Monday, June 23, 2014

2014 Blind Spot Series: Imitation of Life (1959 film)




Based on the novel by Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life is the story of two different mothers from different races who come together to deal with the rebellious nature of their respective daughters. Directed by Douglas Sirk and screenplay by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, the film is a modernized update of the story that had previously been told in a 1934 version as it deals with the ideas of race, genders, class, and other social changes all revolving around a widowed actress and her maid who share their own issues with their daughters. Starring Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Dan O’Herlihy, Susan Kohner, Robert Alda, and Juanita Moore. Imitation of Life is a gloriously rich and sensational film from Douglas Sirk.

The film revolves around two women who meet by chance as they both raise their respective daughters during an actress’ rise to stardom and fortune. While she would gain the loyalty and advice of her maid, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) would also contend with compromises about her career and eventually compromise in her own life as a mother to her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) whom she would unfortunately neglect as Susie would look to the maid Annie (Juanita Moore) as a maternal figure while falling in love with longtime family friend Steve Archer (John Gavin). Adding to the drama is Annie’s own tumultuous relationship with her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) who is born white due to having a white father she never met as she deals with having a black mother as she wants to be accepted as white. All of which plays into Lora and Annie coming to terms with not just their own failings as mothers but also what they tried to do for their daughters.

The film’s screenplay has a unique structure where it plays into Lora’s rise and struggles to make it as an actress in the first act. Upon that first scene where she meets Annie when trying to find Susie (Terry Burnham) who was playing with Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker). It’s also on that day where she meets Steve Archer as Lora would invite Annie and Sarah Jane to live with her and Susie since Lora needed someone to help her as she tries to make it as an actress while Annie needed a place to live with her daughter. While Steve would become a friend to the four women, he is uncomfortable with Lora’s own ambitions to succeed though she would have to contend with people like agent Alan Loomis (Robert Alda) who want her to cheapen herself and later on, playwright David Edwards (Dan O’Herlihy) who would make her a star but wants her to continue to star in his comedies that Lora would get tired of in the film’s second act.

It is around that time where Steve suddenly returns to Lora’s life as well as the life of Annie and their daughters which suddenly becomes complicated. Though Susie would enjoy all of the perks of having it all, she feels neglected by her mother’s busy schedule as she finds comfort in Annie and Steve. Lora would eventually realize the errors of her actions as she tried to do the best she can while she would also watch Annie’s relationship with Sarah Jane start to fall apart where the latter feels ashamed in having a black mother in the belief that it would not give her things that white people have including Susie whom she becomes envious of. For Annie, all she wanted from Sarah Jane is acceptance and to have Sarah Jane know that she‘ll always be there no matter what.

Douglas Sirk’s direction is truly mesmerizing from the way he opens the film with its very crowded yet lively scenes in the beach to the intimacy in the apartment where Lora lived as she would share it with Annie and their daughters. Much of it has this heightened sense of drama since it plays to Sirk’s idea of melodrama but he also had something to say in terms of race relations and how some can be filled with shame for having a certain skin color. At the same time, Sirk takes shots into the idea of ambition where Lora’s rise to stardom would come at a heavy price as she would neglect Susie in favor of her career as it would be something that Lora would deal with as she becomes compromised in her career aspirations.

Sirk’s direction is filled with dazzling imagery and gorgeous compositions including some wide shots of the posh house the four principle characters live in as there’s some unique shots where one character is on the top floor, another is in the stairs, and another is on the first floor through this low-angle shot. There’s also these lavish scenes in some of the parties that Lora has where Lora is the center of attention but the driving force is Annie who is comfortable behind the scenes as she is treated with respect by some of Lora’s guests. It all plays into the world that Sirk has created but one that would drive a schism into Lora and Annie’s own relationship with their daughters. Especially as the film’s ending plays into what is gained and lost in this journey the four women have been in as Sirk isn’t afraid to be melodramatic. Notably as it makes sense into the decisions that Lora has make and the price she paid while clinging on to the people that mattered to her. Overall, Sirk crafts a very enchanting yet evocative film about mothers and their relationships with their daughters.

Cinematographer Russell Metty does tremendous work with the film’s very rich and colorful Technicolor-based photography to capture the beauty of some of the film’s locations as well as the textures in some of the colors along with some lighting schemes that adds to the film’s beauty Editor Milton Carruth does excellent work with the editing with its seamless approach to rhythmic cuts to play into the drama as well as its use of fade-outs and dissolves for its transitions plus an inventive montage of Lora‘s rising success. Art directors Alexander Golitzen and Richard H. Reidel, with set decorators Russell A. Gausman and Julia Heron, do amazing work with the set designs from the cramped apartment Lora, Annie, and their daughters live during the first act to the more spacious, posh home they would live in throughout the film.

