Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959): USA

Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy.  Viewed at the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood, CA.

  Director Douglas Sirk is best known for his melodramatic films of the 1950’s which dealt with social prejudices, shallow desires, unrequited love and spoiled offspring.

Imitation of Life  involves two working mothers, one white and one black, both single and raising daughters.  Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) aspires to advance from part-time model to full-time stage actress,  while Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) is desperately in need of a place to live, as well as a job.

Lora is near panic when she loses sight of her young daughter at the Coney Island boardwalk, but Annie has kindly sat with the child until they are both reunited.  Fast becoming friends, Annie and her daughter are invited to stay with Lora and her child in their small apartment, exchanging household duties for room and board.

Moving ahead ten years, Lora becomes a highly sought after stage actress, while her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) is preparing to graduate high school.  Annie is very much a part of the family, even acting as a surrogate mother to Susie since Lora is consumed with her career.  Since Annie’s own daughter (fair-skinned) Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) has come of age, she struggles with her mother’s blackness.  Longing to live within the white world in which she was raised, Sarah Jane abandons the love of her mother for the life of a chorus girl in a seedy nightclub.

Lana Turner, the queen of melodrama,  excels as Lora Meredith, and yet regardless of how much the camera truly does love her, it is Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore which equally steal every scene they are in.  Both deliver standout performances as mother and daughter, who, despite a mutual love, can never come together and achieve what they most want from each other.  No surprise, Kohner and Moore each received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress for their respective roles.

Sirk’s most popular films were considered chick-flick soap operas, and panned by critics, but were well-received by audiences.  Imitation of Life became the most lucrative film to date for Universal, and was in fact a remake from their  own 1934 John Stahl version.

Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore joined Robert Osborne for a Q & A session after this screening at the TCM Film Festival.  The audience enjoyed the candor between our wonderful host and these two great actresses, it was apparent that both had stayed friends these many years and they each had to agree that their roles in Imitation of Life were the juiciest of their careers.  Screened at the Egyptian, there is nothing quite like watching the close-ups of all these wonderful actors up on the big screen.

Although I do not readily concede to film remakes, there are a few instances where the remake will honor its predecessor rather than bring shame, and perhaps even eclipse the former.  These are a few examples which come to mind:  Little Women (1949), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and An Affair to Remember (1957).  Having seen both versions of Imitation of Life several times, (and in this instance) it’s a tough call, but I’d have to say Sirk’s version tips the scales.  Both versions are available on DVD from TCM, and both worthy of screening.

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