Controversial ‘Pinky’ movie adaptation & Westernized Guy de Maupassant (partial) rip-off accompany ‘Moguls & Movie Stars’ rerun
At 7 p.m. this evening, Dec. 1, Turner Classic Movies will show a rerun of the episode “Warriors & Peace Makers” from its seven-part, 2010 documentary miniseries Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, which was first aired last month. The segment covers the American film industry right before, during, and in the aftermath of World War II. As accompanying illustrations, TCM will present Pinky, Stagecoach, Citizen Kane, and Mildred Pierce.
In the cast of the four films: a conflicted “black” Jeanne Crain, a sex-working Claire Trevor and a gunslinging John Wayne, an unscrupulously ambitious Orson Welles and an off-key opera-singing Dorothy Comingore, and an entrepreneurial Joan Crawford ex post facto aiding and abetting psycho daughter Ann Blyth.
Of TCM’s four titles, Pinky is easily the least remembered. Ironically, it was just as easily the biggest box office hit among them.
‘Pinky’ movie: Darryl F. Zanuck’s ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ prestige follow-up
A 1949 20th Century Fox release, Pinky was planned as a major cinematic event in Hollywood’s socially conscious post-World War II years. Chief of production Darryl F. Zanuck, not long after his Academy Award-winning Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), was personally in charge of the project, to be directed by the studio’s top filmmaker: three-time Oscar winner John Ford (at RKO: The Informer, 1935; at Fox: The Grapes of Wrath, 1940; How Green Was My Valley, 1941).
Frequent Ford collaborator Dudley Nichols, who had won (and, at least initially, turned down) an Oscar for The Informer, was assigned to adapt Mississippi-born author Cid Ricketts Sumner’s 1946 novel Quality, the story of a young, part-black Southern woman who could pass for certifiably white.
Especially for such an inevitably controversial project, prestigious names behind the camera would not have been enough to make it palatable to moviegoers. Like Gentleman’s Agreement – in which the anti-Semitism film’s hero is a “gentile” (Gregory Peck) pretending to be Jewish – Pinky was packaged in the most audience-/business-friendly manner possible.
“This is not a story about how to solve the Negro problem in the South or anywhere else,” Zanuck wrote in a memo to Dudley Nichols. “This is not a story particularly about race problems, segregation or discrimination. This is a story about one particular Negro girl who could easily pass as a white and who did pass for a while. This is the story of how and why she, as an individual, finally decided to be herself – a Negress.”
Not leaving anything to chance, lily-white Fox contract star Jeanne Crain was to play Zanuck’s “Negress.” Crain had fast become one of the top box office draws of the decade thanks to unpretentious Technicolor hits such as State Fair (1945), Margie (1946), Centennial Summer (1946), and Apartment for Peggy (1948).
‘A black girl who is not black but white’
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Philip Dunne (How Green Was My Valley), who came on board to rework Dudley Nichols’ Pinky draft, provides a brief overview of Quality in his autobiography, Take Two: A Life in Movie and Politics.
Like the movie, the novel revolves around a part-white/part-black young woman, “Pinkey” Johnson – whom Dunne describes as “a black girl who is not black but white.”
In a country as a racist as the United States, Pinkey finds the going easier if she’s perceived as white. That’s what happens after she migrates from the American South to El Norte, where, as Patricia, she begins a relationship with a white doctor (William Lundigan in the “e”-less Pinky).
But what will happen if the doctor discovers that Pinkey/Patricia’s great-grandmother was a slave? Or that her grandmother looks just like Ethel Waters?
Life choices of someone labeled ‘black’
Unsure as to which route to take, the young white-looking woman – in mainstream American culture then or now, inexorably labeled “Negro/black” – returns to her grandmother in the South and, while waiting to make up her mind, nurses an ill-tempered, aristocratic white invalid (Ethel Barrymore). Once the old crone dies leaving Pinkey her decaying plantation, will our heroine:
a) Return to the white doctor and live a happy, white life. Scratch that. Once the doctor realizes his beloved is a “Negress,” he scurries back northward.
b) Turn the plantation into a hospice and find another kind of happiness by helping “her people.”
c) Join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and become a “militant” fighting againt racism.
