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Tag Archives: William Lundigan

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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Dishonored Lady (May 16, 1947)

Robert Stevenson’s Dishonored Lady is a classic piece of slickly produced fluff from Hollywood’s Golden Age. It has a little something for everyone; romance, sex, courtroom drama, murder, and psychotherapy.

The stunningly beautiful Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr plays Madeleine Damien, the art editor of Boulevard, a chic Manhattan fashion magazine. Exhausted and unhappy with her life of constant parties, dates in nightclubs, drinking, and meaningless affaires de coeur, she attempts suicide in the most sensible fashion imaginable, by driving her car straight into a tree. Luckily for her, it’s a tree on the front yard of the home of psychiatrist Richard Caleb (Morris Carnovsky), and she’s not seriously injured. Dr. Caleb declares that she has no bones broken, but that she needs the courage to face herself, which she’s unwilling to do. Dr. Caleb drives her to the train station and says, “Miss Damien, you’re an intelligent woman, not an idiot. Can you promise me one thing? When you get ready to throw yourself off Brooklyn Bridge Bridge, will you come and see me first?” He gives her his card and she smiles a little. Maybe there’s hope for her after all.

On Monday morning, however, little seems to have changed. Madeleine arrives at work accompanied by that frenetic orchestral music that’s always used in movies from the ’40s to accompany Manhattan street scenes. She appears to be the only woman on the editorial staff of Boulevard, but she’s no shrinking violet. She refuses to be intimidated after she kills the art layout of one of their most prominent advertiser’s spreads, calling it not art, but “a press agent’s dream.” That night, however, she meets the prominent advertiser, Felix Courtland (John Loder), and accepts a ride home from the tall, gray-haired, mustachioed, dapper, handsome, and very wealthy gentleman. After backpedaling on her decision on the art layout, one of her bitter co-workers, Jack Garet (William Lundigan), tells her exactly what he thinks of her and the way she lives her life.

Distraught, she sees Dr. Caleb, and through good old-fashioned talk therapy, realizes how much she hates her life. She was always trying to emulate her father, a successful painter who loved and left more women than he could count. Madeleine adored her father, and thought he was the happiest man in the world. Until he killed himself, that is. Dr. Caleb convinces her to find her true self. She quits her job at Boulevard, gives up her apartment, and moves into a cheap, one-room flat under the name “Madeleine Dixon,” where she pursues her painting.

It just so happens that one of her neighbors is a big handsome lug named David Cousins (Dennis O’Keefe), a pathologist working on a report called “The Effect of Anti-Reticular Serum on Cell Tissue.” He needs some medical illustrations of blood cells done, and Madeleine is just the person. Madeleine and Dr. Cousins fall in love, but she can’t bring herself to admit to him who she really is, and all the details of her past life, even after he proposes marriage.

Her past life comes back to haunt her in the person of Felix Courtland, who finds out where Madeleine is living, and comes a-courting. With David out of town, she unwisely accepts his offer of a night on the town, and becomes embroiled in a murder investigation in which she is the prime suspect.

Will David be able to accept Madeleine after he learns the truth about her and realizes that she’s been lying to him all along? Will Madeleine be able to forgive herself? Or is she heading for a one-way trip to the gas chamber?

Dishonored Lady, which was re-released under the title Sins of Madeleine, is based on the 1930 play Dishonored Lady by Edward Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Barnes. It’s competently made entertainment elevated by Hedy Lamarr’s performance. She’s beautiful to look at, and she strikes a nice balance between wide-eyed vapidity and muted sadness.