Issue 2

“Pinky”: Challenging and Changing the Production Code Administration

From 1930 to 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code helped guide and censor film creators in terms of what was appropriate or inappropriate for the general audience. As time progressed, the comments that the Production Code Administration (PCA) had on films went from recommendations to strict guidelines before being disbanded in 1968. While the PCA was strict in the beginning, they began to be more accepting of films that did not follow their guidelines. One such film was Elia Kazan’s 1949 film Pinky.

The production code was developed around the idea of protecting the youth and general audience in America from suggestive content in films, and the PCA was established to enforce this code. When the PCA first began evaluating films in 1930, they were essentially providing suggestions to the filmmakers rather than limiting what could or could not be shown. This changed in 1934 when the PCA adopted the policy that all films had to be certified by the board before they could be released. The PCA, fronted by Joseph Breen, was much stricter with their enforcement of the code and, as such, most filmmakers were required to censor their films more than they previously had to.[1] This lasted until the 1950’s, as America became more open and accepting of several of the aspects that the code sought to censor. As Doherty states, in the “mid 1950s… cracks appeared in the structure [of the PCA]”.[2] Pinky, released just before the wave of films that avoided heavy censorship, represents a changing of the thinking in the PCA.

Twentieth Century Fox released Pinky in November of 1949. The film follows a young woman named Pinky who is mixed-race but appears white. After going to school in the North to become a nurse, Pinky returns to the South to be with her aunt who lives in an African-American neighborhood. Pinky eventually becomes the nurse for a dying elderly woman named Miss Em. The two do not get along at first, but eventually set their differences aside. When Miss Em dies she leaves her large home to Pinky. Because of Pinky’s mixed race, one of Em’s relatives disputes the inheritance and Pinky must defend herself in court. Pinky wins the trial and sets up a school of nursing for young colored women. Pinky is a film that deals with how racial prejudice can have an impact on a person’s life. Pinky must deal with racial slurs, sexual assault and general despondence as she tries to navigate the racial tensions of the South during this time period.

For years the PCA was very strict about the content that was allowed to pass in films and, as such, films usually faced severe recommendations of cuts in order to be approved. Typically, film producers would submit the script for a film that they wanted to make, and the PCA would respond with suggestions for edits that should be made in order for the film to be approved for release. There was usually a back and forth between the producers defending their film and it’s vision, and the censors arguing what effect the film might have on the general audience. Jacobs has observed that the PCA would “gauge the public response to a film on a case by case basis, constantly refining their sense of what would offend reform groups or make problems for distribution or exhibition”.[3] However, the PCA review of Pinky was a relatively uncomplicated process. This could be a result of the PCA easing up their restrictions as time passed, or the PCA feeling that the content of Pinky was important for the public to see.

Pinky is based on a novel, Quality, that the PCA was able to read and provide feedback on before the script was written. One of the largest problems that the PCA had with the film was the portrayal of black and white people touching, which the producers of the film argued was not explicitly against the code. Pinky was eventually approved, and while the PCA did not have problems with the film in terms of its content, they did feel that they should advise the filmmakers on some of the ramifications that releasing the film might cause. After the approval of Pinky, the PCA suggested that the producers add in dialogue that would criticize the racist behaviors of Southern Whites, although this was not included in the film. Pinky is a film that, perhaps, shows a changing of the thought process of the PCA. Instead of trying to censor the film, the PCA advised the film through the review process. While there were several elements of the film that the PCA could have censored according to their guidelines, they chose to leave them in place.

Pinky is a film that has been investigated before, perhaps because its race-related themes and messages have stayed relevant throughout the years. In Cinema of Compromise Ginger Clark uses Pinky to contextualize and analyze post-war cinema.[4] The PCA review process of Pinky reflects the changing viewpoints of the PCA. After being in place for nearly twenty years, the PCA had changed their perspective on what was and what was not considered appropriate for films. Pinky specifically reflects this because, despite the fact that it violates several of the PCA’s guidelines, the film was still approved. With Pinky, it seemed that the PCA was more concerned with protecting the message of the film rather than protecting the general audience from the film itself. Some documents from the PCA review file specifically mention that there was not a problem with Pinky in terms of content, but that the PCA would have liked to make suggestions due to the fallout that they envisioned happening if Pinky were to be released. By analyzing these documents in relation to the content and message of Pinky, and how the PCA’s recommendations compare to the actual guidelines set by the PCA, it will become apparent that Pinky was a special and significant case evidencing a changing of the thought process of the PCA.

The PCA lists what they call “General Principles,” several of which Pinky breaks. Among them are the following: rape should never be more than suggested, miscegenation is forbidden, and indecent exposure is forbidden.[5] These are present in the scene where Pinky is harassed while walking home as two men grab her, attempting to rape her. The entire plot of Pinky revolves around the idea of miscegenation, as Pinky being mixed implies miscegenation and her relationship with the white Dr. Adams is shown several times throughout the film as the two embrace. According to Maltby, these “General Principles were the equivalent of a formal statement of generic convention, describing the ‘intended’ effect of plot on audiences”. [6] For this reason, it is apparent that the PCA may have been more willing to approve Pinky despite its breaking of the “General Principles”. The PCA had been around for about fifteen years at the time of its review of Pinky, and as such their views had changed. In a letter from S.S.J. dated March 31, 1948, the PCA stated, “We should not indicate to the studio that they should not or could not make the picture as a policy matter”.[7] As shown in the letter, it is apparent that despite its violation of the “General Principles,” Pinky was a film that the PCA felt should and could be made.

