Pinky (1949): Kazan’s Oscar-Nominated Interracial Message Picture, Starring Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters

Elia Kazan’s Pinky, the melodrama of a fair-skinned black girl who passes as white, belongs to the cycle of social problems films of the late 1940s, many of which were made by Fox under the control of studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, reflecting his liberal politics.


For Kazan, this was a follow-up to his 1947 Oscar winning drama, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which tackled the issue of anti-Semitism. Interestingly, Kazan was not the first choice for helming; Zanuck first offered the job to John Ford, the premier American filmmaker at the time, who shot for two weeks but didn’t get along with Ethel Waters and didn’t like the script, credited to.


Under contract at Fox, Jeanne Crain was a second (or third) tier star-actress (“Leave Her to Heaven”) and her performance is one of the reasons why “Pinky” is inferior to Gentleman’s Agreement and other social problem features. Craine plays the eponymous Pinky (Patricia Johnson), a label used in the black community to describe those whose skin was light enough to be able to pass as white. (A similar character was played by Susan Kohner in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 interracial melodrama, “Imitation of Life”)


A bright youngster, who’s studied nursing at a New England school, Pinky courts the kind white physician Dr. Thomas Adams (William Lundigan), who would like to marry her. But the insecure Pinky believes that the interracial aspect would always be a problem, and she also suspects that Adams is doing it out of tolerant politics rather than love or passion for her.


Thus, she returns to her birthplace in the South, where her grandmother Dysey Johnson (Ethel Waters), works for the sickly but firm matriarch Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore). Pinky becomes the old woman’s nurse, taking care of her needs up until her death. As a gesture of gratitude, Miss Em leaves the estate to Pinky but, expectedly, her family contests her will because Pinky is black, claiming that the girl has put influence and perhaps even pressure on the grand dame.


In the last reel, the conflict is taken over by the courts, where Pinky wins the estate. In the not entirely convincing ending, her victory motivates her to turn the place into a nursing home and school for blacks.


Kazan shot “Pinky” quickly, in nine weeks, and opted not to use any of Ford’s previous footage. By today’s standards, “Pinky” is disappointingly simple and verbose, but in the 1940s, it dealt with a relatively new subject for mainstream Hollywood. And half a century later, some scenes remain sincere, touching, and powerful.


Already established as a brilliant actors’ director, Kazan coaxes great performances from his entire cast, and all three women received Oscar nominations for their roles.


This was Jeanne Craine’s first and only Oscar nomination. Ethel Waters was the first black actress to be nominated for an Oscar after Hattie McDaniel in 1939, for “Gone With the Wind.”

Ethel Barrymore, sister of John and Lionel, had been nominated before (“The Spiral Staircase,” “The Paradine Case”) and had won the Supporting Oscar in 1944 for the Cary Grant vehicle, “None But the Lonely Heart.”


Released by Fox on September 30, Pinky was one of the top ten grossing films of 1949, generating more than $4 million in domestic rentals.


Oscar Nominations: 3

Actress: Jeanne Crain

Supporting Actress: Ethel Waters

Supporting Actress: Ethel Barrymore


Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1949, the winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Olivia De Havilland for William Wyler’s literary adaptation “The Heiress; it was De Havilland’s second Oscar after winning for “To Each His Own” in 1946.

Waters and Barrymore probably cancelled each other out, and the Supporting Actress winner was Mercedes Mccambridge for “All the King’s Men,” which swept the Best Picture and other Oscars.


Black and white

Running time: 102 minutes