Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB. USA, 1949. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Screenplay by Philip Dunne, Dudley Nichols, based on the novel by Cid Ricketts Sumner. Cinematography by Joseph MacDonald. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Music by Alfred Newman. Production Design by J. Russell Spencer, Lyle R. Wheeler. Costume Design by Charles Le Maire. Film Editing by Harmon Jones. Academy Awards 1949.
Years after she was sent away to nursing school to avoid the fate of her washer-woman grandmother (legendary singer Ethel Waters), Pinky (Jeanne Crain) returns to her Southern home a graduate who is running away from a serious problem. Her extremely light skin allows her to pass for white among those who don’t know her, a situation that we find out she exploited while living in the north and having a love affair with a medical doctor. Now that she has returned she is faced with a crisis of identity: return to the lowly status that she is afforded as an African American who lives in the shack below Ethel Barrymore‘s crumbling mansion, or go back north, pass for white again and reap the benefits of society. This Elia Kazan film is a rich, highly engaging soap opera from beginning to end, a film that grabs you from its opening scene and never lets go despite its many shifts in plot. Waters turns in an emotionally affecting performance, while Barrymore shines as the impoverished former Southern belle whose house is now a mausoleum of a time gone by. The film is a schizophrenic accomplishment in itself, a powerful statement against racism in America that is itself a proponent of segregation: Lena Horne campaigned quite hard for the lead role, her famously light complexion making her a perfect fit, but producers were too nervous to show a black woman, of whatever shade, kissing a white man, and cast Crain instead. With her touches of makeup to make her look more the part, Crain is never fully convincing physically, but she does turn in a rounded, engaging performance that carries the entire film with ease. Elia Kazan contributes some of the most effective directing of his career in this extremely satisfying work.