RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Jeanne Crain

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.

Advertisements

A Letter to Three Wives (Jan. 20, 1949)

A Letter to Three Wives
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
20th Century-Fox

At the 22nd Academy Awards in 1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz received two Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives. One was for best director and the other was for best screenplay. (A Letter to Three Wives was also nominated for best picture, but didn’t win.)

The film was based on a novel by John Klempner originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1945. The novel was called Letter to Five Wives, but the original script for the film version omitted one of the wives and was called A Letter to Four Wives.

Mankiewicz felt the shooting script was still too long, so he cut out one of the four wives. (Sorry, Anne Baxter.)

A Letter to Three Wives is divided into three sections, each dominated by a flashback sequence.

The first section focuses on Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) and her husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn), who met when they were both serving in the Navy.

The second section focuses on Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), a writer of radio dramas, and her husband George (Kirk Douglas), a schoolteacher.

The final section of the film focuses on Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and her husband Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), an appliance-store magnate.

While each section focuses on a different couple, this is not an anthology film. The viewer meets all the characters in the early going, but sometimes just for a moment. Watching A Letter to Three Wives is a little like being introduced to a rush of people at a party. As the evening wears on, you become better acquainted with everyone and you learn how their lives intersect in often messy and hilarious ways.

A Letter to Three Wives takes place in an upper-middle-class Eastern community that’s 28 minutes from the big city, or “23 if you catch the morning express,” as Addie Ross tells the viewer. Addie Ross is the most beautiful and alluring woman in town, and although her presence dominates the film, we never see her. We only hear her voice as she cuts in to narrate and comment on bits of the story. (Addie Ross is voiced by the uncredited Celeste Holm).

Rita, Lora Mae, and Deborah are on their way to help run a day trip for underprivileged children when they receive a letter from Addie informing them that she’s leaving town for good, but she’s not leaving empty-handed — she’s taking one of their husbands with her. The three friends are forced to board the boat, and all of them stare longingly at the public telephone on the dock as they drift into the water. They won’t be able to find out which one of their husbands is missing in action until the day is done.

Sothern Darnell and Crain

Mankiewicz directed some fine films before this one, including the Gothic thriller Dragonwyck (1946), the film noir Somewhere in the Night (1946), and the brilliant romantic comedy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), but A Letter to Three Wives is head and shoulders above all of them.

Mankiewicz was a witty, intelligent, and acerbic writer-director, and A Letter to Three Wives shows him in top form. It’s one of the smartest and funniest films I’ve seen from the ’40s about marriage and the American class structure. Deborah is a farm girl and never feels at home with the country-club set she’s married into. Rita has a demanding, high-paying job, and she makes a lot more money than her schoolteacher husband. Lora Mae is a trophy wife to a fabulously wealthy, boorish, and bullheaded man.

Kirk Douglas, who plays Rita’s schoolteacher husband, is fantastic in this film, and delivers one of the most eviscerating speeches I’ve ever heard about anti-intellectualism and the idiocy of appealing to the lowest common denominator. And Paul Douglas, who plays Lora Mae’s husband, gives a phenomenal performance as well. He was a stage actor, and this was his first appearance in a feature film, but he owns the screen, and would go on to have an interesting career.

A Letter to Three Wives is a masterpiece of scriptwriting and direction. Addie Ross is really just a plot device to tell a character-driven story, and toward the end of the film, I realized that I’d been told a very different story than the one I thought I was watching.

Leave Her to Heaven (Dec. 19, 1945)

Can there be such a thing as a film noir in color? I don’t think there can, but the term noir has been so widely used, popularized, and bastardized that director John M. Stahl’s Technicolor adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’s novel Leave Her to Heaven, made during the heyday of noir in Hollywood, is often referred to as a rare instance of a film noir in color.

A year after she starred as the eponymous Laura (Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic that is also frequently referred to as a noir even though it really has very few characteristics of one, aside from being filmed in black and white), Gene Tierney created a memorably unhinged character named Ellen Berent.

When we first meet Ellen, the first thing we see is her beauty. Sitting across from novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) in the lounge car of a train, surrounded by green walls, her dark hair and pale face offset by her bright red lips, she looks like a porcelain doll come to life. Quickly, however, we notice something else. The way she is staring at him is predatory. The way she doesn’t speak for a long time after he answers a question is strange. She is beautiful, but there is something wrong with her. We can guess, however, that his relationship with Ellen won’t have a happy ending.

