In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.
The COVID-19 pandemic had, for the past few months, temporarily muted much of the racial dissonance that exists in the US of A. Reporting on it hasn’t gone away, especially reporting on the three most egregious examples, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the widespread agonizing responses/accelerations of anger and angst in communities around America.
Still, we continue to be overwhelmed by the tsunami-like spread of the Coronavirus in the States and around the globe. Interestingly, frighteningly, data is slowly coming out about the disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos, and First Nations peoples who have become infected by the virus. The relationship between race and poverty, and of course, health services, are hardly counter-intuitive to many. That morsel of self-evidence aside, the films I will examine in this post speak a little at least to a centuries-long pandemic of intolerance that has barely begun to subside.
With that rather shallow summary of the state of the world, I want to present and discuss two outstanding films produced in the US of A in 1949: Intruder in the Dust and Pinky.
Part 2: Black and White in 1949
I was two-years-old when these two films were made. I am now seventy-three. My knowledge of the black experience has been largely formed by film, literature, and what used to be called, before 24/7 cable broadcasting, the evening news.
My ignorance of the American experience aside, I am in no way saying that Canada has not had its own experiences of racial division and xenophobic violence. Far from it.
Both Canada and the United States share a dreadful history, a protracted history of oppression and subjugation of minorities. When I look back at memories of my home town, a town I confess I did not examine very closely when I was growing up, I can see how insidious the racism, the blatant segregation was. Insidious as well was the lack of understanding I had about all of it. I can blame it on the times, I suppose, but no matter the cause, I regret how little we knew back then or, perhaps, how little we preferred to acknowledge.
My modest examination of these two excellent films will be fashioned through an aging Canadian lens. That will certainly colour the result. On the other hand, I try not to make too many assumptions or assertions. Consider this an amateur’s sampler.
Both Intruder in the Dust and Pinky originated as novels. William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust was published in 1948, and Quality, the source novel for Pinky, was written by Cid Ricketts Sumner and published in 1947. I have read Faulkner’s novel but not Ms. Sumner’s book.
Within a couple of years of publication, the two books were transformed into what appears to me to be, decades away from those times, as trailblazing films. Each address, in similar yet quite different ways, aspects of the racial gulf in America. Each offers an intense journey into the lives of the principal characters. Each leaves us, or at least me, second-guessing as to what might happen next in that unknowable landscape that exists once the cameras have stopped rolling, once the scriptwriters have headed home, once we have left the theatre wondering how these vividly imagined worlds will manage when left to their own devices.
Intruder in the Dust is, at its core, the story of a crime. Much more is unfolding, of course, but when xenophobia and murder are mixed in, you have all the ingredients you need for a heck of a thriller. Filmed in Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford Mississippi, it only takes a few celluloid seconds to be swallowed whole into the immediate aftermath of a sudden death. A white man is murdered: a black man has been arrested. As we follow the story down its dark and conflicted path, tension mounts. The accused is a solitary soul, a man out of step with those in the white community who want black men to know, to remember their place. The accused, Lucas Beauchamp, simply does not conform. For one thing, he owns his own property. For another, he walks proudly, a lonely man, perhaps, but sure and steady.
Juano Hernandez, in a breakthrough role, offers us a gripping and gallant portrayal of Lucas Beauchamp. For my money, Hernandez’s imposing presence is the best part of this excellent film. He demands respect in a world that refuses to offer it. He stands his ground, gives value when needed and withholds it to make a proud man’s point.
While the town simmers, while Lucas Beauchamp’s guilt is not challenged by many, a few faintly glimmering lights of compassion, of reason, of thought, emerge: a teenage boy, Chick Mallinson, played by Claude Jarman Jr., a young man struggling to understand the world he lives in; his young black friend, Aleck, played by Elzie Emanuel,
|N.B. Elzie also very briefly appeared in a powerful little 1951 film, The Well, that explores racial strife in a small American town. It was nominated for the Robert Meltzer Award in 1952. (See below for more details on Meltzer.)|
partnering in the investigation; and an old woman, Miss Eunice Habersham, feisty, (and played by the frequently delightfully cranky actress, Elizabeth Patterson, who some years later gained even more admirers playing Mrs. Trumbull, an initially crotchety, eventually sweet neighbour of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.)
A frivolous aside: I confess that when I hear Miss Patterson’s character’s name Habersham, I hear Miss Havisham, Dicken’s fine Great Expectations creation.
