IMITATION OF LIFE: Serious Cinema or Guilty Pleasure?

by JEFF LUNDENBERGER ~ Posted February 10th, 2016


I recently had the pleasure of introducing a screening of the 1959 version of the film IMITATION OF LIFE at The Stephen Crane House in Asbury Park. It was the third screening of “Lights! Camera! Politics!,” a series created by EdJohnsonAP, focused on politics in film and inspired by movies Ed saw at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California. The other two films shown in the series were “They Won’t Forget,” which was introduced by our host, movie savvy CineMaven, and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” introduced by film aficionado Frank D’Alessandro.

BBC Culture, an online arm of the BBC, released its list of the 100 greatest American films in July, the results of a poll of 62 international film critics. I was surprised to see that “Imitation of Life” came in at number 37, between “Star Wars” (#36) and “Jaws” (#38), and well ahead of “Gone With the Wind,” which came in a distant number 97. I like “Star Wars” and “Jaws.” Not only are they fun films, they’re also movie-business game-changers. “Gone With the Wind” is, well,“Gone With the Wind!” But “Imitation of Life?”


IMITATION ( XIII )Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen “Imitation of Life” many times and I always enjoy it. Lana Turner is at her steely best as Lora Meredith, and Juanita Moore as Annie, Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane and Sandra Dee as Susie, are all perfectly cast. Even John Gavin, who’s a much better actor who’s a much better
actor shirtless than not, manages to hold
JOHN GAVIN ( SHIRTLESS-I )his own with no chest-baring as on-again-off-again love interest Steve Archer. But despite its subject mat-ter, I’ve always thought of the movie as more high camp than serious drama. From the overripe theme song to the stilted dialogue ( Robert Alda’s show-biz-speak as Broadway agent Allen Loomis is priceless ) – My guess is that John Waters mined for (and found) midnight movie gold in this film.


KAREN DICKER, Lana Turner, TERRY BURNHAM, Juanita Moore

Maybe that impression stems from the hand of director Douglas Sirk. His ’50’s films were commercially successful but didn’t impress the critics of the time, and the re-assessment of his career since then somewhat puzzles me. From his TCM bio: “Sirk’s style hinges on a highly developed sense of irony, employing subtle parody, cliche, and stylization.” At a screening of “Written On the WindDOROTHY MALONE ( Written on the Wind )at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2014, watching Dorothy Malone clutch an oil derrick/phallic symbol after two hours of suds, sweat, and tears, I found myself wondering: who are they trying to kid? Parody yes, but subtle? Ironic? Of course I did enjoy it, but I sometimes wonder if two current filmmakers who have been influenced by Sirk, Todd Haynes and Pedro Almodóvar, haven’t created Sirk-like films with a more coherent artistic integrity.



But the real meat and drama of the story is the relationship between Annie, Lora Meredith’s friend/maid, and Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane, who is light-skinned and wants to “pass” as white. IMITATION ( IX )The problems facing Lora, Steve, and Susie seem almost frivolous when compared to the difficulties confronting Annie and Sarah Jane, difficulties stemming exclusively from the systemic racism of the time (not to say that the same problems don’t exist today). There is the crux of the movie. Lora’s ambition distances the affections of both her daughter and her lover, but those broken ties can be mended and, after all, they are white and well-to-do. Susie falls in love with Steve, but she’s very young – we’ve all bounced back from unrequited loves.


What to do with a young woman of color who is willing to turn her back not only on her mother but on herself as well, her ambition to become something she is not because she   IMITATION ( XX ) sees no purpose in living what she is. Sarah Jane realizes her folly, too late, returning to Annie’s funeral and a forgiving community, that group afforded more dignity than the long line of shallow characters parading through the film, excluding Moore’s subdued, long-suffering Annie. Lana Turner rules the movie but Annie and Sarah Jane have the last laugh (or cry).


The set-up at the Crane House is simply a DVD projector and a pull-down screen but, having seen the film only on television, the experience was much more impactful and served to clarify my perception of the movie. The color, the costumes, the drama, the dialog, all became more obviously counterpoint to the tragedy of the story hidden in plain sight, the tragedy of Annie and Sarah Jane. It works because it develops a deep, emotional resonance despite its formal artifice and melodramatic trappings. Perhaps “Imitation of Life” is much more than I had always thought (a testament to seeing movies on a larger screen), but I’m still not sure that I’d include it in MY list of the top 100 American films. I don’t much abide by lists anyway. They’re fun to read but so subjective, and this week’s number 37 can be next week’s bomb. I’ll just call it a great film. I don’t know, though, if I’ll change my opinion of the gloriously silly “Written on the Wind.” I definitely need to see more of Sirk’s earlier work to see how it compares to some of his ’50’s weepers.


IMITATION 1934 - ( III )

P.S. I watched the original 1934 version of “Imitation of Life” recently when it showed up on TCM. I’d seen a bit of it before, but never the entire movie. A quieter, more natural film, Claudette Colbert’s Bea Pullman (Lora Meredith) is not an aspiring actress but a single businesswoman who creates a pancake empire with Delilah Johnson’s (Annie) secret recipe.


Delilah is played by Louise Beavers in a broad but delicate performance and her daughter, Peola, as played by Fredi Washington, is more sophisticated in this version, in stark contrast to her mother. The story of Delilah and Peola is still a back seat to that of Bea and her daughter Jessie (played by Rochelle Hudson), but the impact of

IMITATION 1934 - ( IX )

[ Click photo above for Fredi Washington YouTube tribute ]

IMITATION 1934 - ( II )

Peola’s rejection of her Identity and her mother is no less effective. There is even mention of Peola’s father who, like his daughter, is unable to live up to the demands of a racially polarized world. Curiously, the only character who maintains his name from picture to picture is Steve Archer, here not a photographer but an ichthyologist played by Warren William. A pancake empire and an ichthyologist: colorful touches but no match for the flamboyance of the 1959 version.


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