassment* 

To be honest, there were a few moments in this film that I found to be unrealistic (like Pinky's white boyfriend holding her close in a courtroom full of racist white people without as much as a "gasp" from them), but overall, this was a really good story and I was not expecting it to be as good as it was. It stirred so many emotions for me--sadness, anger, pity, rage. Pinky goes places that I did not expect a 1949 film to go--in the same way that I didn't expect No Way Out to go to some of the places it went. 

My only problem with the writing is the erasure of Pinky's blackness (or her history as a black woman). To me, it seemed as though the writers of this film made the assumption that mixed race black people (or fair enough to "pass" black people) were incapable of relating to or understanding the (Southern) black experience. It would have been one thing if Pinky had grown up passing for white her entire life, or if she'd gone her entire life not knowing that she was black. Not the case! Pinky was born and raised by her grandmother, Dicey (played by Ethel Waters) in a shack on what I believe used to be a plantation, but for some reason, when she returned from nursing school, she was completely out of the loop about how the "Colored section" of the community lived. The character wasn't defiant or rebellious, but she was unwittingly doing and saying things that would have immediately lead to imminent danger for a darker person:

For example, early in the film, a stressed Pinky thought it would be a good idea for her to "take a walk" along the road of a racist town by herself--at night. She would soon be harassed by two white men in a car--because she was a woman. When she informed the men that she was black, they turned up the hostility--chasing her in their car and almost raping her. This goes to show that if Pinky were a dark or brown-skinned black woman, (she probably wouldn't have been walking along the road by herself at night, for starters), chances are, these men would have assaulted her immediately. Light or not, a black woman would not have been walking up a dark country road by herself in Mean White People Town unless she was a "bad mother--shutyomouf!". Pinky was nowhere near it. 



Jeanne Crain

I can't say that I was able to "overlook" Luise Rainer as "O-Lan" in The Good Earth or Susan Kohner as "Sarah Jane" in Imitation of Life (1959), but I can say that I their performances were good enough for me to "tolerate" them. For me, Jeanne Crain's performance wasn't good enough for me to "tolerate" her as 'Pinky'. Whenever she mentioned being "colored" or "Negro" I couldn't restrain myself from rolling my eyes. She didn't make me (almost) believe her. Don't get me wrong, her performance was good, but it wasn't standout (and certainly not worth an Oscar nomination, in my opinion). 

The majority of supporting cast, however, gave very memorable performances--a rare occurrence in my previous viewings and reviews. 


Jake and Rozelia

First of all, I was a bit saddened to witness Hollywood's first black Leading Lady playing such a small role twenty years after her big debut (in fact, Nina Mae McKinney's second Hollywood role--only a year after her debut--was uncredited). I was also irritated that Jake Walters and Rozelia--the only other black characters (besides Pinky, Dicey, and Dr. Canady, who we only see in two scenes) were two of the movie's most despicable characters. Nonetheless, Ms. McKinney and Frederick O'Neal (as Jake, a man whose actual profession I'm still clueless on--he owed (and stole) a lot of people's money, that's all I know) played their roles well enough to stay embedded on the audience's brain. At least mine.

Frederick O'Neal (photographed by Carl Van Vechten)


Judge Shoreham

This character (played by Raymond Greenleaf) really didn't become significant until near the film's end. In fact, his "shining" moment (more like Mr. Greenleaf's) was his last moment on the screen--and I will tell you, what he says and does will cut you like the sharpest of knives.


Melba Wooley

This character annoyed and frustrated me to no end--and you know what I always say: If a character makes you mad, then the actor did their job. Evelyn Varden did an amazing job as "Melba Wooley"--Miss Em's greedy and trouble-making cousin. You will not forget this character or the actress!


Dicey & Miss Em

Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters and Ethel Barrymore both received the Oscar-nomination for 'Best Supporting Actress' for their work in this film, and the nominations were well deserved. Of course, the character of "Dicey" is your typical "mammy" stereotype--she does domestic work for Miss Em and is painfully devoted to the woman. Nonetheless, like most of the actresses who played these kinds of characters, Ethel Waters played Dicey Johnson seamlessly. 

Ethel Barrymore (photographed by Carl Van Vechten)

Miss Em is an ailing, no-nonsense woman who's actually beloved for her sharp tongue. This was the first time I'd seen a film with Ethel Barrymore in it, so as a first time observer of her work, I thought to myself: "Either Ethel Barrymore was as strict as Miss Em in real life, or she was extremely good at what she did..." I'm going to assume that the latter is the answer, especially since she was a member of acting dynasty known as "the Barrymore Family".


Overall Thoughts

Overall, I thought Pinky was a well-written story. There were some moments that made me yell "Oh, come on, really, Pinky?!", but then, there were a lot of moments that were absolutely real and realistic--moments that filled me with anger and sadness because I knew that something like that, whatever it was, happened often in Southern communities of the time (and sometimes, still happens today). 

Of course, it was especially disappointing to not see a black actress playing this part. Black Hollywood's "it girl", Lena Horne campaigned for the role, as did the blossoming starlet, Dorothy Dandridge, but of course, neither actresses would win the role. Fredi Washington, Hollywood's go-to actress for "passing" roles had long left Hollywood for good, plus, she was 46 years old at the time of the film's release. Even the movie's own Nina Mae McKinney could have been a good candidate, but I guess that 37 would have been a bit too old for a recent college grad, as well. The studio could have gone for a big name like Lena or unknown, but to avoid controversy and violating miscegenation laws, Fox Studios decided that it would be "best" to cast a white actress, and that they did (the film still met some "miscegenation violation" trouble, anyway). The majority of Jeanne Crain's lukewarm performance (that even director Elia Kazan commented on) pained me to watch and the whole time, all I could think was "Lena Horne...Lena Horne...Lena Horne...".

However, what's done is done. I do recommend that people watch this movie for both historical and entertainment purposes.

*Watch Pinky on Youtube*


All photos used in this post were obtained from Wikipedia. They are being used for informational purposes only. If the rightful owner(s) of any of these photos wishes to have them removed, please contact me, and I will do so immediately. (Adrienne)

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