#372) Imitation of Life (1959)
OR “What Ever Happened to Sarah Jane?”
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Written by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott. Based on the novel by Fannie Hurst.
Class of 2015
The Plot: Universal takes another stab at Hurst’s story of family and racial identity in this updated “Imitation of Life”. Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) struggles to become a New York theater star while raising her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham). A chance meeting leads to Lora hiring Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) as her housekeeper, taking in Annie and her light-skinned daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker). Lora finally lands a play, and her star (and finance) rises over the next decade. A now grown up Susie (Sandra Dee) becomes infatuated with Lora’s old flame Steve Archer (John Gavin), while Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) continues to pass for white, distressing Annie. The original film had its problems, but surely the kinks will be worked out 25 years later, right? …right?
Why It Matters: The NFR’s write-up is primarily a description of Douglas Sirk’s “glossy, often deliriously flamboyant” melodramas and a comparison between both of the novel’s film adaptations. And then they spoil the ending for no good reason! There’s also an essay by film historian/author Matthew Kennedy.
But Does It Really?: Well, this version is…better? This “Imitation of Life” is allowed to explore some of the more complex issues involving race and privilege in America that its predecessor couldn’t, but is ultimately bogged down by the decision to go full melodrama, particularly Lana Turner’s theatrical performance. The 1934 version broke down a major racial barrier in film, and while this version continues down that path, it still keeps Annie and Sarah Jane as the B-plot to an uninteresting A-plot. On a film list that already includes a version of “Imitation of Life” as well as a Douglas Sirk tearjerker, do we really need another of either?
Shout Outs: Lora says her latest stage role is “the best part since Scarlett O’Hara”.
Everybody Gets One: Many a recognizable character actor is making their only NFR appearance here. Among them: Robert (Sky Masterson, father of Alan) Alda, Oscar nominee Dan O’Herlihy, Gladys Kravitz #2 Sandra Gould, and look at her, she’s Sandra Dee.
Wow, That’s Dated: “Imitation of Life” makes an effort to upgrade the original story’s racial elements for the Civil Rights era (Brown vs. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycott were recent events in 1959). The film’s crucial mistake is swapping the original’s pancake storyline with Lora’s theater stardom, therefore eliminating Annie having any chance of succeeding beyond her life as “the help”. Like its predecessor, the film is progressive by 1959 standards, yet problematic by today’s.
Title Track: We have a title song! Sung by vocalist Earl Grant, the song makes a better case for the title than the ’34 version: A life without love is just an imitation.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Imitation of Life” managed two Oscar nominations, both in the Best Supporting Actress category. Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore no doubt split the vote with each other, paving the way for Hollywood veteran Shelley Winters in Best Picture nominee “The Diary of Anne Frank”.
- The casting of Lana Turner was a bit controversial: it was her first film following the scandal in which her daughter Cheryl Crane fatally stabbed Lana’s boyfriend Johnny Stompanato in self-defense. Universal gave Turner the royal treatment (including the largest trailer on the lot), but the shoot was still a difficult one for Lana, as a film about a strained mother-daughter relationship surely struck a few nerves.
- Also incredibly dated: Allen Loomis, the sleazy, sexually abusive movie producer. His character is more or less dismissed (“happens all the time” says Archer), and he is a consistent presence throughout the movie. And while we’re on the subject; a womanizing playwright? Please.
- As Lora’s plotline about becoming an actress progresses, I’m beginning to think there aren’t going to be pancakes in this one. Then again, if I judged every movie on this list on a pancakes/no pancakes metric, they would all be found wanting.
- Alright, another movie for the “Die Hard” Not-Christmas list!
- Even by Sirk standards, this thing is me-lo-dra-ma-tic. There are many ways this subject matter could have been covered; why a soap opera?
- Taking a step back from the 1934 version, Sarah Jane is played by Susan Kohner, a woman of Mexican and Austrian descent, rather than a light skinned African American. Apparently Natalie Wood was also considered for the part, but don’t worry: her day of whitewashing will come.
- Coincidentally, Susan Kohner’s mother, Mexican film star Lupita Tovar, was inducted into the National Film Registry the same year as her daughter, thanks to “Drácula”.
- One of the film’s nicer touches; Lora is so devoted to her career, she never once bothers to learn more about Annie or her life outside of the house.
- I shouldn’t be laughing at Lana Turner’s performance, should I? She’s just so over-the-top, especially in her more dramatic scenes, which require, ironically, less dramatics.
- Wow, I’ve already forgotten John Gavin was in this. At least he’s better here than he was in “Psycho”.
- I will say Juanita Moore is very good in this. She starts off as a somewhat stereotypical “magic Negro”, but as the film continues her sunny exterior fades away and we see the suffering her Annie has endured over the years. Her final meeting with Sarah Jane is heartbreaking.
- That’s Mahalia Jackson, fresh from her stint at the Newport Jazz Festival, as the choir soloist in the final scene. The finale doesn’t pack the same punch it did for me in the ’34 version, which is a shame.
- “Imitation of Life” was met with critical indifference, but managed to become Universal’s most successful film to date. Universal wanted more from Douglas Sirk, but Sirk instead retired to his native Germany.
- Lana Turner forewent her usual star salary for “Imitation of Life”, opting for a cut of the box office. The gamble paid off, and while Turner never had another film as successful as “Imitation”, she maintained financial security for the rest of her life.
- Susan Kohner retired from film shortly after “Imitation” to get married and raise a family. You know her sons Chris and Paul Wietz best as the co-directors and co-writers of “About a Boy”.
- “Imitation of Life” is largely forgotten today, but still gets referenced more than the 1934 version. Often mentioned in connection Douglas Sirk’s other melodramas, “Imitation” was one of the major influences behind Todd Haynes’ “Far from Heaven”.