Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Imitation of Life Double Feature: Two Distinct Takes on the Same Story

When I went looking for more films directed by Douglas Sirk, one of the titles I was directed to was Imitation of Live. What I learned when I went looking for the film was that Sirk’s version was actually a remake of a film from 1934. The only version of Imitation of Live I could find on DVD included both versions. I am so glad it did!

Imitation of Live is a complex look at the relationship of two women, one black and one white. It’s the story of their struggle through the years, of their friendship, of their daughters’ friendship, and of race.

Imitation of Life – 1934

Written by Fannie Hurst and William Hurlbut
Directed by John M. Stahl

Claudette Colbert is Bea Pullman, a widow trying to carry on her husband’s business following his death, as well as raise her children. One day Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) comes to her house looking for a job advertised in the paper, only she has the wrong address. The woman, however, is the answer to Bea’s dilemma, and Delilah and her daughter Peola move into Bea’s home.

Peola is quite fair-skinned for a black child. She grows up with Jessie (Bea’s daughter) more like a sister. Peola rejects her race. She refuses to believe she is “black” and doesn’t want to be treated as if she is. She takes it as an insult when her mother urges her to go away to a “Negro school” down south.

Peola runs away from the college. Bea helps Delilah track her down and Peola rejects her, stating she is not her daughter. Later on, Peola states her case – she can’t go on looking white and having to “be” black. She wants to go away and not have her mother acknowledge her even if she passes her on the street.

The 1934 version of Imitation of Live was groundbreaking in its time. Never before had a film been made that really took a hard look at the state of race relations in this country. It’s nice to see that race didn’t matter in the bond between the two women. Bea treats Delilah almost as an equal and doesn’t talk condescendingly to her. It’s actually Delilah who more often than not puts herself down and crawls into the familiar role of “servant”, not Bea putting her there.

Delilah puts herself down a lot. At the same time, she seems to indicate that the simpleness is something inherent to her and not meant to be indicative of her race. At one point she makes the comment “we don’t all start out dumb, you know”. Yet when Bea hits it big with Delilah’s pancake recipe, Delilah takes it as an insult when Bea tells her she can have her own house. It’s as if Bea tries to elevate them to the same level, but Delilah doesn’t know how to have a relationship with Bea like that. One of the great scenes is when the two women have a “girl chat” in the mansion once they’ve hit it big and Bea retires to her bedroom upstairs while Delilah walks down the stairs. It’s a powerful, yet subtle statement.

Claudette Colbert is powerful as Bea and really carries the film right from the start. It’s such a complicated role as it shifts throughout the film and Colbert must change gears from dealing with racial issues to running a business to raising a daughter. When Bea finally meets a man whom she can love, complications arise from her own daughter who falls for the same man, mistaking his attentiveness for something more. Colbert handles it all quite well although I thought the film drifted at this point and would have preferred it stuck to the racial issues.

Louise Beavers gives an incredible performance as the heartbroken mother of a daughter who rejects her. It’s easy to believe that although she’s been subjected to the prevalent racism of the time, she’s comfortable in her niche in life and doesn’t strive for more. At the same time, her sorrow and her inability to understand her daughter’s position are portrayed so well and with such heartbreak, it was easy to get caught up in it and feel the emotion.

The restoration is good. It was hard for me to believe that this was a film from 1934.

Imitation of Life – 1959

Written by Fannie Hurst, Eleanore Griffin, Allan Scott
Directed by Douglas Sirk

Lana Turner stars in this “remake” of the 1934 film. I put remake in quotes because there are so many changes to the original story it hardly bears any resemblance to the original film.

On a bright summer day, down-on-her-luck actress Lora Meredith (Turner) loses her daughter at Coney Island. She locates her being cared for by Annie Johnson (portrayed by Juanita Moore) and her daughter, Sarah Jane. At first, Lora mistakes Annie for Sarah Jane’s nanny. When Lora realizes that Annie and Sarah Jane have nowhere else to go, she invites them to come stay with her and help her take care of her daughter, Susie.

Sarah Jane is so fair-skinned that she easily passes for white when not seen with her black mother. The racial conflict is there and at one point Susie slits her wrists to defend Sarah Jane when someone tells her that “Negro blood” is somehow different than a white person’s.

In this version, Lora becomes a successful Broadway actress instead of a “pancake queen”. She also has a suitor early in the film that she rejects, then attaches herself to later on as does her daughter who seems much younger in this version. Annie is more the role of servant than the friend and business partner that Delilah was in the original. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a warm, devoted friendship between the two. However, it’s also demonstrated here that Annie has an entire life Lora doesn’t know about and makes little effort to find out more about even when that fact comes up.

I like Annie Johnson better than the character of Delilah only for the reason that I could get a better handle on the character. Annie isn’t the same simpleton that Delilah was and I liked that. However, I think that both actresses who portrayed the roles gave awesome performances and handled the much-different roles very well.

The infamous confrontation between Sarah Jane and her mother in the school is still there. It’s powerful between the two of them and the young actress who portrays Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker) handles it very well and with good emotion without being overly dramatic. It’s easy to see the frustration Sarah Jane feels at not knowing where her place was in life.

Lora also has more of a love-life and the film overall seems to be more encompassing of their lives than really making a focal point of the racial situation.

This was Douglas Sirk’s last movie before returning to his native Germany. The music is indicative of the typical melodramas of the 1950s. In fact, this version has more melodrama in it overall as Sarah Jane gets beaten up by her secret boyfriend when he learns her mother is black. She ends up working in a cabaret club and just the way it is filmed reminded me of so many films and music videos I’d seen that made fun of the movies of the 1950s. The film is typical of the Sirk films of the era as it tried to evoke emotions in a very overt way and for the most part, it does succeed. I just don’t think it did as good of a job as the 1934 version.

Lana Turner’s performance here is good although her rise to fame seems somewhat forced. The script doesn’t flow as nicely as it should and I think she does the best she can with the role.

Juanita Moore actually seemed to be more of the rock keeping Lora grounded during her rise to fame and keeping her from getting disconnected to her daughter Susie. Unlike the other characters, until the very end she didn’t seem to be overly-dramatic but instead gave a steady, solid performance.

Bonus Materials on the two-sided DVD set is just the trailer for the 1959 version and additional title recommendations.

Overall, I really liked the set and found myself enjoying the 1934 black and white version much more than the later one in Technicolor. Both had their strong points, but the earlier version seemed to tackle the racial issues in a way the 1959 version didn’t. Part of it is the status of the characters and part of it, I believe, was the script. I thought the characters were more fleshed-out in the 1934 version of the film and perhaps Claudette Colbert’s performance was just a bit better than Lana Turner’s. I would recommend both of these films for viewing as they are good viewing. I would also like to read the book by Fannie Hurst upon which the story is based and see how that compares to the film adaptations. In all, it’s a fine statement about the history of race-relations before the civil rights movement and the struggle many blacks had with their own identities.