Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Imitation of Life, Part II (Douglas Sirk, 1959)

(Click here for information on the 2013 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of women’s Literature. As three of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. First up, the June selection, Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life)

Read Part I here

Imitation of Life 1959

(I’m not sure what’s going on in this poster but it is too great not to share)

Twenty-five years after John Stahl brought the novel to the screen, Douglas Sirk completely overhauled Hurst’s story (he was decidedly not a fan of the novel). Sirk is best known for his sumptuous wide-screen Technicolor melodramas: Magnificent Obsession (1954, also a remake of one of Stahl’s features), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956). Imitation of Life would be his final directorial feature, and of all the Douglas Sirk films, it is the Douglas Sirkiest. However, despite the gloss, it is the version that more fully portrays the social issues that Hurst merely skims. It is 1959 and the Civil Rights movement is in full swing, and in many ways this version of the film reflects that.

The screenplay does away with the restaurant business entirely: instead we are introduced to panicked mother Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) who has become separated from her young daughter, Susie, on the packed beach at Coney Island. Handsome photographer Steven Archer (John Gavin) helps her to locate the missing child, who is contentedly playing with Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter, Sarah Jane.

Annie sees an opening and suggests that perhaps Lora could use some “help” in looking after her daughter and offers her services. Moreso than Delilah and Peola, Annie and Sarah Jane’s circumstances are desperate: it is clear that they are homeless and have no place to sleep that night. So too is Annie’s explanation for Sarah Jane’s light complexion: while Delilah discusses her late husband freely in the book and 1934 film, Annie only comments that “Sarah Jane’s daddy left before she was born”, leaving a far more sinister impression regarding her daughter’s parentage.

Lora is an aspiring actress, and despite getting a late start on her career (Turner was in her late 30s, hardly an inexperienced starlet) she finds her luck finally changing when Annie and Sarah Jane move in with them: having a live-in maid makes her seem more prosperous. Annie and Lora’s well-being immediately becomes mutually entwined.

Lora’s career on the stage is even more of an overnight success than Bea Pullman’s restaurant business. She wins an audition for a small role in a Broadway comedy, and when is rejected she tells off the playwright and re-writes the scene on the spot, thus improbably securing a promotion to a larger role. This cues a montage depicting her rise to the toast of Broadway over the next ten years.

Now living in a luxurious house in New Haven, CT, she spurns comic roles and the writer-boyfriend who made her famous, and takes a serious dramatic role as a social worker with “low heels and high ideals”, which of course she also makes into a fabulous success. Along the way she rekindles her romance with Steven Archer.

While in the both the book and 1934 film, Delilah and (especially) Peola are definitely supporting characters, in this version Sarah Jane dominates every scene she’s in, constantly upsetting the status quo: as a child she refuses to play with the Black doll Susie offers her; on Christmas she demands of Lora an answer to whether Jesus was Black or White and then will not let the subject drop. As a teenager Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) openly resents Lora’s perhaps well-meaning but condescending treatment, including taking offense at the fact that Lora assumes that she’s dating the son of their neighbor’s chauffeur, because he is literally the only other Black teenager in the entire town. When Lora cluelessly insists that “we’ve never treated her as if she was different”, the audience rolls their eyes along with Sarah Jane.

While he first half of the movie focuses on Lora’s easily-attained success and Rich White Lady Problems (Steven doesn’t want her to go to Europe and star in that Italian movie!), the second half of the film is much more concerned with Annie and Sarah Jane. In a scene far more brutal than anything Hurst depicted, when Sarah Jane’s “passing” is discovered by her White Yalie boyfriend (an improbably cast Troy Donohue), he viciously beats her up.

Annie’s life outside the household is also greatly expanded upon, as we learn that Annie is a pillar of the Black community, and deeply involved church and public life (“It never occurred to me you had friends!” Lora chirrups, to which Annie tolerantly responds “You never asked.”)

Annie has also become a surrogate mother to Susie (Sandra Dee), who comes to Annie with all of her questions about love and sex because her own mother is never around. When Lora expresses distress about the time she’s spent away from home, even Annie can only reassure her with a half-hearted “You meant to be a good mother.”

If Susie looks to Annie for comfort and guidance, Sarah Jane seeks to follow in Lora’s footsteps into show business, first taking a job as a singer in a seedy nightclub in New York, then running away from home and joining a chorus line. Annie catches up with her, but when Sarah Jane rejects her, Annie is resigned to the fact that she’s lost her daughter for good, even pretending to be Sarah Jane’s “Mammy” in front of her roommate.

Ailing, Annie returns to New Haven where she dictates the terms of her will and funeral arrangements to the church and community members that gather at her bedside.

Annie’s elaborate funeral is blown up to elephantine proportions under Sirk’s direction. It should not work- it should be gaudy and tacky and ridiculous, but then guest star Mahalia Jackson shows up to sing “Trouble of the World”… and sorry, I’ve got something in my eye. Both of them, actually.

In death, Annie is able to heal all wounds and reunite Lora, Susie, Steve and Sarah Jane as a family. Sniff.

While Annie and Sarah Jane are given more to do in Sirk’s version of the story, Stahl’s use of African-American actresses is at least somewhat enlightened for its time, and both novel and film were, at least initially, well-received by Black audiences. Universal released a trailer specifically for the theaters in Black neighborhoods in cities like New York and Chicago which heavily featured Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington without even mentioning their White co-stars:

Stahl also balances the blocking in the scenes with Beavers and Colbert: visually at least, Delilah and Bea are portrayed as “equals”. Also notable is the scene that introduces Delilah: a slow track in to a close-up of Louise Beavers is the sort reverent shot usually reserved for the biggest stars of the era.

Also unique for the time is the casting of Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African-American actress, as Peola: in most other cases in which the subject of “passing” was depicted in Hollywood, a White actress would be cast in the role (think Ava Gardner in Showboat, Jeanne Crain in Pinky).

Both Stahl and Sirk improve upon Bea’s love interest: it remains a mystery why Bea would become so attached to Frank Flake in the first place. While Warren William is witty and urbane, and John Gavin is handsome and down to earth, Frank Flake is a big zero. Jessie is accurate in her description, even if she doesn’t provide us a clue to his appeal (as temperamental as a barber???) Bea seems to have chosen him because he was there.

 Stray Thoughts and Observations:

This is basically the high point of Fredi Washington’s career: ironically, she was reportedly offered a contract by Universal if she agreed to “pass” in real life. She refused, and went on to have a career as a Civil Rights advocate for Black actors in Hollywood.

While popular with some Black audiences, there was also a backlash over the way Delilah was portrayed, especially regarding the depiction of her dialect. Howard University professor and literary critic Sterling Brown was especially critical, commenting “I have heard dialect all my life, but I have yet to hear such a line as ‘She am an angel.’” For the modern reader, much of Delilah’s dialogue is cringe-inducing.

Langston Hughes, who was a longtime friend of Hurst, was also critical of the stereotypes she perpetrated and wrote a one-act parody, “Limitations of Life” which reversed the races of the maid and her employer.

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