Thursday, 14 August 2008
Imitation of Life (1959)
From the beautiful opening credits to the tear-inducing ending, Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life is one of the great American melodramas of the 1950's. It's the story of two single mothers, one black (Juanita Moore) and one white (Lana Turner), who form a bond to better survive. This being Hollywood in the 1950s means that the white character wants desperately to be an actress and the black just wants a job, so being Lana Turner's maid will do. And then there are their daughters, the perfect teenager (Sandra Dee) and the not so perfect one (Susan Kohner). It is also the remake of a 1934 film of the same name directed by John M Stahl and starring Claudette Colbert.
In both films, there are two main story lines. One concerns the white characters, with the daughter falling in love with the man that is in love with her mother (who really is in love with herself in the 1959 version). The other, far more interesting to me is the complex social and racial issues raised by the relationship between a black mother and her daughter who wants and can pass off herself as white (I'd say there is a hint that daddy was white, but because of the Hayes code he just had very white skin). In the 1959 version, is really hard for me to take sides. The mother does not want her daughter to be like her. She wants her to be better off, only she has limited goals. The daughter on the other hand just wants to be like everyone else and fit in. It reminded me of a line in Guess who's coming for dinner, when Sidney Poitier turns to his father and says "You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. " - only that was still 8 years into the future (and a lot of real events separate the two films). All this is much better than it sounds, especially the Juanita Moore-Susan Kohner relationship. The two actresses excel and both got Oscar nominations (they lost to Shelley Winters for The Diary of Anne Frank).
The film also proves that there are exceptions to the rule: I think the remake is much better than the original. Annie is a much better and rounded character than her 1934 counterpart Delilah and Sirk has a much better grasp of how to touch an audience than Stahl did - the best example is how both directors treat the ending of the film: Sirk finishes at the climatic moment, Stahl continues for a few more minutes to assure the audience that Claudette Colbert does end with Warren William. Which we already knew...
However, it is not without is faults. Sandra Dee is irritating every time she appears on screen (ok, one exception, when she says to her mother to stop playing the martyr), Lana Turner looks way older than her 38 years (I'd say she looks more like 48, so desperately is she to look young), and her character is rather annoying at times. Still, like in her most famous, deadliest and sexiest role the first thing you see of her are her legs.
The film is widely available on DVD, and often is paired with the 1934 version. I have the French DVD from this Douglas Sirk Boxset. And there's a second volume coming in November.