Written during the dismal conditions of the Great Depression, Fannie Hurst’s novel, Imitation of Life, was adapted to film in 1934 and 1959. It tells the story of two widowed mothers, one white and one black, raising their daughters amidst a climate of capitalism and racism. Despite the drastic changes in the movie industry and culture, both versions met great success. Using the conventions of female melodrama, the story foregrounds the dilemmas of motherhood while commenting on capitalism, racism and image. In this paper, I will address how this story manages to transcend a generation and how the narrative was changed to accommodate a postwar audience. I will also discuss how the movie industry affected the production and marketing of Imitation of Life at the cusp of the tumultuous 1960s.
Released in 1932, Hurst tells the story of Bea Pullman, a young widow looking to sell her deceased husband’s excess of maple syrup and take care of her daughter, Jessie. She hires Delilah Johnson as a sleep-in housemaid who brings her remarkably light skinned daughter, Peola, to complete the family. After eating Delilah’s pancakes, Bea decides to go into business selling pancakes on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. The story then follows as the business becomes successful, Bea falls in love with Steve and the daughters begin to grow up and begin to develop their own lives. Hurst was a close friend of acclaimed author Zora Neale Hurston and Hurst’s descriptions of the black American experience are remarkably detailed and fitting for the time.
Imitation of Life (1934) was directed by John Stahl and produced by Universal Pictures. The film remained close to the novel, focusing on Bea’s ascendancy to “pancake queen” and her troublesome relationship between her, Jessie and Steve. The issue of Peola’s self-hatred is a secondary plot. Although it questions racism in America, Stahl skirts the depth in which Hurst examines the situation of blacks, a decision that may have been made with the audience in mind. The film appealed to a larger audience by focusing on the family melodrama occurring within the Pullman duo; had the film concentrated on racism or the distress it has caused between the Johnson duo, many moviegoers may have been turned away. Nonetheless, the 1934 version possesses many conventions of postwar narratives: addressing social problems, focusing on single working mothers, involving multiple protagonists and storylines, and emphasizing psychology of the characters. Most importantly, the story itself questions American cultural values including the security of family and the role of parents, consumerism and capitalism, and ideas of identity. These postclassical traits account for in the story’s success in 1934 and 1959.
In 1958, Ross Hunter received the rights to produce an adaptation of Imitation of Life and chose Douglas Sirk, a studio director at Universal-International pictures, to direct. In an interview conducted in 1972, Sirk recalls the process of creating the screenplay for Imitation of Life:
“Ross Hunter gave me the book, which I didn’t read. After a few pages I had the feeling this kind of American novel would definitely disillusion me. The style, the words, the narrative attitude would be in the way of my getting enthusiastic… But Ross also had an outline done which closely followed the Stahl picture. The picture itself I didn’t look at either, not at that time, at any rate. Later on I saw it, after I had finished my own picture. So I was free of any possible influence.” (Halliday 228)
Without having read Hurst’s novel or watched the 1934 version, Sirk set to work on adapting a 25-year-old story for an audience immersed in issues of capitalism, sexism and racism.
The year before America’s famed sixties, Imitation of Life was released in theaters. Sirk’s story was different from Hurst’s or Stahl’s. Bea Pullman was renamed Lora Meredith, an aspiring actress struggling in New York City with her daughter, Susie. On the beach, they meet Annie Johnson and her daughter, Sarah Jane, who are currently between residences. In a moment of heartfelt sympathy, Lora invites the Johnsons to spend the night at her small apartment. The next morning, Annie tends to the housework while Lora sleeps in, securing the new family dynamic. With Annie’s domestic assistance, Lora becomes a famous Broadway actress. Meanwhile, Annie tries to raise her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, who desperately wants to be white. This version travels deeper into the issues of Sarah Jane’s internalized oppression; it takes the audience to the seedy nightclubs where she works after running away from home and inserts a scene where her white boyfriend beats her in an alley after learning that she is black. True to form, Imitation of Life (1959) still addresses issues of motherhood, capitalism and racism but does so through the eyes of an acclaimed, German-born, melodramatic director.
Sirk was known for his ‘women’s pictures’ and ‘weepies,’ melodramatic romance films that appealed to women and were often derided by critics for their formulaic approach and sappy storylines. He developed this reputation while serving a seven-year commitment to Universal-International, directing films such as Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. Both of these films, and several others of Sirk’ s ‘weepies,’ were produced with Ross Hunter. Sirk accredited Hunter with developing his reputation as a melodramatic director Although his contemporary critics consistently lambasted his films, this irony was not lost on the plethora of cultural academics decades later including Lucy Fischer who recognized that “Imitation, with its exaggerated generic codes, embraced the art film’s ironic stance toward transparent style” (Fischer 4)
Sirk served as a distanced observer during drastic changes in American culture and offered a different perspective of American life in the 1950s. By rewriting the film, Sirk was able to insert updated commentary on Hurst’s original text. Fischer compares the film to a “cinematic prism” similar to the cascading jewels in the opening credits, “capable of breaking a social/intellectual ‘spectrum’ into its component parts” (Fischer 5). Sirk questions American values by directly addressing issues of racism, female representation and capitalism as the nation moves towards an image based culture.
