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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Movie Review: "Imitation of Life" (1959)

And this Sunday, my Lana Turner obsession continues....


IMITATION OF LIFE (1959): Cast, plot details 

A struggling young actress with a six-year-old daughter sets up housekeeping with a homeless black widow and her light-skinned eight-year-old daughter who rejects her mother by trying to pass for white.
[from imDB]

  • Lana Turner as Lora Meredith
  • Sandra Dee as Susie Meredith
  • John Gavin as Steve Archer
  • Juanita Moore as Annie Johnson
  • Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane Johnson

THE VERDICT:  ★★★ 1/2

A great performance by Lana Turner, an entertaining plot line, and lively characters keep his soap opera turning; watch it over the 1934 film.

So, for me, this film's star rating got bumped up just a bit after watching the original 1934 version of this film. The 1934 version stars Claudette Colbert, whom I love, but being made in the thirties it is much more blatantly racist whereas this film, being made on the verge of the Civil Rights Movement, seems to combat the issue more. In general I don't find old films racist except African Americans are playing the stereotypical roles, which is not right but usually their employers have respect for them and there are no derogatory lines. Whereas Claudette's character has obvious respect for her housekeeper in the original, there are some ugly sexist ("What use is algebra to a girl?") and racist (the little girl mistakes the African American housekeeper upon first meeting her for a "horsie") lines. So I'd say totally skip the 1934 version; Claudette is great but it is simply a film that does not age at all with modern audiences & the 1959 version is a much better option.

I was watching the 1934 one on Youtube, and whilst strolling through the comments, I came across one that said "This is even more racist than the newer one!" Which I thought was weird because I didn't really find this movie racist. Lana Turner's character has a lot of respect and affection for her housekeeper, Annie, and so does her daughter, who refers to Annie as her "aunt." The only racist one in this movie is honestly Annie's black daughter, and whenever she says something cruel to her mother Lana's character Lora steps into rebuke her, etc. As well as SPOILER at the end of the film, after Annie's death, whites and blacks desegregate to celebrate her life.

So compared to the 1934 one, this movie seems like an advertisement for Civil Rights. That being said, I'll get onto the actual film.

This was the movie that brought back Lana Turner's career after the 1957 scandal in which her teenage daughter accidentally killed her gangster boyfriend. Well, though I wasn't crazy about the movie as a whole, I really did like her in this. (I'm sure that's not a surprise to anyone). I'm absolutely enthralled with Lana; she's such an adorable sweetheart, really! She was lovely in this, she made me cry at the end of the film; I'm really enjoying these movies of the soap operish quality of hers. I bought Madame X (1966) over the weekend and I hope to see it soon, so we'll see how that goes. I do love Claudette but Lana won my heart in the battle of the two performances.

John Gavin, who was familiar to me from Psycho (1960), was good though throughout the film he and Lana are engaged in an on and off relationship that I couldn't really comprehend. But over all I thought he was good and satisfied what his role called for. I also thought Sandra Dee was good, if not a little bit too enthusiastic and peppy, but I suppose that is alright as Sandra Dee hails from, you know, Gidget. (Well, actually, the only other thing I've seen Sandra in is A Summer Place which was a far cry from Gidget or even the character in this movie but the point still stands... y'know.)

I loved Jaunita Moore as the housekeeper, Annie. The character itself is wonderful and you can understand why everyone - white, black, green, or blue - loves her. Just the whole time through I kept paining and paining for her, and I couldn't stand watching her daughter treat her the way she did. Which brings me to the daughter, Sarah Jane. Oh my, her character was such a total and utter b*tch I just wanted to throw something at the screen. Sarah Jane is black, but she looks totally white, and she wants to 'pass', and in doing so, give up her mother. She was just so utterly notorious and frustrating and I honestly wanted her mom to just give up on her and let her go live her life as a prostitute or whatever it is that she wanted to be. The actress was good though, because the character was just so awful, but I don't understand why a light skinned black actress couldn't have been chosen for the role. The actress, she was literally had a snow white skin tone in my opinion, I don't understand why a little bit of makeup couldn't have been applied to make her appear a bit tanner, like Jean Simmons in Black Narcissus (1947) and Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961). 

Though I thought several performances were great and Lana Turner made me cry in the end, this is not one of my all-time favorites though. For me, there were a few annoying indiscrepancies in the plot line and overly dramatic moments for me to absolutely ADORE this movie - but I'd much rather recommend this one than the 1934 one.


  • Natalie Wood was considered for the role of Sarah Jane Johnson. (I don't know how I feel about this, Natalie being one of my all-time favorites - while I know she would have done a awesome job, I'd hate having to see her play such a terrible terrible character).
  • Pearl Bailey was considered for the part of Annie Johnson.
  • Douglas Sirk's last movie before retiring to his native Germany.
  • A picture of Bobby Darin is used as a prop in Sarah Jane's room.


