Pinky | Twentieth Century Fox | Elia Kazan (/John Ford???) | 1949

A year or so ago I watched A Letter to Three Wives (1949) for the first time. Whatever its qualities as a film (it’s great!), it happened to perform the valuable service of bulldozing my cocky film history know-it-all know-how by starring three actresses with whom I could not have been less familiar. And then a few months ago or so I watched The Model and the Marriage-Broker — one of a handful of wonderful little treatises on big-city alienation smuggled into Hollywood by George Cukor in the early 1950s — and who shows up but Jeanne Crain?? So I’d seen her in Letter, seen her in Model, and by this time I was savvy enough to recognize her as a Fox-exclusive actor with strong potential as an esoterica detour through a studio that I really know next to nothing about. The Fox star stable has always been weird as shit. Like of all uber-successful leading men in Hollywood, Tyrone Power has to be the least name-recognizable in this day and age. And just recently I watched The Gay Deception, admiring the imported screwball conventions while taffy-twisting my brain in shock and awe that the leads were anathema to me.

In brief, there’s more to Fox than Ford and Mankiewicz and some other scattershot auteurs, and it’s my mission to excavate that bizarro-world studio like a true cineaste. And that mission begins today! After brief research on Jeanne Crain, I learned about this movie Pinky, which I was shocked to never have heard of before. For one thing, it’s about the nebulousness of racial identity. For another, it was directed by the one and only Elia Kazan, during the what I can only assume to be fascinating period between sanctimonious gag-fest Gentleman’s Agreement and his golden streak-inaugural Panic in the Streets. And for still another, John Ford played some part in this too?! And so, after not having watched a damn thing in weeks, I sat down to watch this bad boy.

And where to begin??? Its politics are bonkers. Jeanne Crain has too much pride in her blackness to put up with Southern racism. In the North, she claims, she has been treated with dignity. But hold on there a minute! She got by in the North by passing for white, which she could easily do down South were it not for her pride. So is the regional disparity a matter of ugly cud-chewing rednecks vs. more genteel racism (as exhibited by her love interest)? That makes sense to me, but the film seems at pains to frame it the opposite way; the way Pinky talks about it, the North is the land of milk and honey, and by staying in the South she’s making the ultimate sacrifice. But wait! Even in those naive terms…what is the sacrifice she is making? So instead of sticking with a charisma-vacuum of a New England doctor, she gets a fancy ruling class-bequeathed mansion and tons of money? But because she’s embracing her blackness it’s sacrificial? So, you know, #problematic alert. But it’s not like she had to learn to embrace her blackness; she was adamant about it from the start. So is it that she’s finally braving the White Supremacist South? Well that doesn’t make much sense because her ‘noble’ pride-softening journey is in large part about recognizing that white folks ain’t so bad. Which brings us to the Ethel Barrymore character…it’s easy to ‘get’ her character, but trying to map it out on paper…she basically incarnates this idea that certain aristocratic Southern whites steadily accumulate an all-redeeming bitterness that vaporizes them into free-floating clouds of sage-like wisdom, by which they ascend to a cosmic realm high above the petty racial attitudes and inter-familial gossip of their acquaintances. That’s all pukeworthy and inexplicable, and far be it from Kazan or Cid Ricketts Sumner or whoever else to actually unearth the ideological mechanism by which this process takes place. And so, like, what exactly is this movie’s vision of racism in America? Beats me. And err, best not to even get started on the institutional hypocrisy of the Hollywood establishment even trying to tackle this kinda subject matter with a white actress in the lead role and without a black voice in any way guiding its production.

But I still liked this movie a lot. Crain’s face is locked and loaded with righteous resentment fixed to spring into the most laudatory ‘fuck white people’ outburst, and Kazan is generous enough with sequences of ambulatory drift, as Crain & camera weave through thick, humid, shadow-carved spaces, that you can just relish Pinky in her silent, resolute personhood for extended periods of time. So while the politics may slide around like an air-hockey puck, Crain as some kind of physical emblem of fraught racial identity is firmly rooted. The local racists are sufficiently and credibly nasty, and the crane-shot almost-rape scene lends nuance to Pinky’s victimhood by addressing its sexual dimension. In fact, I love that this is a movie about complex relationships among women and that every man seems like he’s made out of plywood. That fucking asshole doctor…”well, I know rationally that there is no difference between the races, but…” Gimme a break dude!!! He’s the forties version of today’s ‘colorblind’ conservatives and I love that I now have a fictional antecedent I can point to for why that attitude is so unbearable.

It feels good to be back in the blogging game folks.

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