The genre of female melodrama presents a series of conventions that Sirk obeyed in order to subvert established American values. In Imitation of Life, he superficially placed the heterosexual relationship between Lora and Steve at the forefront of the film, indicated by the credit titles and marketing, while consciously developing and defining the identity struggle of the Johnson duo in direct contrast. During the heightened racial consciousness of the late 50s, this was necessary in order to address race issues and appeal to the largest audience possible. The nation schools were recently integrated (Brown vs. The Board of Education – 1954) and the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. Sarah Jane’s psychological neuroses and their effect on her mother become the major issues within the film. “…While the term ‘passing’ attaches to Sarah Jane’s racial identification, it also applies to the film, which postures (alternately) as a recuperative melodrama and subversive parody” (Fischer 20).
The complex discussions of race in Imitation of Life venture beyond Sarah Jane’s integration into American society; “her rejection of a black doll invokes research on children’s racial identification; her anger with her mother bespeaks her generation’s rejection of domestic work; her affair with a white man reminds us of loosening prohibitions against screen miscegenation; Mahalia Jackson’s presence at Annie’s funeral sparks associations to the singer’s participation in civil rights demonstrations, and her role in mainstreaming of black gospel music” (Fischer 18). Sirk incorporates the gamut of subjects around race and forces the audience to look deeper into their surroundings.
He questions some of the most integral parts of American life, including ideas of identity. Sarah Jane’s mother attempts to instill in her daughter a sense of pride for who she is, but it is impossible for Sarah Jane to conform to a degraded position when so much is available to her. She is regularly pigeonholed by her family (including the Merediths) to a life of subjugated black culture: they attempt to set her up with “nice young colored boys” and encourage her to attend a prestigious teachers college for colored women, but she adamantly resists. She is punished for her inability to conform, evidenced by her savage beating in the alley and her mother’s passing. Whether or not Sirk is sympathetic to the plight of blacks in America, he presents a character that exists between the binaries of race and despises what she is. Sarah Jane cannot conform to the standard ideas of identity and Sirk foregrounds America’s inability to deal with these individuals.
Contrasting Sarah Jane with Susie underlines this binary. They confuse the difference between race and class. Susie receives everything because her mother is rich, but Sarah Jane would swear it was because she was white. When Sarah Jane mocks the behavior of black slaves in the south, Lora demands to know if she has ever been treated differently in the Meredith home. Although Sarah Jane is forced to deny the claim, the differences between the two duos are clear, despite a liberal attitude to racial differences. Annie and Sarah Jane are relegated to back rooms and staircases and are never seen participating in leisure activities, which will be discussed later. They are denied the luxuries of Lora and Susie, reinforcing the differences between black and white, even within their alternative family.
The choice to follow Sarah Jane as she leads a life of sexual debauchery, performing in nightclubs including Harry’s and The Moulin Rouge, reinforces the negative repercussions of denying oneself. Sirk troubles this analysis by recognizing that there is no way for her to identify with or conform to any norm, but nonetheless warns others that a life of sin awaits those who cannot behave within the limits of culture.
Amongst all of these additional storylines, Sirk also changes the role of Annie. She is no longer a mammy stereotype; she is presented as an intelligent woman, aware of a racist reality, but remains proud of herself, her family and her color. “With one of the most movingly mobile faces and one of the most heart-warming smiles ever flashed from the screen, she is the symbol not of the Negro as a figure in political controversy but as Woman, the homemaker and guardian of the young – the universal mother” (Hollywood Reporter 2/3/59). Annie rises above the imposed role of Negro although she is still representative of the working black mother. Sirk eliminates Annie’s role in the business, relegating her to a domestic servant alone. This change positions Annie closer to the classic African American situation, “nowadays a Negro woman who got rich could buy a house, and wouldn’t be dependent to such a degree on the white woman, a fact which makes the Negro woman’s daughter less understandable” (Halliday 228). Annie, as a struggling black single mother, could now become a martyr for black women everywhere coping with the stresses of American life.
Hollywood was changing; after coping with its own manhunt in the form of Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), it was becoming more sympathetic to the situation of the nation and the needs of its audience. Although business practices will be discussed in detail further, it is worthy to mention here that both Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner received Academy Award nominations for ‘Best Supporting Actress.’
Even though the handling of racism, within and surrounding the individual, is Imitation of Life’s most socially powerful statement, the film also deals with changes in the family. Like all genres, female melodrama employs certain conventions that appeal to the target audience. According to Molly Haskell, there are four major themes in the female melodrama including a woman’s sacrifice, a woman afflicted, a woman pursued by two suitors and competition between women (Haskell 163). Each of these themes represents a woman coming to a crossroads and highlights the woman forced to make a decision. The genre also address how culture has created women and is restricted by it. In Imitation of Life, each of the women is coming to terms with a change in their lives, be it an active or passive. Sirk divides the characters along these categories: the mothers are forced to choose between their daughters and themselves while the daughters are suffering from an imposed life that restricts their freedom.