The PCA felt that the film tackled the relevant and important topic of racial segregation. By approving the film, despite its violations, the PCA showed their willingness to allow films that they felt could have a social, critical, and financial impact. In a March 18, 1949 letter, Harmon, speaking for the PCA, suggested including a line of dialogue in the courtroom scene that would state that Southern White people keep up appearances of being “high and mighty,” and that Pinky was a victim of a social system that “tolerates racial equality on the level of vice while opposing it on the level of virtue”.[8] This dialogue ultimately did not find a place in the film, but it certainly shows how the PCA felt the film could be used to spread a social message and promote racial equality. While the PCA would not outright state that they were attempting to use Pinky to deliver a message, their lack of censorship of the film suggests as much.

What is significant about the PCA review process of Pinky, however, is how they felt the public might respond to the release of the film. In a February 18, 1948 letter from the PCA to Jason Joy, the producer of Pinky, they felt that the film should avoid showing the touching of the white and black characters that occurs throughout the film.[9] Joy was in strong opposition of taking these occurrences out of the film and they were eventually left in the final film. What is of note is the reason that the PCA wanted to avoid showing touching between races. They felt that this would not be in violation of the PCA’s guidelines specifically, but rather that the film could cause problems in certain areas of the country, specifically the South. It is for this reason that, rather than censoring Pinky and preventing its release, the PCA provided the film’s producers with recommendations and guidelines in order to assist it through the censorship process.

It could be said that the PCA helped shepherd the production of Pinky in order to get it through the censorship process while still retaining the valuable message that the film was sending. In the same letter from Breen dated March 31, 1948, it is stated Pinky was not in violation of the code, however, they did advise the producers on some of the ramifications that could occur if Pinky were to be released. There were three primary effects; the first was that Pinky might experience difficulties similar to that of a film that portrayed “Negro children” from a film censorship board in Memphis. The second was that President Truman’s Civil Rights program was currently in progress. The program sought to provide basic equal rights to all people regardless of race. The PCA did not want to establish itself, and warned the producers of establishing themselves, as explicitly for or against President Truman’s program. The last was that more political censor boards might be established throughout the country, making it more complicated for films in general to find release. The letter also mentioned that Klu-Klux-Klan involvement was likely should Pinky be released.[10] While these notices did not specifically prevent the film from being made and released, it is interesting to note that the PCA felt it was necessary to inform the producers of what could happen. It appears that the PCA is looking out for the best interest of not only themselves and the general public, but also the quality and message of the film and its producers.

Pinky represents a significant turning point for the PCA and how they handled reviewing films. It is a film that in many ways violated several of the PCA’s guidelines for what was or was not acceptable in a film, and yet was still approved without much trepidation from the PCA. Thus, the film and its review shows how the PCA had begun to be more accepting and willing to allow material that they would have previously denied. While the PCA did have some suggestions for improving both the quality and the ability for it to be accepted by audiences, they were not suggesting as matter of policy. The PCA did, however, want to notify the producers of what might occur if Pinky was released, considering the condition of race relations in the United States at the time, especially in the South. When Pinky was released it did not matter that many in the South were against it, as it became Twentieth Century Fox’s highest grossing film of the year and earned three Oscar nominations. In a New York Times review, Crowther said Pinky gives “a vivid exposure of certain cruelties and injustices… with moving and disturbing force. And for this we can be eternally grateful for Pinky”.[11] Pinky is an important film not only because of how it displayed racial segregation in its time period,[12] but also in how it still has points that resonate today. By analyzing the film and its PCA review it shows the feelings that people in the 1940’s had towards racial segregation, both for and against.

[1] Richard Maltby, The Production Code and The Hays Office (Grand Design) 49-72

[2] Doherty, Thomas Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934. Colombia University Press, 1999. 

[3] Jacobs, Lea. “The Censorship of Blonde Venus: Textual Analysis and Historical Method” Cinema Journal 27, no. 3 (1988).

[4] Clark, Ginger. “Cinema of Compromise: Pinky and the Poltics of Post-War Film Production.” Western Journal of Black Studies 21, no. 3 (1997): 180. Accessed December 9, 2015. OmniFile.

Clark provides valuable insight into the making of Pinky, ranging from the differences to “Quality”, elements of the PCA review process and the behind the scenes production of the film. She also describes how the public reacted to Pinky, both positive and negative. While Clark’s piece does give a solid overview of Pinky there is less focus on the PCA review process and more on the actual production of the film. Clark discusses how and why the writers of the film were changed several times, and uses some other films from the era as examples.

[5] Bynum, Matt. “The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code).” Arts Reformation. April 12, 2006. Accessed December 9, 2015.

[6] Maltby, Richard. “The Production Code and the Hays Office.” In Grand Design, 37-72.

[7] S.S.J. Memo For The Files. March 31, 1948. Pinky file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 6, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan

[8] Harmon. Some Comments and Suggestions Regarding Pinky. March 8, 1949. Pinky file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 19, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan

Pinky. Directed by Elia Kazan. Twentieth Century Fox, 1949. Film.

[9] Breen, Joseph. Letter to Colonel Jason. S. Joy. Feb. 28, 1949. Pinky file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 10, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan

[10] S.S.J. Memo For the Files, 1948

[11]  Crowther, Bosley. “Movie Review – Pinky.” New York Times. September 30, 1949. http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B00E3D9133FE33BBC4850DFBF668382659EDE.