Judge Jesse Ataide knows several jokes involving a pinky. None are appropriate to share on this site.
"You can change your name, but I wonder if you can change what you really are inside."—Jeanne Crain
After hitting Oscar gold with Gentleman's Agreement, newly minted Best Director winner Elia Kazan tried his hand once again with socially conscious material dealing with America's tangled race issues. The resulting film, Pinky, is not one of Kazan's most well-known films, but it easily holds its own among Kazan's distinguished filmography.
Facts of the Case
Pinky (Jeanne Crain, A Letter to Three Wives) is a young African American woman returning home to the South to visit her grandmother (Ethel Waters, Cabin in the Sky) after graduating from nursing school in the North. Pinky's light skin has allowed her to pass as a white woman in the North, a situation Pinky has taken full advantage of, even falling in love with a young white doctor (the bland William Lundigan, House on Telegraph Hill) she studied under. Inevitably, Pinky's return home elicits a number of conflicting emotions in Pinky, and just as she is poised to leave for the North again to marry the doctor, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore, Portrait of Jennie), a local wealthy white woman falls ill, and Pinky's grandmother convinces her to stay and nurse her back to health. When Miss Em dies, she leaves Pinky all of her property, which does not go over well with Miss Em's relatives and the local white population, causing chaos to erupt in the tiny Southern town.
The first thing that has to be addressed when approaching Pinky can be summed up in two words: Jeanne Crain. To buy into the film's basic premise that Crain is a biracial woman requires a remarkable suspension of belief. As film historian Kenneth Geist keeps emphasizing in his commentary, the reason Crain keeps getting mistaken for a white woman is because she so obviously is a white woman. Once this is dealt with, however, the film proves to contain a number of admirable qualities. I think Pauline Kael sums it up best: "Pinky is slick and Hollywoodized, but it's also pretty good."
No doubt that when it was made, Pinky, even while casting a white actress in the central role, was a very risky film to make. And who better to handle such controversial material than Elia Kazan, fresh of his twin successes of Gentleman's Agreement and the initial Broadway staging of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire? Asked by producer Darryl F. Zanuck to replace John Ford as director of Pinky (Ford wasn't getting along with the cast of the film and didn't care for the material), Kazan allegedly accepted the project script sight unseen, agreeing to film the script as was—an amazing feat in and of itself.
As is typically the case in Kazan's films, the greatness is in the acting. Jeanne Crain, star of such films as State Fair and Leave Her to Heaven was certainly a beauty, but a limited actress—in a film like A Letter to Three Wives, released the same year as Pinky, she seems to fade into the background whenever her more dynamic costars are sharing the screen. But Kazan teases out a powerful, nuanced performance out of his star, and not only is she able to confidently carry the film, but it's probably her finest hour as an actress (she duly received her first and only Academy Award nomination for her efforts).
Supporting Crain is a capable cast. Ethel Waters, the charismatic singer and star of Cabin in the Sky, gives a touching and graceful performance as Crain's hard-working grandmother; Ethel Barrymore, on the other hand, gets to play the type of limited role where she at first seems to be merely a crochety old wealthy woman, but later turns out to have a heart of gold (needless to say, there's not much to it besides Barrymore's considerable star power). But there are little moments of memorable acting scattered throughout the film from supporting actors such as Nina Mae McKinney and Basil Ruysdael, and it gives the entire film a sense of rich layering and texture.
The quality of the print found on 20th Century Fox's is good, but not quite up to the high standards we've recently been seeing from DVD releases of other films from this era, but the minor image problems certainly don't detract from the overall film experience. Two audio tracks (mono and stereo) are provided: I found with the mono track I was reaching for the remote control several times throughout the film to turn up the sound, while the stereo track doesn't seem to be quite as inconsistent. Subtitles in both English and Spanish are included.
The major special feature on this disc is the aforementioned audio commentary by Kenneth Geist. Geist has contributed to several other audio commentaries reviewed on this site, including those found on All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives, and both judges gave the respective commentaries high marks. Perhaps it was because Geist shared the commentary with others, but I personally found Geist's commentary hard to listen to. While the information he provides is illuminating, the affected, intermittently enthusiastic and sarcastic tone he takes struck me as fake, and grated on my nerves after a while. I only made it through about half of the commentary. The other extra on this disc is the original theatrical trailer. The packaging of the film, however, is quite attractive, featuring original poster art and a cardboard slipcase—sometimes little things like that that make a big impression.
Seen through contemporary eyes, Pinky can come off as a rather quaint examination of racial tensions in America as it reached the middle of the 20th century. One wishes that it would have something more compelling and timeless to say about interracial relationships or the complex situation of light-skinned African Americans. But this isn't enough to cancel out the film's many strong elements, and it remains one of the better, if less known gems of Elia Kazan's filmography.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Kenneth Geist
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