Lora is forced to choose between her career and culturally prescribed role as mother. Annie must resolve her desire to keep her daughter close and allow her to live her own life; Susie is coming to terms with a capitalist structure that created an irreparable distance between her and her mother; Sarah Jane suffers from the racist culture of America that has created a hatred for her mother. Each character fits perfectly into the minimal representations of women that were prevalent at the time, but, according to Haskell, “Sirk’s heroine, contrary to the practice of most women’s films, is not in the sacrifice of oneself or social codes, but in the refusal to make that sacrifice” (Haskell 272).
The main character, Lora Meredith, is transformed into an actress instead of an entrepreneur, an occupation that separates her from her daughter, Susie. Although she is able to provide her daughter with everything that she never had, Lora is distant and oblivious to her daughter’s needs. Instead, Susie turns to Annie, sharing more with her nanny than her mother, directly contrasting motherhood with non-domestic careers.
The choice to make Lora an actress instead of an entrepreneur has a variety of meanings during postwar America. During WWII, women took the place of men in the factories and were exposed to a life outside of the home. They were now forced back into domesticity and, as the nation would soon learn through Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (1963), were no longer satisfied with this limited life. By making the main character an actress, Sirk avoided the messy subject of women in the workplace. “The one career woman who was always welcome in the pages of women’s magazines was the actress… you wrote about her as a housewife. You never showed her doing or enjoying work… unless she eventually paid for it by losing her husband or her child, or otherwise admitting failure as a woman” (Fischer 21). Sirk berates Lora for choosing anything other than her family, but on the surface allows her to perform as the ideal successful woman, with a career and a happy home life.
Compared to the 1959 version, Stahl’s image of the workingwoman is forgiving; Bea escapes the direct opposition of domesticity and a career. She is forced to leave Jessie in order to find Peola, a maternal act. Alternatively, Sirk alters the story so that Lora leaves Susie to film in Italy. He attacks Lora’s choice of career over her responsibilities as a mother, featuring scenes where she hangs up on her daughter to attend a cast party and sends Susie to boarding school so as not to interfere with work. On her first date with Steve, she admits, “I never really wanted anything but the stage… oh except Susie.” Her priorities are clear and the film continues to punish her for her decision.
Sirk also highlights Lora’s choice of career over romance, regularly breaking dates with Steve to attend industry functions and rehearsals. She has the opportunity to offer her daughter a father and instead chooses to progress her own career. This realization comes ten years later, when she considers a proposal from David Edwards, claming that “it would be good for Susie.” But by then it is too late, Susie is a young woman and already thinking about boys. “The more Lora scales the ladder of success, the more she displaces her traditional role of homemaker/mother, the more a chasm opens within her domestic space” (Fischer 16).
Annie, who embodies the opposite of Lora’s distanced mothering, fills this space. “Annie seems the good mother to Lora’s bad, the nurturant woman to her egotistical, the natural female to her synthetic, the ‘janitorial’ self to her professional” (Fischer 16). Annie serves as mother to the entire family, including Lora. She is the matriarch despite Lora’s superior position. This over-mothering leads to the demise of her relationship Sarah Jane. Desperate to instill a sense of pride in her light-skinned, but nonetheless black, daughter, Annie clings to the girl long after she has emotionally departed to pursue a life filled with the luxury of being white.
As the ultimate black mother, Annie is still performs as mammy, despite the contemporary critics’ analyses. Even though Sirk expanded the character of Annie, she is still relegated to the mammy position. In their first morning together, Annie washes Lora’s stockings of her own volition. When Lora claims that it is unnecessary, Annie replies, “I like taking care of pretty things.” These contradictions in the script cause me to wonder, is Sirk sympathetic to the American Negro? He recognizes Annie’s position as mammy during the farewell scene in the Hollywood motel. When Annie leaves, Sarah Jane’s friend replies:
FRIEND: Well—get you! So, honey child, you had a Mammy!
S. JANE: Yes—all my life.
The scene belittles the black mother to ‘mammy,’ even with her own children. Sirk insists that this lifestyle is the inevitable career of any and all black women, “you cannot escape what you are” (Halliday 228).
Sirk continues his metaphor of American motherhood to the theater by casting Lora as an actress. According to Fischer, “The ideology of the fifties casts all working mothers as performers, dissembling their maternal functions” (Fischer 15). On the surface, both women appear to be good mothers, giving their daughters the best that they can offer, but it is merely an illusion. Lora and Annie are incapable of giving them what they need; Lora denies her daughter personal, motherly love, while Annie cannot give her daughter the white blood she so desperately desires. Conversely, both women serve as better mothers to their adjacent daughters: Annie is emotionally available to Susie, often listening to the list of questions that she intends to ask mother, and Lora is the perfect specimen of white beauty that can confirm Sarah Jane’s masquerade.