Box-office-friendly screenplay alterations
In his screenplay revisions, Philip Dunne avoided the likely contentious choice between b) or c) by having Pinky decide about something less blatantly political: William Lundigan’s doctor promises to stay with Pinky/Patricia as long as she goes on “passing for white.” Will Pinky accept his proposal?
Or will she remember Ethel Barrymore’s bit of advice: “Be yourself. Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn’t”?
If the latter, that means Pinky will accept the label others have imposed on her: “Negress.” What choice would she have then but to go back to “her people”?
Disturbing ‘uplifting’ finale
No points for those who guess which road our heroine ultimately follows. Back in 1949, Pinky’s choice was supposed to have pleased both whites (she remains in her ethno-social place) and blacks (she remains “one of us”).
This choice is what makes watching Zanuck, Kazan, and Dunne’s otherwise dated and generally not well-acted, -written, or -directed drama a disturbing experience. At its bittersweet but – in intention – uplifting conclusion, Pinky shows us that nothing has changed in that regard in the last six decades.
Just imagine: what if Pinky had chosen to associate herself with her (apparently dominant) white side, label herself white, and live the life of a white person in rabidly racist America?
A little over a quarter of a century after the federal government had granted women the right to vote in the United States – and thus have an active say in politics – what if Pinky had felt empowered to choose her own labels for herself instead of accepting one imposed on her by others?
Had that been the case, how many of those watching Pinky – then or now – would have sympathized with the film’s heroine? How many would have respected her for her decision?
Unhappy Dudley Nichols
One individual who was none too pleased with the final version of Pinky – not for the reasons listed above – was Dudley Nichols.
As Philip Dunne recalls, Nichols sent Zanuck “a long and detailed critique [of Dunne’s finished screenplay,] the burden of which was that he couldn’t conceive of a white man ever agreeing to marry a girl with even a drop of African blood in her veins.”
In case Dunne wasn’t misremembering things, Nichols’ remark is a bit of a head-scratcher. Despite numerous U.S. state laws banning interracial marriage (16 states up to the 1967 “Loving v. Virginia” Supreme Court decision), mixed-race white/black Americans (or “colored,” as they were called in some parts) – among them, of course, children of married couples – weren’t all that impossibly rare in the 1940s.
Box-office-friendly genetic mutation: Jeanne Crain casting
Now, who should get to play Pinky? Lost Boundaries.
So, how poor was the choice of Jeanne Crain?
In terms of the film’s integrity, very. In terms of the film’s box office, however, Crain seems to have been a smart pick. As found in Variety, Pinky earned an estimated $4.2 million [approx. $72 million in 2010] in rentals – the year’s second biggest hit, trailing only Columbia Pictures’ Henry Levin-directed musical Jolson Sings Again (with $5.5 million).
Oscar-nominated ‘Sunday school teacher’
The year after winning the Best Director Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement (which had focused on “gentile” Gregory Peck passing for Jewish), Elia Kazan – a replacement for John Ford, whom a dissatisfied Darryl F. Zanuck fired after a week of shooting – had an even bigger commercial hit in his hands.
Yet as found in Jeff Young’s Kazan on Film: The Master Director Discusses His Films, the filmmaker felt that central miscasting seriously marred his latest socially conscious effort:
“Jeanne Crain was a sweet girl, but she was like a Sunday school teacher. I did my best with her, but she didn’t have any fire. The only good thing about her was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is what ‘passing’ is.”
Whether or not they came across as Sunday school teachers, could actors convincingly play character of other ethnicities?
This is a hot-button topic today, depending on how one applies labels to both the actors and their characters, and who is playing what. For instance, some are outraged that Italian-American Al Pacino played a Spanish-Cuban in Scarface, but have no problem with English/German/Swiss/Irish-American Meryl Streep playing a Polish woman in Sophie’s Choice or with Spaniard Javier Bardem playing a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian in the more recent Eat Pray Love.
