Friday, July 15, 2011

Imitation(s) of Life: 1934 & 1959

A few months ago I watched both versions of Imitation of Life. At the time they were both available on Netflix Instant (now only the 1959 version is). Since this story/both movies are very famous, I won't tell you too much about it plot-wise, but here's my little review: I do highly recommend both films. Neither are very politically correct, which isn't surprising considering the subject matter and the eras in which they were dealing with it, but they are both entertaining and tell an interesting story if you keep in mind the times and are able to separate the medium from the message (as Lauren so perfectly put it when describing watching The Sheik). I watched the 1934 version first, and the next day, I was still thinking about the story, so I sat down and watched the 1959 version. What I noticed in terms of distribution of offensiveness, was that the 1934 version was more racist, and the 1959 version was more sexist (though both films have plenty of both).
Now to talk about some of the good points of the films:

Imitation of Life (1934), starring Claudette Colbert.
I've got a major girl-crush on Claudette Colbert, so in my opinion her presence alone gives this version major points. And of course she was great as usual. In general this film was engaging, and the characters pull you in enough to snag tears and laughs from you more than a few times.
Louise Beavers, playing the black maid Delilah Johnson opposite Colbert's Beatrice Pullman, was widely praised at the time of the film's release for a fine performance, but I can't say I loved it - not because she was necessarily a bad actress, but because despite the fact that her character was relatively developed compared to other roles for black actors at the time, the character is still a racist caricature (this wasn't her fault - of course she would've been directed to act this way).
Fredi Washington, who plays Delilah's daughter Peola, was absolutely gorgeous and portrayed the terrible anxiety and anger of her character very affectingly. Washington actually has a very interesting life story: She had a very rocky relationship with Hollywood, since she proudly defined herself as a black woman despite the fact that most people thought she looked white. She arguably lost chances at stardom due to racism and her refusal to pretend to be white, saying that success and fame wasn't worth the insult of having to deny one's identity/heritage. Her bravery in the face of racism and strong sense of self in general is admirable, but it's a shame she didn't get to do more pictures.
The last of the four main women, Rochelle Hudson as Jessie Pullman, was probably the least affecting, but mainly because her character is so unsympathetic. But Hudson plays it off well enough that you don't hate her, you just find her kind of annoying and naive (for falling in love with her mother's boyfriend). Also, she is delightfully adorable and wears a few cute outfits, which always helps!

Now for a few pictures from this film, mainly of pretty close-ups and cute outfits (though the clothing was not really a main feature, as you can see by the lack of full-length "look at the the pretty clothing" shots):
Lovely Claudette.

Claudette literally biting back a laugh at the ridiculous butler. 

Not a screen shot, but a publicity still.
Another publicity shot. Delilah (left) and Beatrice (right) soon after they meet, with their young daughters.
Louise Beavers (left) and Fredi Washington (right).
Imitation of Life (1959), starring Lana Turner.
I do think Lana Turner is beautiful and a great actress (she was one of the leads in a favorite film of mine, Ziegfeld Girl), but I'm not crazy about her like I am Claudette Colbert. I admire her, but I don't love her. That said, this film is partly responsible for my changing views on her - she does very well, and is lovely to look at, both in physical beauty and emotional range. A little vestige of Lana's Glamour Girl personality comes through, but it works since it fits the character anyway.
This brings me to the next point - the plot has been significantly changed, which makes it not necessarily better or worse, just different, and enough so that watching the two film versions back-to-back doesn't seem boring or repetitive. Now, instead of building a pancake empire, the character of Beatrice (in this version, named Lora) rises to fame as an actress. There's an interesting backstory to why this change occurred: those producing the film realized that in 1959, amid the Civil Rights movement and a (slowly) modernizing and more liberal society, a story featuring a black woman who helps a white woman rise to riches and refuse to accept any payment for herself, opting to remain a maid, would simply be ridiculous (this idea was probably ridiculous even in 1934, but white audiences accepted it) and an outrage. So they changed it to the white woman being solely responsible for her own success, thus allowing it to remain plausible that Delilah (named Annie in this film) would stay a maid and keep the two women together for the story to play out. I thought that Juanita Moore as Annie played the character much more convincingly and when you see her dealing with the heartbreak, your heart breaks a little too. The subplots of Peola (Sarah Jane) struggling with racial identity and Jessie (Susie) falling in love with her mother's boyfriend remain, though they play out more thoroughly.
Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane is almost perfect - at first she's almost scary and you hate her for being so cruel to her mom, but she conveys the subtle sadness and desperate desire to just fit in of her character that she doesn't seem as heartless as Peola in the 1934 version.
Sandra Dee was adorable as ever, and I think she played the dysfunctional love triangle a bit more convincingly than Rochelle Hudson in 1934 - though, this may have to do with the fact that the man in this version is actually attractive, very attractive (John Gavin), whereas the actor playing the boyfriend in the 1934 version was somewhat grandfatherly looking.
One of the most noticeable differences in this version, besides the obvious plot change, is the staggeringly glamorous wardrobe. When watching it I felt like the wardrobe for Lana was especially lavish, but I didn't realize just how much thought and money was put into it. It turns out there really were no expenses spared, on Lana's costumes especially: her wardrobe alone cost over $1.078 million!!!!

Now for the pictures:

Lana Turner.
Hmm.. seems directors really liked to feature Lana in this kind of pose! (The first image in this post!)
Lora chatting with Annie

Megahunk John Gavin.

An interestingly cut robe/lounging outfit.
Sarah Jane. I noticed that Sarah Jane's character wore much more curve hugging and "sexy" clothing, while Susie wore more cutesy and/or comfy clothing. This definitely fit the mentalities of their characters. 

Sandra Dee, looking cheek-pinchingly cute.

- Emily


  1. Thanks for the wonderful link-up! I'm blushing!

    Anyway...I watched the 1934 version when it was on Netflix because I, too, adore Claudette Colbert. I found bits of it far-fetched, but was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed the movie and how moving it was. Now I need to see the Douglas Sirk version! Was anybody cuter than Sandra Dee?

  2. Thanks, I personally prefer the 1934 version, b/c the story was mostly about the two women's stories and their friendship/trials as mothers, businesswomen. But the underlying fact was it was set during a time when there was still racial inequality, thus the point of the title. It was the whole reason behind Peola's actions, which to me, didn't play out as well in the remake. Plus, I didn't find the two women's relationship to be as true to friendship in the second version, as much as I did in the first. But that could be that I think the two actresses in the first are much better actresses all around (Claudette is my favorite actress of all time).
    You really should watch more films with Warren William, you may find him less grandfatherly in his other films. He's usually got more swagger, almost giving him a sexy quality, but he can play a 'cad' quite convincingly. He was a great actor. Try '3 on a Match', 'Lady For a Day', 'The Match King', and so, so, many more. The pre-code movies are fun.


  3. Yes, I do prefer the '34 version because there was more of an emotional connection between the leading ladies, but I also found the '59 version good for how visually dazzling it is!
    I've seen both Three on a Match and Lady for a Day, and I did indeed find him less grandfatherly in those films! In 3oaM he was actually rather goodlooking, but I don't think 1934's IOL does him justice!