Although Sirk is deeply critical of the arduous job of mothering, he does not offer a positive maternal character, proposing that the perfect mother may be impossible. Even at the end of the film, after Lora recognizes her poor performance as a mother, she continues to make selfish choices. Whereas the 1939 film ends with Bea leaving Steve in order to maintain a relationship with her daughter, Sirk ends the narrative with Lora and Steve eating dinner at home after Susie has left for college. Steve is unaware of Susie’s love for him and Lora’s reactions imply that she and the child did not depart on pleasant terms. Alternatively, Annie dies as soon as she accepts her daughter’s abandonment; the ultimate punishment for her perfect, yet failed mothering. “The two heroines are leveled both are failed parents and disillusioned workers who question their choices and fate” (Fischer 28). This lack of resolution implies that perfect motherhood is impossible.
Alternatively, both daughters are suffering from their culturally traumatized mothers. Susie is desperate for the love that her mother is incapable of giving. Instead, Lora has provided an imitation of love; a perfect life filled with everything that she never had. Sarah Jane tries to escape her subjugated position as a colored woman while her mother attempts to instill self-confidence and pride in her daughter. A point from the book that is ignored in this film is Sarah Jane’s father and his battle with emulating whiteness:
“Her pap didn’ leave her nothin’ but some blue-white blood a-flowin’ in her little veins. ‘Twas de ruination of her pap, dat blue-white blood. ‘Tain’t gonna be hern. We’s black, me and mah baby…” (Hurst Fischer 163)
In the book, the character of Annie clearly dealt with the self-hatred of her husband due to his complexion and hopes to avoid the same in her daughter. This aspect of the character extends the metaphor of poor mothering from personal experiences. It is similar to Lora’s desire to offer a better life for her daughter.
Sirk’s treatment of these women once again forces the question, is he sympathetic to the plight of women? Similar to the issue of racism, he presents characters that are attempting to escape cultural standards but are continually punished for doing so. He mocks the role that American society has inscribed on women, but when they attempt to transcend it, they are met with disastrous consequences. Here the film seems to employ conventions of the female melodrama without questioning it, “the second half of the classic woman’s picture demonstrates that money does not buy happiness, which can only come from being successful in love” (Handzo). The ironic twist of Sirkian melodrama is lacking, instead he seems to perpetuate the rules of the genre.
Together these five individuals, Lora, Annie, Susie, Sarah Jane and Steve, form a family unit. Representative of the new wave of family melodramas in the postwar era, the film employs many of the narrative strategies inherent within the genre including the outsider as a disruptive element (Steve between Lora and Susie), the traumatizing of one family member by another (Sarah Jane’s rejection of her mother and her color; Lora’s love for Steve), the confrontation between generations (Lora vs. Susie; Annie vs. Sarah Jane), and family reinvention. This new alternative family features a two-parent household consisting of two mothers; Lora is the breadwinner, constantly working and distant while Annie remains the domestic servant, tending to the children and the home. “There are two mothers in the situation—and no fathers…no parents of masculine gender to confuse the rich flow of mother love” (Crowther).
The story is decidedly postclassical due to its emphasis on female protagonists; in Stahl’s version, Steve is a suave ichthyologist, and nothing more. Sirk enhances the character of Steve to comment on the expectations of men in 1950s America. Employed as a photographer, Steve embraces a superficial occupation, similar to Lora’s love of the theater. In the beginning of their relationship, they both sell their talent to advertising to make ends meet. As Lora continues onto to stardom and admiration, Steve abandons his dreams of the Museum of Modern Art to climb the ladder of the advertising industry. He becomes the perfect father figure: attractive, successful and kind. Steve manages to accumulate the image of success but remains unhappy without Lora. He too is living an imitation of life.
The introduction of Steve early in the story (when the girls are young) encourages ideas of incest. Steve serves as the girls’ only father figure in the film, despite being separated for ten years. By employing conventions of the family melodrama, Sirk also questions the family security and happiness.
Keeping Up Appearances
A major opponent of the film industry was the expansion of other leisure activities including television and travel. After the Great Depression and WWII, America’s middle class expanded; families began moving to the suburbs and were desperate to ‘keep up with Joneses’ (i.e. maintain an image of success and happiness despite the actual relationships within the home). Travel, once a luxury only for the rich, became accessible to the greater population. The expanding influence of television helped solidify the image of the perfect nuclear family and led the population towards an image-based culture ripe for Sirk’s satirical eye.
Imitation of Life (1959) emphasizes the importance of leisure time in the construction of relationships. The film opens with a shot of the beach crowded with people. On a beautiful sunny day, the camera passes over couples and families enjoying time with loved ones. It is in this environment that the family (including Steve) meets. The movie continues to extol the values of leisure time through Susie’s relationships. She is much closer to Annie than her mother and is shown enjoying leisure activities with Annie such as picnics and sewing. Susie spends time with Steve while Lora is in Italy, enjoying such activities as horseback riding, shopping, dinner, dancing and the theater. It is during this time that Susie’s affections for Steve develop and her relationship with him is solidified. The strength of these relationships is reinforced by the lack of a relationship with her mother, with whom she spends no leisure time and participates in very few activities.