Costume designer Bill Thomas does fantastic work with the colorful and stylish dresses that Susie and Sarah Jane would wear to express their personalities while the gowns worn by Lora are designed with great style by Jean Louis. The sound work of Leslie I. Carey and Joe Lapis is terrific for some of the intimacy that occurs in the parties as well as some of the locations including the places where Sarah Jane would work. The film’s music by Frank Skinner is brilliant for its lush and somber orchestral score that plays into the melodrama that includes the title song written by Henry Mancini and Sammy Fain as well as a gospel performance from the legendary Mahalia Jackson who appears in the film.

The film’s superb ensemble cast includes some notable small performances from Terry Burnham as the young Susie, Karin Dicker as the young Sarah Jane, and Troy Donahue in a brief role as Sarah Jane’s secret boyfriend. Robert Alda is terrific as Lora’s agent Loomis who is very slimy until he realizes that she won’t compromise her ideas as he makes her a star. Dan O’Herlihy is excellent as the playwright David Edwards who realizes what kind of talent Lora has where he has her in all of his plays where success goes into his head. Susan Kohner is amazing as the confused Sarah Jane as this woman who is half-white and half-black as she tries to be accepted into the world of white society only to lose sight of who she really is. Sandra Dee is wonderful as Susie as a young woman who falls for Steve while deals with her mother’s absence as she tries to make sense of what her mother does and what she wants in her own life.

John Gavin is brilliant as Steve Archer as an aspiring photographer who has a hard time dealing with Lora’s ambitions until he returns to her life where their friendship is suddenly renewed as he also deals with some of the issues in the family. Juanita Moore is phenomenal as Annie as this no-nonsense and caring maid who is devoted to Lora while also being her closest advisor as she tries to deal with Sarah Jane’s rebellion as it’s a role that is very complex that goes beyond the expectations of a character that could’ve been a stereotype. Finally, there’s Lana Turner in a dazzling performance as Lora Meredith as this ambitious actress who is driven to become a success as she goes through her faults as a mother in not being there enough for Susie as well as her friendship with Annie whom she cares for very dearly as it’s Turner in one of her defining film roles.

Imitation of Life is an incredible film from Douglas Sirk that is highlighted by the performances of Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, and John Gavin. It’s a film that is melodrama at its finest in terms of its visual language, towering story, and lavish performances that add to the film’s soaring yet slightly over-the-top tone. It’s also a film that wasn’t afraid to be a product of its time with something to say yet manages to be very relevant more than fifty years since its release. In the end, Imitation of Life is a splendidly rich and exhilarating film from Douglas Sirk.

Douglas Sirk Films: (t Was een April) - (The Court Concert) - (To New Shores) - (La Habanera) - (Boefje) - (Hitler’s Madman) - (Summer Storm) - (A Scandal in Paris) - (Lured) - (Sleep My Love) - Shockproof - (Thunder on the Hill) - (No Room for the Groom) - (Has Anybody Seen My Gal?) - (Meet Me at the Fair) - (Take Me to Town) - (All I Desire) - (Taza, Son of Cochise) - Magnificent Obsession (1954 film) - (Sign of the Pagan) - (Captain Lightfoot) - All That Heaven Allows - There’s Always Tomorrow (1956 film) - (Never Say Goodbye) - Written on the Wind - (Battle Hymn) - (Interlude) - (The Tarnished Angels) - (A Time to Love and A Time to Die)

© thevoid99 2014

5 comments:

Fisti said...

Juanita Moore should have won that Oscar in a WALK! Brilliant performance, so layered, so honest! Great review here! You always break these down in such a intriguing and detailed way.

Jess said...

Wonderful review. I really enjoyed this film and found it to be quite moving, even if it was melodramatic at times. I watched a bit of the original, which was good for it's time, but this remake is superior with all it has to work with.

thevoid99 said...

@Fisti-Thank you. I agree with you on Moore. She should've won. She was that good and didn't play the stereotypical "magical Negro" that is often know as it's so much more. I enjoyed this one though I think All That Heaven Allows is Sirk's best film so far.

@Jess-Sirk is known for being melodramatic but it works because it was quite moving and there's so much depth to those characters. I haven't seen the original but I probably will in the future though I'm sure it's not as good as Sirk's version.

Chris said...

All That Heaven Allows is great, but I think Imitation of Life is my favorite Sirk. The ending is just heartbreaking. Agree the performances are brilliant.
Have you seen Written on the Wind, that's one of the directors best as well.

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-I just saw that one yesterday. In fact, I just posted it. Truly an amazing film as I liked that one more than Imitation of Life.