Saturday, April 24, 2010

Jeanne Crain vs. Susan Kohner

TCM is showing the movie Pinky tomorrow morning at 11:00 AM. Like both versions of Imitation of Life, the subject material is that of a light-skinned black person trying to "pass" as white, and the discrimination that comes about as a result.

In Pinky, that mixed-race person is played by the utterly white Jeanne Crain. She's a nurse, who has gone north to study and get her degree, and is only briefly returning south to see her beloved grandmother (Ethel Waters). Unfortunately, events soon begin to conspire against her. She's fallen in love with a white doctor up north (William Lundigan), and hasn't told him about the black part of her ancestry. Perhaps worse, though, is that the property-rich but cash-poor woman for whom Pinky's grandmother works (Ethel Barrymore) has suddenly taken ill.

Eventually, old Miss Barrymore finally kicks the bucket, but there's a twist: sometime after she fell ill and started to be taken care of by Pinky, she amended her will to bequeath the stately old house to Pinky, presumably with the idea that Pinky stay there and start up a school/clinic. Pinky didn't really want the place, but when the other white people start to conspire against her, including Barrymore's cousin, who expected to inherit the place herself. Cut to the probate court trial, with the typical Hollywood ending....

Pinky isn't a bad movie, but there's a lot about it that just seems not quite right. The ending is entirely too pat, for starters. Also, William Lundigan's character is thoroughly implausible. I mean, his fiancée has been lying to him, and when he finds out, he acts almost as though nothing has ever happened. It's a bizarre case of cognitive dissonance. As for the prejudice in general, one has to wonder how much it reflected reality. Fox chief Daryl F. Zanuck was clearly interested in making movies with social messages -- he had already made Gentleman's Agreement two years earlier. Yet, the feeling of racial oppression suffered by the blacks in Pinky feels almost like a caricature. (Admittedly, I wouldn't know what things were really like from the perspective of either side, as a northerner born in the 1970s.) That might have something to do with the Production Code, of course. On the other hand, all three of the female leads give good performances. Nothing less is to be expected from the two Ethels, but even Jeanne Crain is good here. She comes across as restrained; entirely the opposite of Susan Kohner in Imitation of Life.

Pinky is one of those Fox movies that TCM has gotten the rights to show a limited number of times. However, you don't have to worry about TCM eventually losing those broadcast rights, as Pinky has been released to DVD.

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