Back at the time Pinky was made – and for decades before and after – “appropriate” (or politically correct) ethnic casting wasn’t an issue at all in movies set around the globe, but often filmed in black-and-white and in studio settings. In fact, the German Luise Rainer and the American Katharine Hepburn, without looking the parts, did great work as Chinese peasants in The Good Earth and Dragon Seed, respectively. The part-South Asian/part-English Merle Oberon, without looking the part, excelled as a tempestuous English rose in Wuthering Heights. The Mexican Ramon Novarro, without looking the part, fully succeeded in conveying the heartbreak of a Germanic prince in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg.
So, since Rainer, Hepburn, Oberon, Novarro, et al. could be so effective, why couldn’t Jeanne Crain, without looking the part, be equally compelling?
There’s no way she could have been believable as a part-black woman, but why couldn’t she have delivered a moving performance as an individual who, in her quest for happiness, struggles to pass for something/someone she isn’t? How many of us haven’t gone through that? How many of us, in some way or other, aren’t going through that now?
Irrespective of the issue of “whitewashing,” that doesn’t happen in Pinky. Crain not only looks miscast, she seems totally out of character as well. Not helping matters, the screenplay – written by talented liberals Philip Dunne and Dudley Nichols, no less – is a condescending, dramatic mess.
In all fairness to Jeanne Crain, she could be a capable performer when handled properly – e.g., Henry King’s aforementioned Margie, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s People Will Talk, and even Joseph M. Newman’s less well-known Dangerous Crossing.
It’s ironic that Pinky features one of her least effective performances, considering that Kazan is – deservedly – remembered as a top actors’ director, having elicited first-rate work from a whole array of disparate talent, ranging from Peggy Ann Garner and Joan Blondell (both in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) to Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Jo Van Fleet (Wild River).
Nevertheless, when one takes into account Pinky as a whole, the film’s stumbling block may have been less Jeanne Crain’s Sunday-school-ness than the director’s plodding, heavy-handed approach to the already sentimentalized material. It’s as if Kazan had been as miscast as his star.
Admittedly Kazan usually got things right in the 1940s and 1950s, but as can be attested by efforts such as The Sea of Grass and Baby Doll, and to some extent, Gentleman’s Agreement, he could also veer off the mark.
Academy members disagreed with both Kazan’s and this poster’s assessment, as Jeanne Crain was shortlisted for the 194
9 Best Actress Oscar, though she eventually lost out to Olivia de Havilland in William Wyler’s The Heiress. Also nominated were veterans Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters, who lost to Hollywood newcomer Mercedes McCambridge in Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men.
‘Pinky’ Lena Horne?
In recent years, some have come up with the idea that Pinky should have gone to Lena Horne. No matter how politically correct, that’s an absurd suggestion.
If Jeanne Crain was miscast because she couldn’t convincingly pass for part-black, Horne would have been just as miscast, as she couldn’t convincingly pass for white. The same goes for Dorothy Dandridge (Best Actress Oscar nominee for Carmen Jones, 1954), who was also around at the time.
What’s more: unlike Crain, neither Horne nor Dandridge were box office in the late 1940s.
A darker-complexioned (officially) white actress such as Gail Russell (The Uninvited, Night Has a Thousand Eyes), Oscar winner Jennifer Jones (The Song of Bernadette, 1943), and 20th Century Fox’s own Linda Darnell (Crain’s co-star in Centennial Summer and A Letter to Three Wives) would have been more believable – and more box-office-friendly – choices than either Horne or Dandridge.
Former Warner Bros. star Kay Francis (Jewel Robbery, British Agent) would have been ideal (there were rumors that the raven-haired Francis was part-black) – except that at age 50 she, by that time no longer in movies, would have been much too old to play Pinky.
Else, they would have needed a Vanessa Williams or a Jennifer Beals back in 1949.
Ms. Pinky Johnson goes to Washington
Of note, Pinky was banned in the small town of Marshall, Texas. When a movie theater owner decided to defy the ban, he was fined $200.
His case, “Gelling vs. State of Texas,” ended up at the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor in accordance with the landmark “Miracle Decision” extending First Amendment (i.e., freedom of speech) protection to motion pictures.
Directed by John Ford and adapted by Dudley Nichols from Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” Stagecoach (1939) is considered by many the greatest Western ever made. Others find it second only to Ford’s own The Searchers (1956).
