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Tag Archives: Elia Kazan

Pinky (Sept. 29, 1949)

Pinky
Pinky (1949)
Directed by Elia Kazan
20th Century-Fox

Elia Kazan directed a lot of great movies. Pinky is not one of them, but there’s a great movie somewhere in there that’s struggling to get out.

The biggest problem with the film is that Jeanne Crain, the actress who plays Patricia “Pinky” Johnson, is wildly miscast.

Pinky is based on Cid Ricketts Sumner’s 1947 novel Quality, which is about a light-skinned African-American girl who “passes” as white.

Crain is as white as white can be, and to accept her as the granddaughter of the character played by Ethel Waters requires a willing suspension of disbelief. Crain’s physical appearance is only part of the problem, however. Her performance is never convincing either.

Pinky is a character who was raised by her grandmother, Dicey (played by Waters), in the Deep South, but who passed herself off as white after she went north to study nursing. She has a fiancé, Dr. Thomas Adams (William Lundigan), who has no idea about her racial background. When he finds out, he’s progressive enough to tell her it shouldn’t matter, but he acknowledges the racist and segregated world they live in. “It’s a tricky business,” he says to her. “You never know what exists deep down inside yourself.”

At no point in the film does Crain seem like she actually grew up in the Deep South community in which Dicey lives. It’s believable enough that she changed the way she spoke when she was “up North,” but at no point does her mannered demeanor crack, no matter how angry, scared, or sad she is.

Waters and Crain

Kazan knew that Crain was the wrong actress for the role, and probably made the best film he could with what he had to work with. The original director of Pinky, John Ford, dropped out of the project because he didn’t get along with Ethel Waters, and Crain was already cast as the lead when Kazan took over.

In the book Kazan on Film, he said, “The only things that were not mine, which are a hell of a lot, were the script and the cast. It was the last time I ever allowed that. Jeanne Crain was a sweet girl, but she was like a Sunday school teacher. I did my best with her, but she didn’t have any fire. The only good thing about her face was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is part of what ‘passing’ is.”

A much better choice for the role of Pinky would have been an actress who was actually mixed race, like Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge (both pictured below), or Hilda Simms.

Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge

If a white actress absolutely had to be case as Pinky, Linda Darnell would have been a much better choice. Jennifer Jones or Yvonne De Carlo wouldn’t have been terrible choices, either.

Crain, on the other hand, seems like stunt casting done for shock value. For instance, Melba Wooley (Evelyn Varden), one of the most odious characters in the film, exclaims after meeting Pinky, “Why she’s whiter than I am! It just gives me the creeps.”

The only interesting thing about having Crain in the lead is that it draws attention to how inextricable the concept of race was from the social struture of the segregated South. For instance, when two police officers show up after Pinky is arguing with a black man and a black woman, their attitude to her is solicitous and deferential. But as soon as her “true” race is revealed, they manhandle her and throw handcuffs on her.

Later in the film, when Mrs. Wooley is unable to get a store cashier to interrupt her transaction with Pinky to pay attention to her, she raises her voice loud enough for the manager to hear and says, “Since when has it been your policy to wait on nigras before white folks?!”

Like every film directed by Elia Kazan, Pinky is worth seeing at least once. Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters both turn in excellent performances, and films from this era that tackle racism head-on are extremely rare. Still, after watching Pinky I was left considering what might have been.

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The Sea of Grass (April 25, 1947)

Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass premiered February 26, 1947, in Lincoln, Nebraska. It opened in New York City a day later, and went into wide release on April 25, 1947.

In his review of the film in The New York Times on Friday, February 28, Bosley “The Grouch” Crowther referred to the film as “Metro’s new cow-or-plow drama,” which is the best and most succinct description of the film imaginable.

This was Kazan’s second film — his first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Boomerang (1947), which I reviewed earlier this year, was his third.

The Sea of Grass is the story of a high-born St. Louis woman, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn), who marries a cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy), and leaves the comfortable world of high society for a rough-and-tumble life in a place called Salt Fork, in the Territory of New Mexico. Brewton legally owns very little of the hundreds and hundreds of acres over which his cattle roam, but he fought and bled for the land, and he’ll be damned if any pussy-footing sodbusters are going to come in and reap the rewards he feels he earned for himself. Brewton’s connection to the land is full of mystical reverence, and he’s distant from people, including his wife. Lutie is driven into the arms of Brewton’s mortal enemy, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) — a lawyer who fights for the rights of homesteaders — just long enough to wind up carrying Chamberlain’s child. Lutie returns to Brewton and bears him a second child, a son named Brock (they already have a girl named Sara Beth).

