Pinky (1949)

This article is part of The Fourth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Pinky, a drama about racism in the American South, features great performances from two legends named Ethel. The great Ethel Barrymore and the equally awesome Ethel Waters (photo above) play two friends who overcome barriers of race and class to forge a lasting bond that affects the life of one young woman (Jeanne Crain).

The film begins when a young African-American woman named Patricia Johnson (nicknamed Pinky by her family) returns to the deep South to visit the grandmother (Waters) who raised her. The fair-skinned Pinky has been studying to be a nurse in a Northern state, where, unbeknownst to her grandmother, she has led everyone to believe that she is white, including her fiance (William Lundigan). Pinky intends to sever her ties with her grandmother during the visit, but when her grandmother's neighbor and close friend, Miss Em (Barrymore), becomes seriously ill, the young woman reluctantly agrees to serve as her caretaker.

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Pinky was based on the novel Quality by Cid Ricketts Sumner, which was serialized in Ladies' Home Journal to both praise and controversy. The screen rights to Sumner's work eventually landed in the lap of 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck who hired John Ford to direct a film that he hoped would be both timely and entertaining a la other Fox triumphs, such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Gentleman's Agreement (1947). 

However Zanuck's best intentions went awry even before Pinky began shooting. The script* went through several versions, none of which seemed to satisfy anybody. Chief movie censor Joseph Breen came down like a ton of bricks on the script's depiction of a romantic relationship between a black woman and a white man.** Breen and his office rained down memos on Zanuck with various points that ranged from the financial (Southern movie theaters wouldn't exhibit it) to the political (they feared that Pinky would lend tacit support to President Harry Truman's Civil Rights program), but their real objection seemed to be that the romantic subplot would offend the fragile sensibilities of racists  (their dire warnings included a rise in Ku Klux Klan activities; to the best of my knowledge that never happened).

Jeanne Crain and Ethel Waters in Pinky (1949)
Ethel Waters and Jeanne Crain in a publicity still for Pinky (1949).
Zanuck also showed the script to prominent Civil Rights leaders who weren't impressed to say the least. Writer Poppy Cannon penned a scathing critique that objected to Pinky and her grandmother's passive acceptance of their second-class place in Southern society. The script was "a complete bid for submission from the colored people," she wrote. NAACP leader Walter White also wrote that Pinky was "inaccurate both as to the thinking of Negroes and intelligent Southern whites, and even dangerous in its advocacy of acceptance of the status quo."

In the end, Zanuck got Pinky into production through wily maneuvering, *** although trouble began almost as soon as shooting started. The irascible Ford, who was known to bully his cast and crew, immediately got into arguments with Waters, and the independent auteur was also put out that he couldn't film the movie in the deep South, where he could have largely evaded Zanuck's control. 
Ford quit after one week and was replaced by wunderkind director Elia Kazan, who had guided Gentleman's Agreement to three Academy Awards. After extensive rehearsals, Kazan got Pinky back on track, and it became a substantial box-office hit and received Oscar nominations for Crain, Barrymore and Waters.

Viewed today, Pinky is a mixed bag. The criticisms from both Cannon and White about Pinky and her grandmother's passivity are well-founded, and the film also relies too much on the "enlightened" white characters to "save" Pinky. However, the film is one of the few old Hollywood movies that attempts to realistically depict the lives of African-Americans in the 1940s. The ugly realities of racism are not glossed over: Throughout the film, Pinky is subjected to terrible slurs, she is stopped by the police for no reason other than her race, and she is the victim of sexual harassment and attempted rape.

Despite her obvious miscasting, Crain gives a credible performance as Pinky, but the real stars of the film are the two Ethels. Both ladies were great theatrical actors who could move audiences to laughter and tears, and their work is of the same high-quality in Pinky. Barrymore gives another finely etched portrayal of an invalid who hides her caring heart and deep emotions behind a cantankerous facade. In fact, Miss Em is the only white character in the film who not only understands the horrors of the Jim Crow system, but has the kindness and the courage to do something about it.

As great as Barrymore is, Waters' performance is the film's powerful center. Granny can neither read nor write and she is often cheated by her white customers; nevertheless, she is an indomitable force of nature whose deep religious faith is not shaken by her circumstance. Only the rejection by the granddaughter for whom she poured all of her hopes and dreams (not to mention money), can break her spirit. Mercedes McCambridge received the 1949 best supporting actress Oscar for her stellar work in All the King's Men, but it is a shame that Waters wasn't rewarded for the best film performance of her career.

This article completes my quartet on the Oscar-nominated roles of Ethel Barrymore. Click on the highlighted text to read about None But the Lonely Heart  (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1946), and The Paradine Case  (1947).

Pinky will air at 11:30 pm ET Sept. 4 on TCM. It is also available on DVD and video on demand.

* Philip Dunne and Dudley Nichols received official credit for the screenplay, although both Kazan and Jane White contributed to the script.
**The Motion Picture Production Code forbade miscegenation, which the Production Code Administration defined as relationships between black and white characters. As anyone who's spent any time watching TCM knows, this ban did not extend to romances between whites and American Indians, Hispanics, Polynesians, or Asians.
***The hiring of ingenue Crain rather than the much more appropriate Lena Horne eventually quieted the censors. NAACP member Jane White was brought in to serve as an adviser on the script as a nod to the African-American community.


  1. Pinky was a nice movie, although with some problems - like the acceptance mentioned by the activists. Whenever I read about cases like these, when censors wanted to keep black people "in their places" and not upset the racists, I get incredibly mad and can't believe the same things is happening until today.
    Wonderful article!

    1. It is sad that we are in much the same place in 2018 as 1949. Why can't we just punish oppressors and bullies instead of caving in to them because they might start trouble.

  2. This sounds like an interesting film for many reasons, not the least of which would be Ethel Waters's performance.

    1. It only shows 1/10th of her talent, but it is her best screen role.

  3. Thanks for your interesting analysis. I remember seeing this when it first came out & being very impressed. ( I would have been 13.). I'll plan to DVR it.

    1. My pleasure. It's interesting to hear from someone who saw it in its original run. It is still a powerful film.

  4. I enjoyed this movie more than I anticipated, and this despite my frustration with its obvious shortcomings. I expect this is due to the professionalism of all involved. Quality of plot points notwithstanding, we are seeing such fine work from the two Ethels that it overcomes a lot.

    1. Agreed. Two of the greats at the top of their form.


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