Today is Sunday, so it’s time for another 100 New Code Films article. In all but four weeks this year, I am watching and reviewing two American Breen Era (1934-1954) films for the first time. In four of those weeks, I am only watching and reviewing one new Code film to equal 100 new movies in all. These articles are often blogathon entries, as well. I often decide to watch new Code films featuring particular actors so that I can participate in blogathons about those subjects. It is a great way to kill two birds with one stone!
Today’s topic is Pinky from 1949. Along with films like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and Johnny Belinda (1948), this movie is often listed as a notoriously controversy-stirring, Code-breaking film. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, it deals with racial prejudice and bigotry in a way certain to make certain viewers squirm. Like Johnny Belinda, it deals with a theme which was considered a PCA taboo. Whenever I hear about a Breen Era film which Hollywood historians insist “got around” the Code, I am eager to see that film and judge its Code compliance for myself. Thus, I decided that this year’s Barrymore blogathon was the perfect opportunity to watch this movie, which prominently featured Ethel Barrymore. I watched this movie on Amazon Prime Video this morning.
A very fair mixed race young woman returns to her black grandmother’s Southern shack after going to nursing school in the North. Although she has returned to the heavily segregated community, it is obvious that she has memories and secrets from her years in the North. Her grandmother has worked as a washerwoman for years to provide for her education, but she is disappointed when she deduces that the young lady passed for white up north. The young nurse faces more discrimination than her obviously black grandmother, since white and black people alike resent her for being so fair that she looks white. After two white ruffians try to take advantage of her while she is out for a walk at night, she determines to leave and go somewhere where she will be treated like a human being. However, just as she is packing, her grandmother tells her that her nursing skills are needed for the elderly white lady who lives in a neighboring mansion. Her grandmother loves the penniless old lady, but her granddaughter resents the way she lets her grandmother work for her for no money. Her grandmother finally convinces her to care for the old lady, since she nursed the old black lady when she had pneumonia. She goes and initially dislikes the strong-willed old lady. However, the two strongminded women soon grow fond of each other. Meanwhile, the young nurse’s heart and mind are further confused by the arrival of the young white doctor she learned to love up North.
This movie stars Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, and Ethel Waters. Supporting actors include William Lundigan, Basil Ruysdael, Griff Barnett, Frederick O’Neal, and Evelyn Varden.
This movie was directed by Elia Kazan. It was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. The production company was 20th Century Fox. The screenplay was written by Phillip Dunne and Dudley Nichols. It comes from the 1946 novel Quality by Cid Ricketts Sumner. This film was nominated for three Academy Awards, Best Actress for Jeanne Crain, Best Supporting Actress for Ethel Barrymore, and Best Supporting Actress for Ethel Waters.
This is a perfect Code film. My readers who have an average knowledge of the Code may be surprised to read this Code classification, since miscegenation is forbidden in the text of the Code. Although Pinky is played by a white actress, Jeanne Crain, the character is part black, so it is miscegenation when she plans to marry, embraces, kisses, etc. a white doctor (William Lundigan), especially after he is aware of her race. However, the miscegenation clause was not part of the original text of the Motion Picture Production Code, written by Martin J. Quigley and Father Daniel A. Lord. This clause was added by someone at the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to avoid censorship in the South, since helping films avoid censorship was as vital a task of the Code as providing decent content. If a new Production Code Administration were formed in the 21st century, the miscegenation clause would not be included, since it wasn’t part of the spirit of the Code. As this film illustrates, it was a rule which the PCA was willing to override if the film was poignant enough. There are a few other things which viewers might consider Code violations in this film. A few times, the insulting name for black people is used; although this racial slur was technically forbidden by the Code, its use was allowed in this film because the whole message of the film is combatting racial prejudice. Also, only unsympathetic characters used the word, other characters instead saying negro or colored. The other questionable element is a scene in which two white ruffians attempt to take advantage of Pinky. They are drunk, belligerent, and bigoted buffoons. Their intentions toward her are obvious, as they grab and try to kiss her. However, she is able to escape without any harm being done to her person. Men forcing themselves on women was not expressly forbidden by the Code’s text, as some assume. Section II, Article 3 of the Code, “Seduction or Rape,” states:
a. They should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method.
b. They are never the proper subject for comedy.
