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Friday Film Review: Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life (1959)
Genre: Melodrama
Grade: B

Our reviewer John is the one who urged me to see this film. A weepy with a wardrobe for the principal star that is to die for. Though I’m not a fan of melodrama, especially the grand 1950s ones, the clothes aspect drew me in, shallow creature that I am. Considering that I thought the movie was nothing but overwrought angst, I was surprised to find that I like it as much as I do. I doubt I’ll ever become a true devotee but there is much more here than might initially meet the eye.

Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter Susie meet Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane in 1948. Both Lora and Annie are single mothers struggling to survive in NYC. Annie is seeking employment in a place that will allow her to keep her daughter with her and despite Lora being unable to pay her much, black Annie and her much lighter skinned daughter move in with pale blonde Lora and her equally blonde daughter. Lora is an aspiring actress and we see her dejected, returning from days of hounding casting agents. Meanwhile Annie works her fingers off and comforts her daughter who bitterly resents not being the white girl she can “pass” for. Steve Archer (John Gavin), a photographer who met them all the day they all met each other, begins to date Lora who finally gets her big break when she impresses a NY playwright with her insight into his latest creation. The film is filled with these improbable moments which simply must be accepted. Soon Lora is the new, rising star of the NYC theater world, though she casts Steve aside in her quest for fame.

Flash ahead ten years and all the women now live in a lavish country house paid for by Lora’s wealth. Annie is still happy to “do” for Lora, Susie (Sandra Dee), who longs for her mother’s attention, is off at boarding school while her mother continues to single mindedly pursue her career, and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) increasingly hates who she is and how her skin color limits her future prospects in life. Steve moves in and out of their lives which are shown to be darker than initially they would appear. Annie is heartbroken when Sarah Jane rejects her and denies who she is in order to pass for white, Susie is still hurt by her mother’s lack of attention to her and Lora continues to swan through life being a star. It takes a “full box of tissues” tragedy to bring the women together again and the movie to a close.

If, like me, you aren’t a fan of gushy melodrama, there are other things to see in this film. Producer Ross Hunter wanted his usual “women’s” picture filled with beautiful people, wearing beautiful things and living in beautiful places – a glossy soap opera with sets deserving of a full color spread in Ladies Home Journal. Director Douglas Sirk gave him that but also made the kind of picture he wanted to make which was a critique of a Ross Hunter film plus a biting look at stardom and, more importantly, race in America. This version of the story differs significantly from the book upon which it’s based as well as the 1934 film of the same name. Here the white woman is seeking fame as an actress rather than success as a business woman while the black woman is content to remain a servant. Not having seen the earlier film nor read the book, I can’t say how the character of Susie differs but here, Annie and Sarah Jane provide the storyline which interested me most. And believe me, at times it’s hard to watch.

IoL is gorgeous to look at with lush colors for the clothes and carefully color coordinated backgrounds that emphasize or de emphasize certain aspects of the film. The house is lovely though Sirk’s camera angles and the shadows make it seem as if it’s closing in on the characters as the film progresses. Lana Turner’s wardrobe is amazing but in a deliberately OTT way. She dresses and struts like a Movie Star – as she herself had been taught by the studio in real life. The bling is also stunning. Lora could signal her location to overhead search planes if she were ever stuck on a desert island. Sandra Dee is given a perky, teenage wardrobe plus a pink, froo froo bedroom – all of which emphasizes how privileged, yet juvenile, her life is. In contrast Moore is almost always dressed plainly in navy, gray or black. Her dresses might get better as time goes on but she always dresses like a servant. Sarah Jane, though only a year or two older than Susie is years ahead of her in the more adult clothes she has and the way her room is decorated which suits the problems she faces, many of which she brings on herself.

While the beauty of Lora and Susie’s lives might catch the eye at first, I soon found myself far more interested in Annie and Sarah Jane. Lora emotes and overacts, Susie is so sugary sweet and bubbly she makes my teeth hurt but they can both whine and be totally self absorbed in their troubles which in the end are seen for the superficial issues they are. This side of the film does serve as Sirk’s commentary on ambition and Hollywood. While part of me cheered Lora’s determination to succeed and her refusal to give into Steve’s demands that she give up her ambitions as an actress, some of me cringed at the cold, bitchiness she displays and her willingness to give up or put on the back burner almost every relationship in her life for it. Lana Turner is lovely to look at but for most of the film, she looks as if she’s acting. It’s a very staged performance but it still works since the character of Lora is an actress as well. Dee is the epitome of the Grease song “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee.” I’m not sure if she was like this in real life or just forced into that role for the public but in all the movies I’ve seen her in, she plays the same – cute, bouncy and perky. Could she have played better roles had Hollywood been willing to put her in them?

