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20th Century Fox presents

Pinky (1949)

"Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn't."- Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore)

Stars: Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters
Other Stars: William Lundigan
Director: Elia Kazan

Manufacturer: Deluxe Digital Studios
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:41m:35s
Release Date: 2006-01-10
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B A-C+C+ C


DVD Review

20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck took immense pride in producing one socially conscious, groundbreaking film each year—a prestigious picture that would address a controversial topic with intelligence and emotion. In 1947, he tackled anti-Semitism with the Oscar-winning Gentlemen's Agreement; in 1948, he exposed the plight of the mentally ill in The Snake Pit; and in 1949, Zanuck took on the explosive subject of racial prejudice with Pinky, a delicately told yet searing indictment of Southern bigotry. Though times have changed—somewhat—in the 50-odd years since Elia Kazan directed this thoughtful, beautifully acted drama, the subject matter still possesses a quiet power. Some wounds just never heal, and as long as there's a racial divide, be it narrow or gaping, Pinky will strike a chord.

Far from a sweeping, bleeding heart epic, the film uses a small canvas and intimate focus to make a big point. Just as Rosa Parks would take a stand six years later, changing laws and altering attitudes by a single significant act, Pinky chronicles one woman's brave, lonely battle to keep what's rightfully hers. To do so, she must stare down an oppressive establishment, risk losing the love of her life, and most important of all, embrace her heritage. The latter task is especially difficult for Patricia "Pinky" Johnson, whose very pale black skin allowed her to slip under the racial radar and "pass" for white while attending nursing school "up North." When Pinky arrives back in her small, segregated, and close-minded Alabama hometown, her impoverished yet wise grandmother (Ethel Waters), who lives in a dilapidated shack and makes a meager living washing the dirty duds of white folks, condemns her appalling, shameful behavior.

Pinky, though, is equally appalled—not to mention disgusted and frightened—by the subhuman way blacks are treated in the South, and how they must endure the demeaning slurs, jibes, taunts, and physical abuse of uppity whites. As she struggles to assimilate into her own community and gain a measure of self-respect, Pinky must also fight her desire to leave it all behind and resume her secret northern life, which includes a love affair with Tom Adams (William Lundigan), a white doctor unaware of Pinky's race. Tom, of course, unexpectedly shows up and learns her secret, but when Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore), an elderly white dowager whom Pinky has been reluctantly nursing at her grandmother's insistence, bequeaths her stately home and property to Pinky, her life takes an unexpected turn. The mysterious act ignites a legal and racial firestorm, and forces Pinky to look deep within herself and reevaluate her future.

Believe it or not, "passing for white" was a common, hackneyed theme in 1949, but Pinky doesn't sugar-coat the issue or make the heroine's romantic conflict the focus of the film. Refreshingly, it's not whether Tom will find out Pinky is black, but how the couple will deal with the problems inherent in forging a life together that, in part, drives the drama. Pinky also subtly and astutely shows how prejudice cuts both ways, as its black characters view whites with equal suspicion, hatred, and ignorance. Neither race seems to desire a harmonious coexistence; each wants only to be left alone.

Pinky's message would be easy to oversell, but Kazan avoids a preachy tone. Known for deftly handling sensitive subjects, the director keeps melodrama at bay, and lets his characters bring the story and themes to life. He uses the camera as a recording device, not an artistic instrument, and his straightforward narrative style preserves the script's simplicity.

Of course, Pinky's major problem—then and now—is that a white actress plays the title role. Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge would have been perfect in the part, but Zanuck (who was only willing to ruffle feathers, not rock the world) cast white-as-snow Jeanne Crain—and then forbid her to darken her skin. Interracial romance was such a taboo topic at the time, Zanuck felt he had to soften the blow by depicting it only in theory. As a result, the landmark kissing scenes between Tom and Pinky don't seem quite as shocking and controversial as they should, because deep down we know we're watching an all-white couple.