Personally, I find Stagecoach second to Christian-Jaque’s Angel and Sinner / Boule de suif (1945), a straight retelling of Guy de Maupassant’s 1880 short story “Boule de Suif” (“Ball of Fat”), which has several key elements in common with the John Ford-Dudley Nichols collaboration.
A perky Micheline Presle stars as the stagecoach passenger and “hooker with a heart of gold” who eventually saves the day and, however unwittingly, exposes the putrid hypocrisy of women and men of otherwise good moral and social standing.
John Ford’s first film to be shot in Monument Valley (at the Arizona-Utah border), Stagecoach offers more majestic landscapes, thrills, and shootouts – the latter two courtesy of a bunch of bloodthirsty, sub-human “red” types – than Boule de Suif, but it’s ultimately less rewarding than the French film.
Ineffectual John Wayne opposite appealing Claire Trevor
For starters, much of the astute sociopolitical commentary found in Boule de Suif is missing from Dudley Nichols’ more conventionally crowd-pleasing screenplay, set in the American Southwest of the late 19th century. If that weren’t all, most cast members, including Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell, seem to be there just for the ride.
Leading man John Wayne, for one, delivers a woefully stilted performance as the Ringo Kid – an antihero role ideal for Alan Ladd, had Ladd been a star in 1939. Wayne, in fact, lessens the dramatic effectiveness of the film, much like he would lessen the dramatic effectiveness of nearly all of his future collaborations with John Ford.
On the positive side, Stagecoach leading lady Claire Trevor is fine as the hooker with a heart bigger the American West’s wide open spaces, Yakima Canutt’s stunts are, to put it mildly, impressive; Otho Lovering and Dorothy Spencer’s editing is first-rate; and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bert Glennon, who had been around since the mid-1910s, fully captured the vastness of the American Southwest while ably copying spectacular camera angles from the 1925 Ben-Hur‘s chariot race.
‘Stagecoach’ racist & cruel to animals? Get over yourselves!
As for Stagecoach‘s depiction of Native Americans as monstrous savages and/or the brutal mistreatment of horses during the white stagecoachers vs. the mounted injuns shootout, those who are outraged about these matters should just get over themselves.
Those around in the early 21st century must remember that Stagecoach came out in February 1939. It was a different time, a different environment. There were no cells phones, Internet, or social media back then.
What’s more, Gdansk was still known as Danzig while Czechoslovakia was still one country. Ann Sheridan and Lana Turner weren’t yet stars, while Pinky would be released only a full decade later. Simply put, there was no way for people back then to grasp the concept of bigotry and suffering.
So, when it comes to Stagecoach and other 1930s Hollywood classics like The Charge of the Light Brigade and Gunga Din, let’s appreciate the racism and the cruelty for what they were meant to be: thrilling fun.
They truly don’t make ’em like they used to.
They don’t make ’em…
But they don’t, really. Case in point: Citizen Kane.
There isn’t much that can be said about Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece, except perhaps that my favorite movie that year is William Wyler’s family/social drama The Little Foxes, starring Bette Davis as a sort of female Charles Foster Kane: ambitious, unscrupulous, enthralling.
Yet even the author of this post must admit that Citizen Kane fully deserved to win that year’s Best Director Academy Award, which went to John Ford for How Green Was My Valley.
In addition to Best Actor for Orson Welles (Academy voters opted for Gary Cooper’s more audience-friendly performance in the blockbuster Sergeant York), Best Black-and-White Cinematography for the masterful Gregg Toland (Arthur C. Miller’s – admittedly, gorgeous work – won for How Green Was My Valley), and Best Original Screenplay for Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane‘s one Oscar win).
As for Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945), it’s both one of the greatest melodramas and one of the best film noirs out there.
Best Actress Oscar winner Joan Crawford, in her de facto Warner Bros. debut following her move from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, is in top form as the suburban (Glendale) mother who’ll do it all for her psycho daughter, persuasively played by Best Supporting Actress nominee Ann Blyth.
However, Blyth’s fellow Oscar nominee, Eve Arden, is the one with the best line – a clever and on-target reminder that the joys of parenthood are way overrated. Something about alligators’ gourmet tastes.