In contrast, what comes between Annie and Sarah Jane is real, painful and not something easy to put aside. This isn’t the first Hollywood film to feature racial issues but since it was made in 1959 it served to show something of what had gone on for years and also emphasized the racial tensions sweeping the nation. Some of the stunts Sarah Jane pulls do prove the saying “more sharper than a serpent’s tooth.” Is SJ annoying? Yes. Does she have a reason for what she thinks and how she acts? Maybe yes. She’s seen her mother work as a domestic, seen that other blacks are limited in what they can do, where they can go, how society views them. She’s also seen – first hand – the opportunities Lora has and that Susie will have. She tells her mother that she’s tired of “living in the back” and doesn’t want to be limited to chauffeurs, cooks and other servants as potential husbands. She’s seen the black butler at the house. She doesn’t want her children limited and scorned. Is that reason to hurt and reject her mother? No but SJ is up against the ingrained racism of the time that was only just then being changed – little by little though. Susan Kohner, herself a mixed race child though of Mexican/European Jewish parents, does a fantastic job here. All the anger, the bitterness, the envy and, yes, the love for her mother is there in Kohner’s acting. Though I do wonder why a light skinned black woman wasn’t cast in the role as had been done in 1934. Still Kohner deserves her nomination that year for Best Supporting Actress.

Juanita Moore got the opportunity to play a large role, something few, if any, black women got a chance at then. She also deserved the Oscar nomination she shared with Kohner (though neither woman won). Still a lot of the lines she’s given make me cringe. She volunteers to do Lora’s laundry because she “likes taking care of pretty things.” She’s always there with a pat, down home truism to ease the white characters’ worries. It’s she who basically supports their little family during the lean times by cleaning their apartment steps and taking in laundry in addition to keeping the apartment they live in. Then once the money begins to roll in, she still keeps the lovely home they move to even though she puts aside money for SJ and for a lavish funeral for herself. But it’s in the scenes where she tries to soothe her child’s hurt feelings and get SJ to accept who she is rather than lie that get me. The heartbreak on Annie’s face when she realizes just how far SJ will go to achieve her goals, breaks my heart as well. Moore might have to play the saint but she does it with dignity and quiet grace. And when she gets her lavish funeral, she goes out like the Saint she is. I maintained dry eyes for most of the film but Mahalia Jackson’s powerful singing had me reaching for a hankie.

Oh, the men in the movie? Steve is basically a handsome Ken doll for most of the film – nice to look at but asexual to the point where we might be forgiven for wondering if he’s anatomically correct. Robert Alda – Alan’s father – is the slightly sleazy agent. But since this is a women’s picture and focuses on them, the lack of strong men is actually not a problem.

This movie makes me think. I’m not so much into weepy melodrama but I do like the thinking part and there’s a lot here to muse on. What should we pay for success, are material things worth it and most importantly, what possible difference should our skin tone or eye color/shape or any other physical features make in our opportunities in life? Watch it for the flash, listen to what should be called the Lush Lux Orchestra with their soaring violins, but think about the deeper message Sirk is trying to convey. B

~Jayne

If you want to watch it right now, someone has loaded it in 13 parts to youtube.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

21 Comments

  1. Inez Kelley
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 05:28:36

    This movie is one of may favorites. Yes it is dated and there are some stereotypical stuff happening but I never turn the channel if I stumble across it. I always viewed Annie’s role as one generations of Blacks, accepting her place in society and her daughter as the changing tide, the generation who outwardly and vocally demanded more equality. I ALWAYS want to smack Sandra Dee but then I despise that type of character, anyway. Compared to Sarah Jane, she was superficial and childish, which highlighted SJ’s character. And where SJ could be seen as selfish at times, she truly loved her mother and that did come through.

    And yes, the funeral song will make you cry.

  2. cate
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 06:12:50

    I have to say that this is one of my mother’s favourite films – but then she also adores all those uber glossy, ultra weepy Douglas Sirk films . Personally I blame it on the technicolour effect on all those impressionable 1950’s twenty-somethings living in gray Britain ! However I can forgive this film a lot thanks to Mahalia Jackson. I remember watching this with Mamma as a young teenager & sobbing my eyes out at the singing. So I can lay my addiction to gospel and jazz music right at this films door !
    As for the film itself – C- for me, somewhere out there there’s a little film called Pinky which did this subject better .