Though it's difficult to suspend our disbelief to the degree the film requires, Crain eases the burden with a surprisingly sincere, unaffected portrayal. Rarely regarded as anything but a fresh-faced ingénue, Crain—under Kazan's guidance—files her finest performance, and was justly rewarded with a Best Actress Oscar nomination (as were Barrymore and Waters in the supporting category). Does Crain ever really make us believe she's black? Of course not. But her conviction and steely resolve allow us to accept her, and accept the story—the importance of which transcends any casting anomalies. Pinky is all about tolerance, so to rebuke this perceptive, inspirational drama over a color issue indigenous to the period in which it was made means we're either missing the point or rejecting the message.

And that would be unfortunate. Pinky may be dated and, at times, awkward, but it's an absorbing, affecting film. Its vital themes still apply, and stretch beyond race to encompass all forms of social and political prejudice.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Fox usually offers up stellar transfers of its classic films, but the studio drops the ball with Pinky, which looks only slightly better than a standard VHS presentation. From the opening frames of the Fox logo, plenty of grit, scratches, and grain afflict the image, and the age-related defects persist to varying degrees throughout the movie. A bit of wavy instability rocks the title credits, but thankfully subsides once the drama begins. Severe contrast, however, lends Pinky a bleachy, washed out look that adds a false harshness to Joseph MacDonald's cinematography. On the plus side, solid black levels and fine shadow detail punch up picture quality, and help alleviate the faint fuzziness pervading the transfer. Fox has revamped the packaging of its classic titles (see below), but let's hope it hasn't abandoned the quality image standards that distinguished its previous Studio Classics series.

Image Transfer Grade: C+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Imperfections hamper both the stereo and mono tracks as well. The largely soft-spoken dialogue can be difficult to decipher on occasion, and Alfred Newman's intermittent score suffers from a shrill, tinny tone. At the 57-minute mark, an unexplained and rather jarring level boost clears up the dialogue problems, but also amplifies the track's persistent hiss, and makes some faint crackles more noticeable. Fourteen minutes later, however, the fidelity decreases, and remains weak for the balance of the film. Although it's easy to forgive such deficiencies, especially considering the movie's advanced age, it would have been nice if Fox had deemed Pinky important enough to merit a complete remaster.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+ 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Kenneth Geist
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: In addition to the film's original theatrical trailer, which touts the "important" nature of the film and its esteemed cast, the only extra included is an astute and involving audio commentary by Kenneth Geist, a film historian and biographer. Geist begins by recalling his somewhat negative reaction to Pinky when he saw it as a 13-year-old during its initial run in 1949, and although he has reassessed the movie since, he still offers several candid criticisms. Geist recounts Pinky's colorful production history, including anecdotes about original director John Ford and his clashes with Ethel Waters, and discusses the various differences between Dudley Nichols' original draft of the screenplay and Philip Dunne's more conservative and uplifting revisions. Though most of his comments are scene specific, Geist interweaves biographies of Waters and Ethel Barrymore, and quotes liberally from the memoirs of Elia Kazan, noting how the director turned Jeanne Crain's emotional passivity into highly effective tension. At one point, he inadvertently refers to Miss Em as "Aunt Em" (the segregated South may have been another world, but it certainly wasn't Oz!), but that's Geist's only gaffe in this otherwise intelligent, incisive, and expertly delivered track.

It bears mentioning that Fox has revamped the packaging of its classics, and included a couple of noteworthy goodies. Pinky arrives in an attractive cardboard slipcase featuring the film's original poster art on its cover. Inside, a foldout pamphlet with three panels of mildly interesting production notes by Sylvia Stoddard accompanies the disc, along with four black-and-white, postcard-sized scene stills printed on high-quality paper and encased in an envelope. Let's hope Fox continues to enhance its classic releases in this fashion.

Extras Grade: C

Final Comments

Pinky may no longer be an explosive, taboo-busting drama, but its themes of intolerance and individualism continue to resonate a half-century later. Director Elia Kazan wrings beautiful performances from Crain, Barrymore, and Waters, and though the transfers fall short of Fox's usual high standards, this disc still merits attention from both classic movies lovers and those who appreciate films with a social conscience. Recommended.

David Krauss 2006-04-06