Annie and Sarah Jane are rarely seen participating in leisure activities after their introduction on the beach. This becomes decidedly evident in two scenes, the picnic and Susie’s horseback riding trip with Steve. At the picnic, Lora’s selfish tendencies induce her to leave her daughter for a walk with Steve in the park while Annie and Susie tend the grill and discuss questions that Susie would like to ask her mother. Sarah Jane is not present due to feigned illness. Annie, although technically participating in the activity, is caring for Susie in her mother’s absence; even in her supposed leisure time she is working. In the latter scene, Sarah Jane watches from her window as Susie mounts her new horse (a gift from her mother for graduation) and departs the grounds with Steve. Sarah Jane recedes into her room and dances around her records on the floor, a cheap leisurely substitute for horseback riding, and kicks a stuffed animal out of anger. The luxury of race and class are intimately connected for Sarah Jane and is thus presented to the audience as an aspect of American society.
The use of the theater has been documented in female representation, but its role as an alternative leisure activity provides a different perspective on this medium. Lora’s plays are in the genre of behavioral realism, following seemingly ordinary people at important, or not so important, intersections of their lives. Playwrights including Arthur Miller and William Inge explored their personal experiences and character psychology. Lora becomes a star in this genre, reaching fame and fortune by imitating life. Her plays are written for her by her playwright boyfriend, David Edwards, and boast ironic titles including “Happiness” and “Born to Laugh.” Her dramatic debut entitled “No Greater Glory” recognizes her supreme ability to imitate life, comedic and dramatic.
In addition, the rise of the film industry caused theater to become an elder medium. This allowed it to boast a pedigree of “high culture,” distanced from popular culture of movies and music. Sirk avoided the obvious connections between Hollywood and image production by making Lora a stage actress instead of a film actress. This conscious distancing may have also affected the screenwriters’ choice for Lora to make an Italian film. Nonetheless, the metaphor of life as theater remains. “Disoriented by the elisions of fiction and life, we wonder where performance ends and reality begins” (Affron 207).
On the surface, Imitation of Life foregrounds consumption and high class living; the audience follows Lora’s rise to the top and her growth as a member of America’s elegant entertainment royalty. The production department boasted a wardrobe of Jean Louis dresses valued at $78,000 and over $1 million worth of jewels, a key marketing point that will be developed in business practices, which were prominently featured in the film. Lora’s wardrobe becomes a major hallmark of the film but the message rises above the glitter of the jewels: consumption does not equal happiness. In case this point is lost on the viewer, the scene between Lora and Susie near the end of the film blatantly exposes it:
SUSIE: I’m sure you’d be too busy to miss anyone… much too busy
LORA: Why, you give me credit for nothing. Yes I’m ambitious—perhaps too ambitious—but it’s been for your sake as well as mine! Isn’t this house just a little bit nicer than a cold-water flat? And your new horse—aren’t you crazy about it… and that closet of yours—
SUSIE: Has all the dresses fit for the daughter of a famous star… and how about a mother’s love?
LORA: Love?! But you’ve always had that!
SUSIE: Yes—by telephone. By postcard. By magazine interviews. You’ve given me everything—but yourself!
Imitation of Life mocks American ideas of success; the characters in the film confuse the image of happiness with the actual feeling. In Lora’s mind, she feels that since she has provided her daughter with everything, there is nothing she could want. Alternatively, she desperately seeks the adoration of the crowd, and revels in their applause. The image of success has eclipsed the defintion. This critique is introduced early in the film, when Annie greets the milkman and there is no mention of the pending bill. Lora claims that he must think that she is prosperous with a new maid. Annie responds, “No sin in lookin’ prosperous. It’s just a way of showin’ your trust in the Lord—tellin’ Him you’re ready whenever He is.” The trend continues when Lora meets Loomis for a party: he insists on dressing her up and parading her around New York, stating that in order for her to be a star, she must look and behave like one on the surface, even if selling herself short. This Hollywood mentality that has pervaded American culture is the center of Sirk’s criticism. Maintaining the image of success is just as important as, if not more than, gaining success.
Fassbinder offers a quote in the book Douglas Sirk that encapsulates this perfectly:
“It is not because white is a prettier color than black that Sarah Jane wants to pass for white, but because life is better when you’re white. Lana Turner doesn’t want to be an actress because she enjoys it, but because if you’re successful you get a better deal in this world. And Annie doesn’t want a spectacular funeral because she’d get anything out of it, she’s dead by then, but because she wants to give herself value in the eyes of the world retrospectively, which she was denied during her lifetime. None of the protagonists come to see that everything, thoughts, desires, dreams arise directly from social reality or are manipulated by it” (245).