  3. Roslyn Holcomb
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 07:28:42

    Ah, the tragic mulatto meme. Oh how Hollywood loves thee. Still this is a fave of mine, especially during PMS when I need a good weepy. Last year someone compiled a list of the greatest weepies. This movie and Old Yeller didn’t make the cut. Obviously a bogus list.

  4. Jayne
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 07:32:23

    @cate: The only other Sirk film I’ve seen is “Lured” a London set 1947 mystery with Lucille Ball.

    I’ll add “Pinky” to my Netflix queue.

  5. cate
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 07:41:50

    @Jayne: Here’s a few names for your netflix queue …..Magnificent Obssession,- All That Heaven Allows, -Written On the Wind all Douglas Sirk, and all utter bosom heaving, snot spewing , hanky wringing melodrama’s of the sort that they don’t make any more (thank goodness !!!). I have to go and lie down in a darkened room now – I’m having 80’s teenage flashbacks :)

  6. Hydecat
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 09:14:22

    I watched this movie, the 1934 version, and Pinky for a class focused on racial passing narratives. It’s been years, but I recall thinking that the 1934 version and Pinky(1949) told the “tragic mulatta” story in a more complex and interesting way than the 1959 film. The 1934 version of Imitation of Life is definitely less glossy and doesn’t have the same distraction of pretty clothes and the star-actress glamour.

  7. Melissa Blue
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 09:56:51

    This is one of my mother’s favorite movies. One, there’s Mahalia Jackson singing. Two, this movie hit close to home for her. I’ve never watched it. Wasn’t sure if I could stomach the issues brought up. Maybe I’ll try out Pinky instead.

  8. Evangeline Holland
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 11:14:05

    @Hydecat: Yes, Pinky and the 1934 version are less glossy and more flint-eyed (well, as much as Hollywood was willing to be in the 30s and 40s) than Sirk’s version of Imitation of Life. However, I like the story as a period piece, and not as a true narrative of America’s racial issues. Despite the heart-wrenching conflict between Delilah/Annie and Peola/Sarah Jane, the story is largely devoid of their inner narratives, and in Sirk’s version, Sarah Jane’s attempts to pass are written like typical 1950s teenage rebelliousness. Both films (and the book) also largely erased any vestiges of black American life until it goes all out in the spectacle of the black church, which made Annie’s funeral sort of like a musical interlude mostly put on for the enjoyment and curiosity of white audiences (though I find Delilah’s funeral in the 1934 version less show-like and actually from the POV of Peola and the black mourners).

    I find Sirk’s oeuvre very compelling, though I’m rarely moved unless the actors are very strong (i.e. Jane Wyman, Dorothy Malone, et al), but I’m more of a wise-cracking 1930s screwball comedy girl, so I don’t often watch these type of films.

  9. Bettie
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 11:53:29

    While I love Douglas Sirk, this is my least favorite of his–probably because I first saw it at an age when I was particularly annoyed and personally offended by tragic mulattoes. The 1934 version of this movie with Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers as the mothers, and Fredi Washington in the Sarah Jane role, is a smaller, more intimate film. The 1959 version is bigger, brighter, showier–and, as mentioned above, features Mahalia Jackson–but I didn’t hate Peola (the Sarah Jane character) in the ’34 version.

    It is also really interesting to notice the way Hollywood wrote the role of a light-skinned African-American woman when she was played by an actual light-skinned African American woman, as opposed to the 1959 version which featured a white woman in the role.

    My favorite Douglas Sirk film is All that Heaven Allows, which, I think, contains one of the most subtly emotionally brutal interactions between grown children and a parent in cinema. Also, it makes a nice double feature with Todd Haynes’ 2002 Sirk homage, Far from Heaven. Forbidden love! Suburbs! Yearning! So much to cry about–and it’s all in glorious Technicolor!

  10. Bettie
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 12:05:28

    @Evangeline Holland: I’m with you on the 30’s films. Preston Sturges is a favorite director for comedies, but I also adore a good, tawdry pre-code movie. Except for the last five minutes, Female (1933) is kind of amazing, even by today’s standards.

    Note to mods: Edit comments isn’t working.

