Made when Jim Crow laws ruled the South, Pinky tells the tale of a young, light-skinned black women who passes for white. Patricia “Pinky” Johnson (Jeanne Crain) leaves her home in Mississippi to be educated as a nurse up North. On the train ride to college, the ticket-taker assumes she is white and she doesn’t correct him. So begins her deception. While in nursing school, she meets a young doctor (William Lundigan) who falls in love with her. Fearing her secret will be discovered, she returns home to the grandmother who raised her. Up North she was treated with dignity and respect. Down South, she’s treated with cruelty and suspicion. Dicey Johnson (Ethel Waters), Pinky’s illiterate grandmother, worked as a laundress to send Pinky to nursing school. She hoped her granddaughter would return home and help her own people. But Pinky wants no part of this. She’s had a taste of a better life.
|Jeanne Crain and Ethel Waters|
Zanuck was criticized for casting Crain, a white actress as Pinky, but he was convinced that audiences would identify with Crain. Zanuck hypothesized that they would experience racial prejudice through Crain’s characterization. Apparently, Zanuck was correct. In Bosley Crowther’s September 30, 1949 review of the film in The New York Times, the sometimes-acerbic critic said, “By giving a winning personality to the much-abused girl Jeanne Crain successfully channels resentment against these bitter experiences to you.”
|A pivotal scene between Crain and Ethel Barrymore|
Besides the film’s focus on the evils of racism, it has a universal appeal. There is an underlying theme that you need to be true to yourself, something that Pinky’s character struggles with throughout the film. She could have had an easier life if she married her doctor boyfriend, moved up North, and never revealed her background (which was his plan for the two of them). When she finally embraces the fact that she is black, she is truly free. She establishes “Miss Em’s Clinic and Nursery School,” on the property the old woman left her, thus fulfilling the dreams of her grandmother.
Pinky was a huge box office success, one of the biggest of the year in fact. All three actresses received Academy Award nominations. Crain was nominated in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category, while Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters competed against each other in the Best Actress in a Supporting Role category. All three were shutout. Crain lost to Olivia de Haviland (The Heiress), Ethels Barrymore and Waters lost to Mercedes McCambridge (All The King’s Men).