If only Richard saw what the audience can see. Of course, the audience also has the advantage of a framing device. In the first scene of Leave Her to Heaven, we see Richard return to Deer Lake, Maine. His friends and neighbors look at him strangely. As they whisper among themselves, we learn that he has just gotten out of prison after a two-year stint, but we don’t know what the charge was.

Most of the story is told in flashback. Beginning with the scene on the train, we see how Richard fell into Ellen’s clutches. After they disembark, they find that they are both guests at Rancho Jacinto, in New Mexico, where Ellen has gone to scatter her father’s ashes. After telling Richard several times how much he looks like her father (even though a framed photograph of the man looks nothing like Cornel Wilde), the scene in which the stone-faced Tierney rides a horse and scatters her father’s ashes in the mountains is one of the most striking in the picture. When Richard agrees to marry her soon after, it is at her urging. Marrying her is something he thinks he wants, but the words “Will you marry me” never escape his lips. He is caught in her web.

After their marriage, Ellen and Richard go away to his cabin in Maine. She resents the intrusion of anyone else into their lives, such as her sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) or Richard’s younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), who is recovering from polio, and her resentment has deadly consequences.

Ellen is devious, but it’s not always clear how conscious she is of her own cunning. Although the other characters speak of how unnaturally close she was to her father, and how she loves with a childish ferocity that can be dangerous, the viewer is not privy to any deeper psychological insights. There are no scenes of her childhood or flashbacks to any trauma that might have precipitated her madness. It’s refreshing to have a character with sociopathic tendencies that have no pat explanation, but some insight into the jealousy that drives her might have helped flesh out the character.

So what is it that makes Leave Her to Heaven a film noir? The classification is a slippery one, and has become popular enough that nearly every black and white film from the ’40s that is not a musical or a comedy has been called a film noir at some point. In one of the first treatises on the subject, the 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953, French film critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified the five main facets of film noir. They said that it is “oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.” Over the years, the term film noir has grown to encompass certain stylistic elements as well. Stark black and white cinematography and unbalanced constructions that grew out of German Expressionism are both hallmarks of noir, as is a pervading sense of doom.

So does Leave Her to Heaven contain any of these elements? It certainly could be called “strange,” but it’s not particularly dreamlike. It’s not very erotic, either, since Ellen seems to capture Richard in a web that is more psychological than it is sexual. Her actions are sometimes cruel, but the picture as a whole is not terribly ambivalent. Ellen may arouse feelings of both pity and hatred in the viewer, but she is still presented in a straightforward way. She has no crises of conscience or confusion about what she wants. And the lush Technicolor cinematography really pushes Leave Her to Heaven out of the noir category.

Leave Her to Heaven is a melodrama with a couple of shocking scenes, a sociopathic main character, and a courtroom denouement that drags down the pacing of the picture, but which does feature an enjoyable performance by Vincent Price as one of Ellen’s old flames who is now a prosecutor. It is not a film noir, unless we can divorce style from content. The absence of black and white cinematography and a real sense of doom (or a truly unhappy ending) means that Leave Her to Heaven just doesn’t qualify as a film noir. Of course, this shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing it. Whatever its genre, it’s an effective film with an interesting performance by a beautiful actress who didn’t exhibit a great deal of range in any of her roles, but who is chilling in this one.

Leave Her to Heaven was Twentieth Century-Fox’s highest grossing picture of the 1940s. Tierney was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, and Leon Shamroy won an Oscar for best cinematography in the color category.

State Fair (Aug. 30, 1945)

StateFairState Fair was the first musical made specifically for film by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their two previous musical collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, were both stage productions. (Although both would eventually be made into films in the ’50s.) State Fair was based on a novel by Philip Stong that had previously been made into a non-musical film in 1933 with Will Rogers.

Margy Frake (Jeanne Crain) and her brother, Wayne (Dick Haymes), go to the Iowa State Fair with their parents (played by Fay Bainter and Charles Winninger) and their prize hog, Blue Boy. Margy and Wayne are both somewhat dissatisfied with their current significant others, and each find someone a whole lot more exciting at the fair; she a cavalier reporter played by Dana Andrews and he a flame-haired singer played by Vivian Blaine. Things go well for both, but can their love affairs outlast the fair?

Musically primitive and relentlessly cheery, State Fair injects life into its clichéd proceedings with charm, humor, and some cartoonishly outsized, Technicolor images of middle-American excess. And Andrews (who played the detective in the 1944 noir classic Laura) is rakishly charming, almost but not quite a thug, and always fun to watch.