Released April 30, 1959, starting the summer film season, Douglas Sirk’s remake of Imitation of Life was a box office success. It earned approximately $13 million in ticket sales alone, making it one of Universal-International’s top grossing films at the time. Universal-International employed many marketing strategies that are now commonplace in American cinema including music and marketing tie-ins and extensive product placement. In this section I intend to discuss issues in the production and marketing, costume, color and the subsequent reception in America including questions raised regarding racism within the audience.
Production and Marketing
Ross Hunter came to the aid of Universal-International in its time of need, producing three of its largest box office draws in 1959, Pillow Talk ($15 million), Operation Petticoat ($23 million) and Imitation of Life, all of which were considered “women’s movies.” In 1957, Hunter received the rights to produce a musical version of Imitation of Life, thus adhering to the “adaptation syndrome” of postclassical cinema. Many of the films produced during this time were adaptations of primary sources including novels, stage plays, and earlier films. the studios were able to reduce the studio costs by using already established material, thereby eliminating writers, and guarantee a profit due to an established audience already familiar with the story. Imitation of Life was a successful novel in 1932 and a successful film in 1934; the text was already a part of American popular culture and Universal-International intended to capitalize on its reputation.
Much to my surprise, the film sailed through the PCA. There were a few impediments but for the most part, Imitation of Life met the requirements of the production code including its portrayal of races and sociological factors. The PCA questioned certain lines in Sarah Jane’s performance at Harry’s nightclub, an issue that was easily rectified by changing the lyrics, and the extent of Sarah Jane’s beating in the alley. A drastic departure from its classical predecessor, the film underscores this sequence not only for its cultural significance, but also for the fact that violence against women was a nascent topic. The PCA also took issue with the dialogue in Loomis’ office, “If the Dramatist Club wants to eat and sleep with you, you will eat and sleep with them.” following the anti-establishment trend of postclassical filmmaking, the lines remain in the movie and are one of Lora’s most moral moments, where she refuses to objectify herself simply for fame. The film received an A-3 rating from the Legion of Decency, and the Protestant Motion Picture Council approved Imitation of Life for adults and mature young people.
A semi-independent production, Imitation of Life helped save Universal-International from its lagging performance in the 1950s, concurrent with the decline of the industry due to the Paramount decision of 1948. In 1952, Decca Records purchased the diminishing company and in 1958, MCA purchased the Universal Studio lot, which would lead to an eventual merger in 1962 (Universal Studio History). In order to reduce overhead, Turner accepted an alternative contract: she received no money up front for the film, instead collecting half of the profits, or $2 million, thus making her the highest paid actress at the time.
Continuing another trend, the film takes great care in the opening credits; they are more than simply titles. Imitation of Life begins with a statement that cannot be ignored: it provides an example of life’s fabrication and forces the audience to question their own attraction for the imitation. Dozens of large, ostentatious, and obviously fake jewels pour from the top of the screen into the black frame. They begin to collect at the bottom of the screen, sparkling with false beauty, and fill the frame by the end of the credits. Despite their superficial luminous beauty, the sheer quantity serves to devalue their original perceived worth. The song “Imitation of Life.” sung by Earl Grant, plays over the sequence, further emphasizing this metaphor.
Imitation of Life was originally slated to be a musical, and many of these characteristics remain, the colorful costumes and sets echo other popular musical films of the time. Although the film took a non-musical approach to the story, musical numbers are integrated into the text. They serve to enhance the realism of the film by becoming part of the narrative and distance the viewer from believing that the film is anything but an imitation of life.
The music in the film was also retained as a marketing strategy. Decca Records, which owned 34% of Universal-International, released the soundtrack (Universal Studios History). It showcased the theme song ‘Imitation of Life,’ sung by Earl Grant, a Decca Records contractee. In style of popular black singer, Nat King Cole, its lyrics define what it means to be living an imitation of life:
What is love without the giving?
Without love you’re only living
An imitation, an imitation of life
Mahalia Jackson’s gospel number, ‘Trouble of the World’, is also prominently featured. This emphasis on Negro music assists in the foregrounding of the race problem and adheres to the trends of popular music at the time. In 1959, popular artists included Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. The influence of Negro music on American culture was clear and, in the era of civil rights, it appealed to the youth regardless of race.
Costumes and Color
The use of musical conventions reminds the audience of Hollywood’s classical period, a time when the motto of the movies was to “make ‘em big.’ Imitation of Life returns to this classic mentality by emphasizing the extravagant sets and costumes. One of the major advertising points of the film was the cost of Turner’s wardrobe and jewels. In a clipping released by Universal-International to theaters around the nation, Turner’s jewels were so valuable “she was accompanied by two armed guards at all times while the color production was being filmed” (emphasis added). Even in its marketing scheme, the film manages to foreground consumption in order to critique it, thereby utilizing standard marketing strategies and playing on the consumer fascination in order to attract audiences to its message.
Color is employed to enhance the differences between class and race, the two major social topics of the film, and underline the characters’ imitation of life. Extravagant color is used to represent Lora’s rise to success, Sarah Jane’s descent into sexual debauchery, and allows the viewer to appreciate the multiracial qualities of Sarah Jane’s features.
