But, newly released on Blu-ray by Universal, along with its original version, directed in 1934 by John M. Stahl, the movie is far more than an evocative turn of phrase.
This tale of two single mothers, one black and the other white — and of maternal love, exploitation and crossing the color line — is a magnificent social symptom.
Both versions were taken from the 1933 best seller by Fannie Hurst, a generally maligned popular writer if one whose novels, the historian Ann Douglas notes in “Terrible Honesty,” her study of Jazz Age culture, constitute “a neglected source on the emergence of modern feminine sexuality.”
Mr. Stahl’s “Imitation of Life” movie was certainly the “shameless tear-jerker” that the New York Times reviewer Andre Sennwald called it, as well as a prime example of the melodramatic mode known in the Yiddish theater as “mama-drama.” But it was not without progressive intent and, released during the second year of the New Deal, addressed issues of race, class and gender almost head-on.
The white protagonist, Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), is a not-quite-self-made businesswoman; the most complex and sympathetic character, Peola Johnson (Fredi Washington), is a casualty of American racism, both institutionalized and internalized. Behind both is the self-effacing powerhouse known as Aunt Delilah (Louise Beavers), who is the light-skinned Peola’s black mother and the source of the secret recipe on which Bea founds her pancake empire — not to mention its smiling trademark.
From left, Lana Turner, Juanita Moore and Terry Burnham in “Imitation of Life” (1959).
Happily ripped off by her white partner for the rest of her life, Beavers embodies exploited African-American labor, something the movie acknowledges by giving her a funeral on the level of a state occasion. The real martyr, however, is Washington’s Peola. The film historian Donald Bogle called her “a character in search of a movie” — but the tragic mulatto is the only part Hollywood would allow this accomplished and politically aware actress to play. In effect, she dramatizes her own segregated condition on screen.
Sirk’s wide-screen, flaming Eastmancolor remake emphasizes the key elements of the earlier film but, eliminating the anticapitalist and feminist subtexts, renders the theme of racial exploitation all the more existential and horrific. Here the white heroine, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) is an aspiring actress with her black counterpart, Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), downgraded from corporate asset to live-in domestic servant.
Her helmet of platinum hair permed, lacquered and tortured into a pompadour, Lora is relentless in her self-dramatization — visually and otherwise. Falsity is piled on falsity. Beginning with the cascade of costume jewels featured in the opening credit sequence, with the Nat King Cole sound-alike Earl Grant singing the theme, the movie revels in tawdry glamour and stylized phoniness.
Mise-en-scène rules; the objective correlative runs amok. Lora and her equally ultra-blond daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee), a crinoline-clad creature inhabiting the world’s pinkest bedroom, are the embodiment of white privilege and clueless self-absorption. “It never occurred to me that you had any friends,” Lora tells her faithful Annie at one point.
The sense of Brechtian alienation produced by Moore’s masklike, near-perpetual smile is matched by having a white actress (Susan Kohner) play her daughter, Sarah Jane. A seemingly white person compelled to pass for black, Sarah Jane is expected to serve Miss Lora’s guests, date chauffeurs and attend a college for “colored teachers.” She’s beaten by a white beau (Troy Donahue) who discovers her racial heritage, and suffers another sort of emotional brutalization at the hands of her saintly mother.
Everyone is doubled and everything is mirrored: Like Lora, Sarah Jane seeks to realize herself in show business. But when she escapes the color-coded hell of Lora’s home to dance in some raunchy Greenwich Village dive, Annie follows like a guilty conscience, demanding, “Sarah Jane Johnson, you put your clothes on and get out of this place!” In the movie’s supreme heart clutcher, the dying Annie tracks down her runaway daughter in Los Angeles — watching Sarah Jane onstage, a performing cog in some well-oiled glamour machine, and invading the furious girl’s motel room. “I just want to look at you,” Annie murmurs, pleading to hold her “beautiful, beautiful baby.”
This appalling spectacle of pride and shame is topped by the climactic funeral, in which the remorseful child flings herself on her mother’s white-on-white coffin. This after Mahalia Jackson has materialized in majestic close-up to deliver a musical sermon, “Trouble of the World,” edited to overwhelm the movie’s white principals even as it blasts the fake happy ending to smithereens.
What is love without the giving, Without love you're only living an imitation, An imitation, of life...