See also: Moguls…
Hollywood before & after World War II
Schedule (PT) from the TCM website.
5:00 p.m. Stagecoach (1939). Cast: Claire Trevor. John Wayne. Thomas Mitchell. Andy Devine. John Carradine. Donald Meek. George Bancroft. Louise Platt. Tim Holt. Berton Churchill. Director: John Ford. B&W. 96 mins.
7:00 p.m. Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood – “Warriors & Peace Makers” (2010). Narrator: Christopher Plummer.
12:30 a.m. Pinky (1949). Cast: Jeanne Crain. Ethel Barrymore. Ethel Waters. William Lundigan. Basil Ruysdael. Nina Mae McKinney. Evelyn Varden. Uncredited: Juanita Moore. Director: Elia Kazan. B&W. 102 mins.
Cid Ricketts Sumner
 Author Cid Ricketts Sumner (born Bertha Louise Ricketts, 1890–1970) also wrote the novel Tammy Out of Time (1948), which led to the movies Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) and Tammy Tell Me True (1961), the former starring Debbie Reynolds, the latter starring Sandra Dee.
Cid Ricketts Sumner was bludgeoned to death at age 80 on Oct. 15, 1970, in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her (and James B. Sumner’s) teenage grandson, John R. Cutler, was charged with the murder.
Darryl F. Zanuck + Hollywood genetics
 Darryl F. Zanuck’s Nov. 1, 1948, Pinky memo reminding the liberal-minded Dudley Nichols not to let his political instincts get in the way of 20th Century Fox’s bottom line, can be found in Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox, edited by Rudy Behlmer.
See Juanita Moore as Susan Kohner’s long-suffering mother in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), or, for that matter, Louise Beavers as Fredi Washington’s mom in John M. Stahl’s 1934 version of that same Fannie Hurst story – even though Washington was part-black.
Juanita Moore, by the way, has a small role in Pinky, as a nurse.
From Peggy to Patricia
 Long before the mixed-race Pinky Johnson was transmogrified into the white Patricia Johnson, Marion Davies’ hillbilly Peggy Pepper was transmogrified into Hollywood star Patricia Pepoire in King Vidor’s 1928 silent comedy Show People.
Gloria Swanson had been the character’s – at least partial – inspiration.
‘Pinky’ box office gross
If the studios’ box office share of the last six decades or so (50–55 percent, with the rest going to exhibitors) was also applicable in 1949, then Pinky took in approximately $8–8.5 million in the domestic market. That would represent about $140 million in 2010 dollars.
‘Sacrilegious’ Italian import earns movies First Amendment rights
 The U.S. Supreme Court case “Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson” dealt with the U.S. release of the segment “The Miracle” – deemed “sacrilegious” by the National Legion of Decency – from Roberto Rossellini’s two-part 1948 Italian feature L’Amore. Anna Magnani starred in both segments.
In “The Miracle,” the future Best Actress Oscar winner (The Rose Tattoo, 1955) plays an dementedly Catholic goatherder who takes in a drifter – could he be St. Joseph? – who spends a wine-drenched night with her.
When she wakes up the next day, the stranger has disappeared. Could he have been a divine apparition?
Not long afterwards, the ever pious goatherder finds herself pregnant. Could she be a modern-day Virgin Mary?
Her fellow villagers don’t think so.
In “The Miracle,” future 8½ and Amarcord filmmaker Federico Fellini played the itinerant impregnator. In addition, he and Roberto Rossellini co-wrote the screenplay – predating by a few decades the more serious-minded Agnes of God.
 Joan Crawford’s nominal Warners debut was a cameo in screenwriter-director Delmer Daves’ 1944 all-star extravaganza Hollywood Canteen.
The other two segments consisted of Jean Renoir’s incomplete A Day in the Country (1936) and Marcel Pagnol’s featurette Jofroi (1934). The mishmash became the New York Film Critics Circle’s Best Foreign Language Film of the year.
Turner Classic Movies website.
Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh A Streetcar Named Desire image: Warner Bros.
Ethel Waters and Jeanne Crain Pinky image: 20th Century Fox.