This post is part of the “The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon”, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks so much, Crystal, for the opportunity to celebrate Ethel Barrymore, the lady of this great sibling trio! (Today’s also Miss Barrymore’s day of birth!)
One of Ethel Barrymore’s best roles, albeit within not much screen time, was of “Miss Em Wooley” in the emotionally charged drama, Pinky (1949). Directed by Elia Kazan, who wasn’t one to shy away from controversial topics, Pinky, which was about racial prejudice in the South, wasn’t exactly the easiest movie to watch. Even in a fictitious film of the 1940s, police brutality and racial profiling was just as real then as now.
Based upon the novel, Quality by Cid Ricketts Sumner, Patricia “Pinky” Johnson, a mulatto, has returned to her home in the coastal South, after living years away “up North”. By toiling away for years as the resident washerwoman, her black grandmother, Dicey, had sent her there for a better education and to become a nurse. It’d been a difficult life for Dicey, who’d been living in a shack and sending as much of her keep as she could spare to Pinky. But, she seldom complained. Her faith in the Lord and her pride in Pinky kept her going. Pinky only had her grandmother. She didn’t socialize with the blacks in town; they were equally distant to her, not knowing who she’d become as a person, nor really seeming to care. The whites were quick to remind her that she wasn’t one of them, regardless of her schooling and profession. Their idea about her didn’t bother her; she defended her race to them and strived to demand respect for her grandmother and herself. All the while, the sound of the train running through town each day and night continued to eat at her longing to return to Boston, back to freedom from prejudice, to hide from her race, and back to the white doctor who didn’t know her true heritage. Returning would mean holding on to a secret that would keep her away from her grandmother forever and the pull to stay with her and her people was just as strong as the call of that train. One of the most difficult moments came early in the film when Pinky confessed to her grandmother that she’d been passing for white and facing the denial of one’s race and ultimately life became the theme.
Miss Em, the elderly white owner of an old plantation in town, had befriended Dicey over the years while Pinky had been away. Dicey had been looking after her every day and by this time, she’d become gravely ill. It was to Pinky’s dismay that Miss Em could no longer care for herself, and she refused to use her professional training on her because of the way the old woman once treated her as a child. Being shooed away from playing in the garden of that spacious property had left an everlasting bitter taste in her mouth. Pained and disheartened by Pinky’s frosty response, Dicey let her know about the time that Miss Em cared for her during her own illness, which included staying in that ramshackle home with her, cleaning up after her, cooking her meals, and washing her up. With that, Pinky decided, for the sake of her grandmother, to become Miss Em’s nurse.
Pinky’s relationship with Miss Em was a bit combative and it offered Pinky insight into her own character that she hadn’t gotten up North. Both demanded respect from one another: Pinky for her professional training and Miss Em more so for her age and the fact they were in her house than her race. Back home, Pinky felt so hated by the southern whites and harbored a lot of hatred for them as well. The words, “Nobody hates you, Pinky”, coming from Miss Em startled her. She went into that job only to do right by her grandmother. She’d cared very little for Miss Em initially and over time, she realized she wasn’t the bigot she had believed her to be.
Miss Em continued to tell Pinky about the need to be one’s self – in this case to accept her own race, heritage, life, culture with no conditions – as Pinky struggled to determine within which race she belonged, in the North or South. She barely spoke of her life in Boston, but folks, especially Miss Em, figured she had been passing. After surviving the fight of her life following an intense and pivotal moment of the film, Pinky realized she had a way to follow her gut, to understand why she’d returned home. She was in the position to strengthen her own life and of those around her, and she took it on.
In addition to Barrymore, two additional dynamic actresses starred in this compelling film. Jeanne Crain, a white actress, was Pinky – a move that wasn’t without controversy as many believed a light-skinned black actress such as Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge deserved the role. Given the fact that her love interest was a white man, it probably just wouldn’t have been filmed at all – it was 1949. To me, she pulled it off beautifully. Ethel Waters played Dicey and gave that brow-beaten, kind-hearted, (sadly and frustratingly) illiterate, and oftentimes docile woman much empathy, heart, strength, and soul. Barrymore’s Miss Em’s commanding presence filled the screen and story – on camera and off; even when she wasn’t there, she was. Each woman was nominated for an Oscar (Crain for Best Actress; Waters and Barrymore for Best Actress in a Supporting Role), which went to Olivia De Havilland for The Heiress and Mercedes McCambridge for All the King’s Men respectively.
At least forty-five minutes into the film, after hearing all about this Miss Em, we finally see her. She’s primarily bedridden and that personality first comes to us by way of silence and a look. The moment she awakens from her nap to see that it’s the now-sleeping Pinky tending to her, Barrymore’s face full of shock and wonder does the talking. When she speaks, her solid determined tone reveals that no-nonsense woman with a dry sense of humor that we’d come to expect through Pinky’s memory and even by way of Dicey’s current description. Miss Em was still sharp as a tack, holding back nothing from anyone including her own nasty kin. She didn’t need to move around. Her biting wit and tongue-in-cheek facial expressions gave us everything and just as impressive was watching Crain hold her own against a Barrymore!
Racial tensions ran high in this hot and humid little town. In the discussion about a potential uprising against the black residents, one black character pointed out the shame of it all because he didn’t have fire insurance. I cringed at that. All he wanted was peace from the situation brewing in town so the whites wouldn’t burn down his house. These were the times. These are still the times. Back at home, Pinky constantly felt that she was being reminded of her “place”. In Boston, she didn’t seem to have one, nor had there seemed to be one that was told to be hers. She was comfortable up there and she wanted the same feeling at home, but she knew her desire was a dream. (Makes me wonder how she perceived the blacks living up there… another post for another time, I suppose.) It was Dicey that said something that has been ringing in my ears long after I watched the movie: “When folks is real friends, there’s no such things as place.” It summarized her relationship with Miss Em. It was also another way to say, “Can’t we all just get along?”