There is a sharp disparity between the colors of Lora’s original New York apartment and her mansion in Connecticut. The apartment is a combination of browns, blacks and dark greens; it is a small space and the dark color scheme enhances the close quarters. Her dresses during this time are simple; even the black cocktail dress worn for her date with Loomis is remarkably drab. He drapes a mink around her shoulders, claiming that he “hasn’t been seen with a girl without a mink since the heat wave of ’39.” But this act also serves to disguise her common outfit and conform to the standard image of a starlet. The second half of the film, after Lora’s rise to stardom, is awash in magnificent color. Her dresses are made of fabric “imported from 17 different lands” (press kit) and her mansion is painted in pastels, encouraging a expansive feeling in the home. This use of color cannot be ignored when the camera enters Susie’s bedroom. Pink from floor to ceiling, it is the room of a young princess; Lora has spared no expense in perfecting her daughter’s image of happiness.
Alternatively, color is also used to document Sarah Jane’s separation from her family. Sara Jane’s scenes at Harry’s nightclub and the Moulin Rouge employ colorful settings and costume to transport the audience into an environment rife with sexuality and continue to make a statement regarding the expectations of color and race. “The nightclubs are a garish wonderland of reds and purples and all the gaudiness stereotypically associated with blacks merchandised to sensation-seeking whites” (Handzo). Although the scenes at the Moulin Rouge are advertised as employing actual dancers, Sirk admits that they were invented for the film. He offers an imitation of a nightclub by enhancing the brash colors and employing studio dancers to replicate those at the Moulin Rouge. He imitates a leisure activity that many of the film going audiences desire. Although the irony may be lost on the casual viewer, Sirk seems to revel in the joke that he regularly played on his audiences.
The most impressive use of color is its ability to highlight the differences in the American colored population. In Stahl’s black and white version, the difference between Delilah and Peola is drastic, they occupy opposite ends of the color spectrum on black and white film. Alternatively, in Sirk’s colorful world, the similar quality of Annie and Sarah Jane’s skin tones is not lost. Although Fredi Washington, an African American actress known for her involvement in civil rights, played the role of Peola, Susan Kohner, who is of Mexican-German descent, portrayed Sarah Jane. Despite changes in the production code that allowed colored actors to play colored characters, Sirk takes a step backward by casting a non-African American to play the role. Shrugging off any expectations this change in code may have had, the directors searched two continents and interviewed a hundred colored and five non-negro actresses to find the best one for the part. Regardless of color, Kohner performed beautifully, earning an Academy Award nomination.
The absence of color during Annie’s funeral presents an interesting contrast to the vivid colors throughout the rest of the film. Annie demands a spectacular funeral, one bordering on a parade, with “four white horses, and a band playin’.” The scene is consciously integrated, the only point in the film where whites and blacks are seen on equal ground. The skin color of the attendees becomes lost in the sea of black funeral garb while Annie’s white coffin stands prominently at the front of the church, located between her friends and God, between the white and black social binary. She has finally managed to transcend this reality and her funeral represents an ideal America, united and colorblind.
Advertising and Audience
Imitation of Life (1959) was not a box office success due to its content alone, the barrage of advertising around the film was aimed at all demographics. Ads were placed in national weekly magazines, young adult magazines, women appeal magazines, teenager appeal magazines, family appeal magazines, Negro national magazines, and more. By dealing with sensitive issues in a mature, intellectual fashion, the film appealed to the adult market but did not alienate teenagers.
Advertised as “One of the biggest pre-selling national magazine ad campaigns in the history of Universal,” (press kit) no avenue of cross promotion was spared. Imitation of Life received tie-ins with Lane Bryant (“adaptations of six gorgeous Jean Louis creations worn by Lana Turner”), Frigidaire (“appliances in swank movie setting”), Colgate-Palmolive and Lux Soap (featuring fresh faced Sandra Dee) as well as a coloring book. Stills from the film were provided to merchants featuring the stars with the Decca Portable Radio, the Zenith Clock Radio, the Zenith Portable Television and the Grunding Majestic Hi-Fi Set.