Dickens and my frivolity aside, the three sleuths conduct a most unorthodox investigation. Suffice it to say, their middle of the night reconnaissance in a rural graveyard unearths a most unpleasant but welcome truth.
I only want to give you a taste of what you will find in this movie or any of the movies I plan to lightly touch down upon. Anything else would be a spoiler. Trust me though, the tension continues.
Unlike the rapid tempo with which Intruder in the Dust begins, Pinky starts almost leisurely. A train whistle blows, smoke funnels out its stack, and as it passes from our view, we notice a worn fence shaping a modest dwelling. A second later, we see Jeanne Crain walking along a country road, a lane really, edged by a similar fence.
Pinky has returned home.
As Patricia (Pinky) Johnson’s story slowly unfolds, we learn that she has returned for a brief visit with her only family, her grandmother, Dicey (a winning performance by Ethel Waters.) And more of her truth comes out. In the north, where Pinky had gone to train as a nurse, she has been passing for white. She also has a lover, a white doctor who wants to marry her.
Forced into a crisis of conscience (her lover does not know her secret) she has fled home to weigh her options. Once there, she comes face to face with all the prejudice her new life had shielded her from. She is a known quantity. In some respects, she is neither white nor black and is mistreated by both communities. To complicate matters, her grandmother asks her to look after Miss Em, an elderly white neighbour (played by the always excellent Ethel Barrymore) who is quite unwell and who lives in a stately mansion. Pinky has no interest in the assignment but relents.
There is so much happening in this melodrama that to reveal anything else would not serve any eventual filmgoer who might imbibe. I will say that, somewhat like Intruder in the Dust, the legal system is called upon to address a singular act. This action leads to court and a most interesting judicial outcome.
Awards: The worth of a film is sometimes measured by the number of awards it garners. Intruder in the Dust received its fair share of accolades. Noteworthy amongst them were Juano Hernandez’s NYFCC Award nomination for best actor (losing to Broderick Crawford’s stellar performance as Willie Stark in Robert Rossen’s, All The Kings Men) and a win (albeit in 1951, two years later than its release date) in a now-retired BAFTA category, the BAFTA United Nations Award (awarded 1949–1976).
As for the tributes that were bestowed on Pinky, the three female stars of Pinky each were lauded by nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: Jeanne Crain as Best actress and Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters as Best Supporting Actress. No wins but still a fine acknowledgement.
Incidentally, both films shared a nomination in one short-lived category, the Writers Guild of America’s Robert Meltzer Award (Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene.) The story of Robert Meltzer, his short life and his death during WW2 and the subsequent honour afforded him by the Writer’s Guild of America and the reprehensible assault on his memory by HUAC in 1951 is captured here by his grandniece, Jennifer Bowman, in her blog, From This Perch.
A note about Elia Kazan: I imagine that many moviegoers back in the day would have had some inkling about the movie. Certainly, they would have been somewhat aware that the director, Elia Kazan, had rarely shied away from socially responsible, controversial films. I reviewed his next film, Panic in the Streets, in my previous column. Earlier, Kazan directed two of my most favoured films of 1947, Boomerang, a fascinating examination of political corruption and the ethics of criminal prosecution (and based on an actual 1924 criminal case ) and Gentleman’s Agreement, a multi-Academy Award nominee and winner that searingly dealt with anti-Semitism.
Kazan would go on to direct such classics as On the Waterfront and East of Eden. He would also earn the enmity of peers and colleagues by naming names as a witness in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.
A further note: One of the things that ties these two films together is the powerful performances of two black actors, Juano Hernandez and Ethel Waters. Some years later, they starred in a 1961 episode of Route 66, Goodnight Sweet Blues.
This particular episode of that iconic coming of age, hitting the road and seeing America show is considered one of the best. Aside from the two Caucasian stars, almost everyone one in the episode was black.
Also, Ethel Waters was nominated for an Emmy in 1962 for her Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. She didn’t win but was the first black actor to be so nominated.
George Maharis, Martin Milner, and Ethel Waters
Final remarks: Admittedly I have wandered around a bit in this column. I would like to end with a link to Ethel Waters singing Stormy Weather. Though it would be a stretch to suggest that the song reflects the angst and anger that festers in America, and any solutions are way beyond my retirement pay grade, the song does offer a mood of timeless loss that some may be sharing these days.
Thanks for reading .