What I’m Watching at Night: 1949’s Pinky

Jeanne Crain, lit accordingly, lest the audience forget she is white

I still don’t quite know what to make of Elia Kazan’s 1949 risible melodrama Pinky. Netflix was all set to remove the film from my digital queue at the end of May and I hadn’t been exactly chomping at the bit to screen this picture about a young woman who’s been able to pass for white as a nurse in Boston, but returns to her swampy Southern town to deal with her racial truth.

More often than not, the old “racial message” pictures from pre-1970 [1] grate on my nerves, mostly because of how easily they conjure up notions of nobility and righteous suffering.[2] Pinky did little to shake up those notions, but I was also surprised by how timid the script actually was in providing the main character with morally complex scenarios.

It doesn’t take long for Pinky to admit, upon her return home, that she’s been passing for white, much to her dismay of her grandmother Dicey (played by Ethel Waters). But if she’s guilty of any ambiguous behavior, it’s happened offscreen and it’s in the past: the picture begins with that admission, and now Pinky has little to do but accept the shame brought on her grandmother.[3] It isn’t a punishment, exactly, but it’s part of the reason she accepts Dicey’s request to take care of the white neighbor, Miss Em, the owner of a large house with an even larger lawn, where Pinky was once unceremoniously tossed out.[4]

Pinky thinks it over (alone on a bridge in the middle of the swamp, no less)

It’s in the early part of the picture that the most potentially daring turns take place. Pinky’s surprise at how she might have to negotiate her identity anew is showcased in two crucial early scenes. In one, Pinky wanders a murky road in the swamp late at night, and makes the mistake of mouthing off to two white men who offer her a ride. Instead of “passing” for her own safety, she indignantly tells them who she really is. The two men promptly turn on her and, for a briefly alarming moment, the film has the violent charge lurking beneath the danger of passing.[5]

I should know better than to wish a story arc had taken another direction. And I’m well aware that the time period very nearly demanded a more saccharine take on race relations.[6] Yet it’s too bad that the film didn’t take this more electric course, choosing instead to guide Pinky along a thwarted love story (her white boyfriend comes into town looking for her, hardly fazed at all by her past or her real identity) and a courtroom drama (Miss Em’s estate, predictably, is willed to Pinky, only to be contested). The real energy comes in moments when Pinky must be decisive about how she declares her identity, and the audience can intuit the immediate repercussions of her choices. Early on, for example, she very nearly walks away from interrogation when police break up an argument she’s been having with an African-American couple. The policemen treat Pinky quite respectfully, but are coarse with the couple. Nina Mae McKinney, who plays the girlfriend (complete with a switchblade in her stocking), sasses the police officer: “Why you two white men ma’am’in’ her?” she asks, about to reveal Pinky’s secret. “She’s nothing but a lowdown colored gal!”

In the film's single best scene, Pinky already knows the danger in admitting the truth

The remark earns her a slap and, sadly, an early exit from the picture itself, which is really too bad. McKinney’s brief presence on the screen displayed a lot more of the forced silence (and the humiliation engendered by that silence) that should have been apparent in Crain’s performance.[7] Do I blame the spineless script? Perhaps. But by placing one of Pinky’s first decisive moments offscreen (and in Boston, no less), half the drama is already over, and we don’t get to witness the protagonist’s game-changer.[8]

Pinky en chinga, debating late in the film what she really wants from her life

  1. [1] I just screened Hal Ashby’s fascinating The Landlord and will post about it soon.
  2. [2]Or, conversely, how they end up showcasing white guilt, like Sandra Bullock’s embrace of her housekeeper as her only amiga in Crash, a moment that my own mother found laughable.
  3. [3] Jeanne Crain, who played Pinky, earned a Best Actress nomination for this role, perhaps for her convincing collapse at the foot of the bed once she’s endured Ethel Waters’s withering stare. For most of the picture, she adopts a low, wary voice without a lot of variables, like Eleanor Parker after she’s hardened doing a stint in women’s prison in Caged.
  4. [4] To drive home the point of Miss Em’s exclusions, Kazan includes a scene of Pinky returning to the gate, only to find a young African-American girl staring longingly at the estate, an Eden in the midst of the swamp.
  5. [5]Maybe I’m being too hard on Kazan: he helmed the luridly sexualized Baby Doll, with a Tennessee Williams script that wasn’t afraid to keep the simmer high.
  6. [6] They tend to get better as the years go on, from 1959’s Imitation of Life, which has camp qualities as an engine of enjoyment, to the very agreeable (but little seen) A Patch of Blue, from 1965 with Sidney Poitier as a young man who befriends a blind girl (a winningly wistful Elizabeth Hartmann) and Shelley Winters in an Oscar-winning role as her hateful mother.
  7. [7] “Message” pictures often have that problem, since the burden is often on the actor to make up for the script’s lack. And lest you think this is the domain of mainstream cinema, allow me the guilt of association by calling out the unwittingly hilarious Colby Taylor/Jeremy Tucker adult film, Blur, in which a blind Harvard graduate is shunned by his friends for his interracial-dating ways. Give me a nip of bourbon and I might argue that Taylor’s performance is more self-aware than Crain’s. Who knew Harvard issued letterman jackets?
  8. [8]And speaking of witnessing game-changers, and since I’ve already gone off the deep end by bringing up an adult film, why not just finish out the association game and run off into the wilderness with the truly absurd?
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