This film follows those rules, so the scene was not unduly suggestive. This is a wonderful, tasteful film which sends a message about equality, prejudice, and human dignity without pulling punches or giving offense. It should be an example to the activists of 2020.
I highly recommend this movie. The acting is amazing. Jeanne Crain gives an amazing performance in her only Oscar-nominated role. Although she doesn’t really look like there is African blood anywhere in her distant background, she gradually convinces us that she is a mixed race woman who has faced a uniquely difficult type of prejudice her whole life. Ethel Waters is magnificent as her Granny, Dicey Johnson, receiving the second Academy Award nomination for a black person for her performance. She is a very complex character, one of the strongest roles in the story. She is tender yet firm, loving yet ready to discipline, aware of her place yet full of self-respect, fearful of God and loving toward others. The third most important character is Miss Em, the wealthy old lady whom Pinky nurses, but I will write more about her in the next paragraph. William Lundigan plays Dr. Thomas Adams, the doctor whom Pinky learned to love up North. Although he doesn’t have much screen time, he too is a complicated character. He handles the discovery of Pinky’s racial background very well, yet he gradually reveals that he is less openminded than he says he is. Frederick O’Neal plays another multifaceted black character, Jake Walters, a dishonest but undeniably clever neighbor of Dicey. The cinematography in this movie is beautiful and very riveting. I don’t know if this movie was filmed on location or on a sound stage, but the Spanish moss dangling from the trees make the setting feel very authentically Southern. The contrast between Dicey’s shack and Miss Em’s mansion is stark, reminding viewers of the Slave Era origins of the area’s architecture. The train is also a running theme in the film. Its clatter and whistle are often heard in the background, representing Pinky’s desire to leave the area. The use of lighting is also very effective. The cinematography often left Pinky in shadows while other characters were in the light, showing her “dark” background. There is a minimum of dramatics and hokum. It is just a simple, concise, realistic masterpiece.
For the Blogathon
This is my entry in The Sixth Annual Barrymore Blogathon, hosted by Crystal Kalyana Pacey of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. I decided to write about a film with Ethel Barrymore for this year’s blogathon. For her performance as Miss Em, she received her fourth and final Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. I haven’t the three other performances which garnered this honor, but her performance in this movie certainly deserved it.
In this part, Ethel Barrymore was seventy but is supposed to be eighty. Her acting convinces us that she is near death. Although she spends all but a few minutes of her performance in bed, she is a powerful force in this story. She is only in about one third of the film, being only mentioned before we first see her and after she dies. However, her presence guides the course of the story even when she is offscreen.
Pinky and Dicey immediately disagree about Miss Em’s character and treatment of others. Pinky is outraged that Miss Em doesn’t pay her her grandmother, bitterly remembering how she chased her out of her garden as a child. Dicey regards Miss Em’s as a kind, generous woman and loving friend. Pinky is outraged at the idea of caring for Miss Em after she has another bout of heart failure, stating that she doesn’t care whether she lives or dies. However, after her grandmother tells her how tenderly she nursed her when she nearly died of pneumonia, Pinky realizes that she must return the favor. At first, she is very prejudiced toward Miss Em, assuming that the socialite is prejudiced toward her. However, they soon develop a mutual respect for each other.
Pinky gradually realizes what her grandmother told her, that “there’s no such thing as place when two people are true friends.” Miss Em respects and loves Dicey for her hard work, diligence, kindness, and devoted friendship to her over the years. She comes to respect Pinky for her devotion, knowledge, skill, and strength of character. She observes that Pinky is confused, torn between two worlds, and trying to run away from her identity. She tells her that she has to be herself. Ultimately, Miss Em’s advice in life and generosity in death lead Pinky to find her true calling. She is thus able to find fulfilment for herself in helping others, acknowledging, embracing, and loving exactly who she is.
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