  11. Tina
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 12:27:39

    I too watched both the ’34 movie and this one. And while I think on a more critical level the Claudette Colbert/Fredi Washington version works better, the soapy-melodrama lover in me can’t help but love the Sirk version more. While I liked Peola much better than Sarah Jane, this version has Lana-effin’-Turner in all her trembly lip, arched eyebrow glory! LOL. And of course that magnificent Mahalia Jackson song that never fails to make me a bit weepy.

    I also have to give a shout out to other Sirk movies. There is nothing better on a rainy, dreary afternoon but to curl into a comfy sofa and fall into a glossy 50’s soap opera.

  12. JoanneF
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 12:34:21

    This movie brings back strong memories for me. My sister and I watched it in our teens and cried buckets of tears. We still get teary-eyed whenever we discuss it. They don’t make them like that anymore – thank God. If I want a good cry, I’ll check my bank balance.

  13. Estara
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 16:04:13

    Wasn’t that a Sirk movie where Rock Hudson as a spoiled playboy crashes his speedboat or something, and the rare emergency cpr thingy makes him come back alive but a well-respected doctor hero has to die because he can’t get it? And then the playboy wants to pay his respects to the widow but she runs out of the house and has an accident and goes blind? And then the playboy studies eye medicine and operate on her, after she has fallen in love with him not knowing who he is?

    That is an.. AWESOME movie and I know it was Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. So it must be Sirk?

  14. Evangeline Holland
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 16:07:47

    @Bettie: Sturges is also a fave of mine, and too I love a good Pre-Code (Red-Headed Woman, Scarface, The Miracle Woman, etc). I kind of rationalize and reinterpret the last bits of Female (I wonder if the studio forced the writer to do some last minute changes) since everything up until that point is so sexy and subversive.

  15. Bettie
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 16:58:46

    @Evangeline Holland: That’s exactly the way I think about Female, too. I haven’t seen The Miracle Woman, but your mention of it made me go look it up. I can’t believe I somehow skipped a Stanwyck pre-code!

    P.S. Your mention of Red Headed Woman reminded me that I haven’t seen it in a few years. Shame on me. Anita Loos wrote some great stuff. I just saw San Francisco (1936) a bit ago, and it was awesome: Anita Loos screenplay, young Clark Gable, young Spencer Tracy, fantastic disaster montage, and a plot that will strike many romance readers as familiar.

  16. Karla
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 20:43:14

    @Estara: That’s Magnificent Obsession

  17. Leni
    Feb 25, 2012 @ 01:15:56

    I’ve seen this version along with the one with Claudette Colbert and both versions touch me. Before watching either one, there was talk about the movie and how it was one I should watch. There was a kind of mystery to it because no one wanted to tell me too much about it just that it was something that was a must.
    It’s been quite a while and this post brings back memories.

  18. Emme Adams
    Feb 25, 2012 @ 16:02:29

    Ah, I guess my mother and I split the difference– I like the ’34 version and she likes the ’59. I think my Mumz sees the ’59 version, with all its glamor and melodrama, as somewhat distancing her from the realities of growing up in an Af-Am community in the ’30s that was ambivalent about “passing.” Both versions still bring out the boo-hoo in me, and crying at movies is atypical for me.

  19. Marguerite Kaye
    Feb 26, 2012 @ 08:44:22

    I first saw this as part of a double bill with Love Story. I went with a very sceptical 13 year old heart determined not to enjoy Love Story (I didn’t either, I loathed it) but IoL came on first and I sobbed as I’d never sobbed at a film before. A few years later I watched it with my mum (like a few others on this thread, it was one of her faves) and sobbed my way through the ending again. I haven’t seen it since, strangely, but this review brought back lots of lovely memories so I’m going to take a gander at it the next time I’m needing to shed a few tears. Thank you, I love the variety of the films you review here, I always make a point of checking them out.

  20. Yasmine Phoenix
    Mar 04, 2012 @ 19:00:18

    I agree with Hydecat, I enjoyed Pinky more than Imitation of Life. As an African American female born in the 50s’, my family members ran the color line from almost white to dark skin so I’m very familiar with the racial divides that can occur even within the family along color of skin. I cried at the end, and wanted to slap some color on Sarah Jane’s face. Love Lana Turner she was great in Madame X and The Bad and The Beautiful with Kirk Douglas.

  21. Jayne
    Mar 04, 2012 @ 19:08:09

    @Yasmine Phoenix: Definitely sounds like I need to watch “Pinky.” I’m just curious if anyone has ever watched the 1995 movie “A Family Thing” with James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall. The tragic mulatto story from the male POV.

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