Image and Ideology in Kazan's Pinky

By Jones, Christopher John | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 1981 | Go to article overview
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Image and Ideology in Kazan's Pinky


Jones, Christopher John, Literature/Film Quarterly


Because of numerous factors, among which were the lessening of racial prejudice brought about by black participation in the war, and the exposure of Americans to the horrifying effects of racism in Europe during World War II, American film audiences of the late 1940's were ready for a treatment of racial problems that was more daring than what had been provided previously by the white-controlled film companies. During the war years, the Roosevelt Administration had applied pressure on the studios to produce significant pictures in which Negroes played consequential roles. As Donald Bogle points out, the government's motive was to help along its program of increased employment for Negroes in previously restricted industries.! Blacks began assuming heroic roles in such war-time epics as Bataan, Crash Dive, and Sahara (all 1943). Bogle singles out Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), and Robert Rossen's Body & Soul (1947), as films which included dignified, intelligent roles for blacks. Bogle also contends that the popular entertainer films of the earlier '40 's, epitomized by such classics as Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, had diminished in popularity due to the aforementioned factors and the critical failure of Walt Disney's stereotyped Song of the South (1946).2

The culmination of the trend toward black realism in the American cinema of the forties awaited the year 1949, with its unique cycle of pictures that tackled the race problem of America. These films all showed blacks at home in the United States, enduring the problems of civilian life, rather than the all-for-one, one-for-all heroics of war-time. Stanley Kramer's independently produced Home of the Brave dealt with the civilian re-adjustments of a Negro private who had cracked up under the strain of racial discrimination during the war. Louis de Rochemont's Lost Boundaries followed the critical success of Home of the Brave with a film treatment of a factual Reader's Digest account of a Negro doctor's family that had passed for white in New England for twenty years.3 1949 also saw a very well-received adaptation of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust, which starred the great black actor, Juano Hernandez.

The film in this cycle which seemed to receive the greatest critical success as popular entertainment was the Elia Kazan directed, Darryl Zanuck produced Pinky, starring Jeanne Grain in the title role and Ethel Waters in the supporting role of Aunt Dicey Johnson. The film was an adaptation from the 1946 bestseller, Quality^, a novel first serialized in the Ladies Home Journal. A reviewer for the New York Times characterized Quality as "conforming generally to the requisites of women's magazine fiction: including some fussiness in style, melodrama, typed characters (hard to avoid in fiction about the South), the emotional world of a schoolgirl's dream."5 Sumner also wrote two other novels, Tammy Out of Time and Tammy Tell Me True, which were adapted for the screen and which were popular successes irr both novel and film versions. These entertainments also featured dreamy adolescent heroines.

The film Pinky opens with a shot of a train carrying the nurse, Pinky, back to her hometown in the Deep South. The audience observes the white actress Jeanne Crain, as she portrays Pinky 's emotional upset after fleeing from her white boyfriend in the North. At first surprised by Pinky's kinship with the colored washerwoman Aunt Dicey, the audience suspends its disbelief and accepts the plot device. But, like Pinky, the audience remains troubled by the situation to which the heroine returns: the poverty of her grandmother's home, the humiliation by whites who discover her colored identity. While her grandmother steers her to accept her life in the black community, we shudder at the abuse she receives from a razor-carrying black woman with whom she has argued over some money, and at her mistreatment by white police who have come to her rescue and turn against her when they realize she is black.

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