This is kind of a SPOILER SCENE. You can watch the full movie here.


Irene Palfy said...

Love this film very, very much. I love Susan Kohner in her part - her mother just by the way is Lupita Tovar - the Mexican actress - and her father is Paul Kohner - the producer. Maybe it was because of her Mexican decent that Hollywood for once didn't think they had to rub tan on an actress.. (Which is something I really loath - if you want a girl with a different complexion - well, then cast one.) ;")

I also adore Juanita Moore in her part. Well.. and for Lana Turner - I just love her. I know it's totally kitsch but I also love the beginning credits.. ;") I am not so much into Sandra Dree - who always gives me two thoughts: "poor thing.." and: "I won't eat ever again.."
Thank you for spotlighting a film I really, really love - and which never fails to make me teary.. Hope you're having a good week.

Natalie said...

Ack, no! Lana...sweet? *Sorry, but I think you know why I said that* ;D

Anyhoo, great review. Sorry, I haven't been around here lately. TOO BUSY. :'( But, I'm getting off topic...

Like I said, Great! And I want to see this now, it will probably be a while before I make myself watch it. <3

KimWilson said...

This was Douglas Sirk's masterpiece. Everyone plays their role great, but Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore were the standouts. What Sirk got them to do in 1959 is remarkable. Specifically, Kohner is owed a debt of gratitude by the African American community for taking on a role that was still considered taboo by many. You're right, the 1959 version is much better than the 1934 one.

ReelHollywoodLegends said...

Wow!! Loved your review!!! Sadly, I have yet to see this movie! However, I can definitely say after reading this, I will definitely be watching it when I get some free time this week......your site is amazing by the way! I love coming across blogs that are related to my passion! I stumbled across yours today and I love it!! I am sure you hear that a lot, but I had to repeat the praise! :) Look forward to reading more of your posts!!!

Kristen said...

It's surprising what movies are racist. I reviewed Holiday Inn and was shocked at how a beloved Christmas movie has such an awful racist song and dance number but "it was the times." I've seen snippets of Imitation of Life, your review makes me want to watch the rest.

Rianna said...

Oh, that's interesting; I didn't know she had Mexican blood, which would generally make her skin browner. To me she photographed rather white, which is a possibility under particular lighting, etc. Anyways, I love to hate in her that role; she was wonderful!

Juanita Moore was also excellent, she played her character with dignity, in my opinion. And LANA. <3 Haha, I just love her now! You speak of the opening credits, and I agree with you, I absolutely LOVE the opening credits of 60s films (well I know this is 59 but you know) and how animated they are. They never fail to enthrall me. It's just one of the little things I love about Old Hollywood!

This film indeed made me cry legitimate tears in the end. I am, and I hope you are too! :)

Rianna said...

Hahaha, I know exactly where you're coming from and I'd probably feel the same way ;) She is actually quite adorable though... ;D

I know, I've been missing you around here!! I know what you mean, I'm really busy this month too, but I graduate in two weeks and then I'm off for summer vacation. I can't wait. :D But I hope you're less busy soon so you'll be around here more often!

I hope you do check it out, I liked certain elements of it, so I hope you can get past Lana and give it a watch! <3

Rianna said...

I don't now much about Kohner and haven't seen her in anything else; but you're right and she was rather good in this - and like you said, Moore, and of course Lana. And yes, so many things bothered me in the '34 one; I adore Claudette Colbert but I couldn't enjoy that film at all...

Rianna said...

Wow, thank you ever so much!! I'm really entirely flattered, your comment really put a smile on my face! :) I love getting feedback like that. I hope you'll stop by and let me know what you think of the movie after you've gotten a chance to see it! :)

Rianna said...

I haven't seen Holiday Inn believe it or not, but when I saw your comment I googled it and I must agree with you. Like I said, old films in general aren't racist, it's awful to see African Americans in stereotypical roles of the maid, train porter, etc., but you know usually there aren't any ugly lines in it which I found in the '34 film. It's awful. To me this was 'the greatest generation', and I would find it the perfect time to live in, except for the awful racism and segregation. So sad.

Irene Palfy said...

Hehe.. glad we agree (on all those things - and especially the credits.. ;"p )

Most of the time I make sure to watch this film late in the evening - otherwise I might sob into the phone calling several people that I love them.. ;")

And: yes, I am!! And: I am looking forward to the next Sunday review.. (just a few hours left.. I start to become fidgety.. ;") )

Rianna said...

I'm so so so happy you enjoy my reviews, Irene, because I usually think they're awful! :) I'm doing a biweekly schedule now but my next review will be up this Sunday. I hope you enjoy it! <3

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