She was a BIG star of the 1940s, she even received an Oscar nomination for best actress, and yet she’s almost forgotten today.

She made some memorable films, and yet was never a favorite of directors. The estimable Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in 1949’s A Letter To Three Wives, put it succinctly: I don’t like Jeanne Crain.

But audiences did, and Crain emerged as one of 20th Century Fox’s biggest attractions of the 1940’s, appearing in nearly 25 films for the studio and pulling down the equivalent (in today’s dollars) or more than $35,000 per week by the early 1950’s.

She later shifted to Warner Bros., Universal, and to tv but always said she “loved” working at Fox — I grew up there. In all, Crain’s career, begun as a teenager, stretched nearly 30 years, and included more than 55 movie and tv credits.

Crain, a devout Roman Catholic who mothered seven children by the same father (former RKO actor Paul Brooks), took on some surprisingly daring roles during Hollywood’s most productive period. She was an audience favorite for very good reasons.

Pinky was her best film, says Joe. Frank agrees.

Just to be sure, he screened the picture with Jeanne Crain cast as a young nurse of mixed race confronting multiple difficulties passing for white. Remember, this is 1949, before the Civil Rights movement fully emerged, and segregation was still the rule in many parts of the U.S.

Pinky was among mogul Darryl F. Zanuck’s “message” pictures — Gentleman’s Agreement, The Grapes of Wrath — at 20th Century Fox. Wrote Zanuck biographer Mel Gussow:  Even today, ‘Pinky’ is a surprisingly relevant movie, and in 1949 it was nothing short of a shocker.

An eyebrow raiser for many was the casting of Crain in the title role. (She) by that time was Fox’s Miss Homespun America. Probably the only ‘whiter’ actress on the lot was Betty Grable. To direct the picture, John Ford — by then a three-time Oscar winner — was brought on. Ford didn’t tangle with Crain but with costar Ethel Waters (pictured above on the right), who plays Pinky’s grandmother.

Things got so bad that Ford was relieved of his assignment under the guise of illness. Zanuck then turned to Elia Kazan to finish the picture.

He got along well with Waters but found Crain to be disconcerting. I noticed that her face under all dramatic circumstances remained inexpressive; she floated through her role without reacting, Kazan wrote in his autobiography. I had to find a way to make an asset of this emotional passivity.

Whatever he did, it worked.  Pinky won Crain a best actress Oscar nomination.

Crain, born in Barstow, California in 1925, died of a heart attack in 2003, just two months after the death her longtime husband, Paul Brooks.

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