When Brewton discovers that he has been cuckolded, he gives Lutie a choice. She can either leave and take Brock with her, exposing him as a bastard, or she can leave alone and he will raise Brock as his own son. Tearfully, Lutie takes the latter option, and lives in exile. Sara Beth grows into actress Phyllis Thaxter, and Brock grows up into snivelling punk Robert Walker. Brock’s true parentage seems to be an open secret in and around Salt Fork, and he responds by drinking, gambling, sneering, and throwing lead into anyone who disparages him. He’s an early-20th-century rebel without a cause, and tragedy always seems right around the corner whenever he’s onscreen.

The Sea of Grass is based on the 1936 novel by Conrad Richter. Kazan was so attracted to the material that he specifically asked MGM if he could direct it. (Kazan was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, but it wasn’t an exclusive contract, and it allowed him to work with other studios.) His vision was of an on-location shoot that would last months, featuring unknown actors with leathery faces and a grand sense of scale that would express the drama and sadness of a way of life in America that is dead and gone.

There are hints of this in a few scenes. The few sweeping shots of the pre-Dust Bowl prairie land of the Great Plains, with the gently rolling oceans of grass that give the film its title, are unspeakably beautiful. But for the most part, The Sea of Grass is a melodrama that’s soapy enough to wash your car with.

Kazan was restricted by the studio to shooting on soundstages, and he found directing Spencer Tracy nearly impossible. Tracy was in a bad way during the making of the film, and he was drinking heavily. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s muted and deeply subdued, as though he’s only partly present most of the time. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, is histrionic, and very nearly a haughty parody of herself. There are moments of great visual excitement in the film, such as a violent confrontation between homesteader Sam Hall (James Bell) and Brewton’s men during a windstorm. At more than two hours long, however, The Sea of Grass offers very little in the way of the kind of action I look for in a western, and the soapy drama it’s packed with is pretty turgid.

Boomerang (March 5, 1947)

Boomerang is another fact-based drama produced by Louis de Rochemont, the maker of the “March of Time” series of newsreels. Like de Rochemont’s other films, The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), it features stentorian, “newsreel”-style narration by Reed Hadley, a number of the actual participants in the case playing themselves in minor roles, and a commitment to verisimilitude that is less cut-and-dried than the filmmakers would have the audience believe.

For my money, Boomerang (or Boomerang!, as it appears on the cover of a notebook in the opening credits) is far and away the best of the first three films de Rochemont produced. A great deal of that is due to the direction by Elia Kazan.

Kazan was coming off the success of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), but he was still better known for his work in the theater than in Hollywood. I think that Kazan’s enormous talent as a film director and his strong visual sense are often underestimated, but there’s no denying that he was an actor’s director. The actors in Boomerang all turn in powerful, fully realized performances, and I think a lot of that is due to Kazan’s experience directing for the stage.

Boomerang is based on a real case that took place in 1924 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (To sidestep raw feelings, the production was filmed in Stamford.)

A beloved priest named Father Lambert (Wyrley Birch) is killed by a single .32 caliber bullet fired point blank into the back of his head on Main Street one evening. When a prime suspect does not immediately materialize, the reform party newly in power is lambasted in the press, which leads to overzealous police tactics, which means plenty of round-ups and arrests, but not much else. Finally, a drifter named John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) is picked up by police in Ohio. Waldron has a .32 revolver in his pocket, was passing through Connecticut at the time of the murder, and is identified by numerous eyewitnesses as the shooter.

Waldron also makes a signed confession, but only after he’s subjected to days of intense grilling by police chief Harold F. “Robbie” Robinson (Lee J. Cobb) and Detective Lt. White (Karl Malden), as well as a parade of other police officers and a psychiatrist, Dr. William Rainsford (Dudley Sadler).

It seems like an open-and-shut case, and a slam-dunk for State’s Attorney Henry L. Harvey (Dana Andrews), but after talking to Waldron, Harvey has doubts about his guilt, which he shares with his wife, Madge Harvey (Jane Wyatt), before doing some investigating of his own.

When called upon to make his case in court, Harvey says, “I thought I had the case going perfectly straight and then all of a sudden it comes back and hits me right between the eyes.”

Boomerang brilliantly depicts a number of concepts that were fairly new to the public at the time of its release — the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, especially a large group of eyewitnesses, and the idea that a man who was not guilty of a crime might still make a full confession to police under duress.

Kazan also shows exactly what abuse of power looks like. It’s not committed by scheming men of pure evil, it’s committed by police officers like the one played by Lee J. Cobb — decent men with a strong moral code who are desperate to make a conviction, and are absolutely sure that they have the right man. Kazan also does a good job of weaving a story of petty, venal, small-town politics into the larger crime story and courtroom drama.

The character Dana Andrews plays is based on Homer Cummings, who would go on to be the U.S. Attorney General under Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it’s not a biopic. It’s also not a wholly nonfictional telling of the real case, since there’s a character created from whole cloth named Jim Crossman (Philip Coolidge), who may or may not have murdered the priest, and who seems to have been created purely to satisfy audience members who need to see some sort of justice done.

Luckily, false notes like the Crossman character are few and far between in Boomerang.