Talkie of the Week: Imitation of Life
USA 1959, 119 minutes, color, Universal Pictures. Director: Douglas Sirk, Producer: Ross Hunter, Written by: Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, Based on the novel by Fannie Hurst. Cast: Lana Turner, John Gavin, Juanita Moore, Robert Alda, Dan o’Herlihy, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner and Mahalia Jackson
Plot summary: Lora and Annie master their lives with their daughters, living through the ups and downs of success and love. Annie struggles with her daughter Sarah Jane whose skin color is the main source of trouble between her and her mother while Lora neglects her daughter Susie for a career that guarantees her a childhood Lora herself never had.
Review: Imitation of Life is an adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s novel and a remake of its namesake film from 1934 with Claudette Colbert as Lora. Reduced to a soap opera by a number of critics in 1959, the film was a great success in movie theaters and earned Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner Academy Award nominations in the Best Supporting Actress category that year. And rightly so. The film, although a perfect vehicle for Lana Turner’s dramatic acting style, allows its entire cast to shine and leaves the audience gasping for air emotionally.
Starting off in 1947, the film follows Lora Meredith’s path, a young widow and mother of six-year-old Susie, who has a strong dream to make it big on Broadway. Although she is barely scraping by, she takes in Annie Johnson and her eight-year-old daughter Sarah Jane as they meet on Coney Island. Both women seem to be equally lost and out of place in the overcrowded jolly place and soon become employer and maid, as well as friends.
Early on, both women struggle with the challenge to do the best for their daughters. Together, they try everything to give them the lives they always aspired for. It is Sarah Jane who fights her mother most ferociously – with her white skin color she cannot stand the way her mother tries to humble and prepare her for a world that will degrade her for being black. Susie faces her own sorrows with an absentee mother whose career seems to come first no matter what.
Imitation of Life is a drama in its purest form, dulcified with a strong musical performance by the powerful Mahalia Jackson and eye candy fashion in best 1950s style. It is a rich mother-daughter tale, poignant and a fabulous mix of modern and traditional. Douglas Sirk’s great masterpiece, a beautiful composition of moving performances, top notch writing and juicy colors.
In essence, the morale of the film may be to honor your mother for she only wants your best. Or to respect your daughter as her own person, however far away she needs to get away from you. The coin of every decision always has two sides, and mothers are humans, too. That’s what it comes down to in this film, at least for me. And I highly recommend it!
Available on VHS and DVD.