All potential marketing gimmicks were employed, from product placement to broadcast ads. Universal-International offered free transcripts of the film for spot radio use that have been “specially designed to reach various sections of the broadcast audience… with maximum effect” (press kit), as well as free television spots, a special dialogue disc to supplement the radio campaign, and a free teaser trailer. Articles were released to local papers around the country featuring stories about the stars and the production process of the film. Each article left a blank space for the name of the town and the local theater. Titles of the articles include:
Imitation gives fans ringside table at famous nightclub
Price of glamour still tops $14.95
A star at 21? Susan Kohner proves self true child of destiny
Imitation role provides Juanita Moore chance for rapid raise to film heights
Top stardom beckons Gavin more than ever with new role in Imitation of Life
Lana’s sweater has new movie ‘career’ (press kit)
The primary poster for (attached) featured a secluded image of Harry’s nightclub in the center of the image and three still frames from the movie on the left side, spotlighting the film’s three main conflicts. At the top of the poster is a frame of Lora and Steve with the quote, “I’ll get the things I want out of life… one way—or another. From one man—or another!” The frame directly below features Susie facing Lora, “You’ve given me everything a mother could, but the thing I wanted most… your love!” Finally, at the bottom of the poster is a frame of Sarah Jane and Annie in a motel room, “The color line won’t stop me, Ma! I look, feel, think white… and I’m going to marry white!” The ranking of these storylines mirrors the melodramatic strategies used by Sirk to disguise his social commentary. Once again, the heterosexual romance between Lora and Steve is primary, followed by the relationship between Susie and Lora, and, almost as an aside, the conflict between Annie and Sarah Jane regarding her desire to pass for white.
The reception was mixed throughout the nation. Released in one prominent theater per city, the audiences were often racially integrated. The Pittsburgh Press refused to accept an advertising copy dealing with the race problem, although this was rare in the north. Universal-International issued separate posters for racially sensitive audiences (read: southern) “to avoid any conflict on the segregation problem” (Variety 4/1/59). The editor of the L.A. Tribute, a Negro paper accused Imitation of Life of degrading the Negro race, “It libels our children and the Negro mother should be banned in the interest of national unity, harmony, peace, decency and inter-racial respect” (Hollywood Reporter 2/2/59). Universal-International quickly answered with a barrage of positive comments from Negro journalists. “Doc” Young of the L. A. Continental said:
“In my opinion, Imitation of Life is a powerful, dramatic picture. I would have to be unreal to get angry about this picture, as it seems that the studio certainly has made sincere efforts to handle a controversial subject with good taste. Further, it is a fact, as everyone knows, that ‘passing’ exists in this country. A reliable source estimates that as many at 10,000,000 American’s ‘pass.’ Imitation of Life then relates to a factual situation. As to the mother Juanita Moore handles this role with dignity and I believe turns in one of the outstanding performances of recent times.” (Hollywood Reporter 2/2/59)
An American trend in film marketing is the use of the star biography in promotion. This becomes most obvious in the parallel quality of Lora Meredith’s life with Lana Turner’s. The year before Imitation of Life was released in theaters, Turner’s daughter, Cheryl, was acquitted of murdering Turner’s boyfriend, Joey Stompanato. The case was plastered across newspapers and movie magazines. Rumors of jealousy and neglect flew. Many speculated that Cheryl and Lana were both in love with Stompanato and Cheryl killed him out of a jealous rage. “It is a common belief that the production of Imitation capitalized on the Stompanato scandal. Though the narrative skirts the subject of murder, it concerns the life of a performer and invokes maternal neglect, mother/daughter strife, and incestual rivalry over a man. Turner herself recognized the association between life and art” (Fischer 25). Cheryl was acquitted, the jury believed her claim that Stompanato was going to kill her mother. But the story was forever tied to the film as an example of art imitating life.
Although this may have been the most public connection between Turner’s life and the film, there were other similarities that were exploited, specifically her rise to success from a “sweater girl” to a respected actress, which parallels Lora’s ascension to stardom, and her experience as a single working mother. “Throughout this period, Turner tried to ‘maintain the image of a woman who had combined a satisfying marriage with a successful film career” (Fischer 23). In later interviews, Cheryl would admit that she was deeply disturbed by the similarities between Imitation of Life and the relationship with her mother.
Alternatively, Sandra Dee’s presence not only serves as a hook for young audiences, but also as a contrast to the aging stardom of Lana Turner. Turner was America’s sweater girl in the 1940s, while Sandra Dee was the highest paid teenage model of all time in New York and one of the most sought after young actresses in Hollywood. In an industry rife with ageism, and a scarcity of roles for mature actresses, Dee she embodies a new generation of starlets rising above their predecessors. Alternatively, Turner represents the older generation desperately clinging to stardom in a sea of teenage faces and bodies. The competition between them on film mirrors the transition in the entertainment industry from one generation to another. Lora must address Susie’s adoration for her lover while Turner addresses Dee’s encroachment on her position as America’s sweetheart.
Despite the fact that much of the media hype surrounding the film focused on Turner’s similarity to the storyline, the other characters brought their own histories as well. Juanita Moore’s earlier singing career at the Moulin Rouge in Paris was mentioned in several articles, drawing connections to the Susan Kohner’s extravagant dance number at the Moulin Rouge in Hollywood. Kohner herself was a child of the stage, the daughter of film agent Paul Kohner and Mexican film star Lupita Tovar, but established her own career in Imitation of Life, thereby dispelling any rumors that her theatrical heritage was involved in her casting. In an interview, Sirk praised her performance, “Kohner, a complete beginner in pictures, steps forward, putting Turner and Gavin into the shade” (Halliday 229). Mahalia Jackson performs as herself, one of the only honest characters of the film. According to Dyer, her performance “suggests a core of real feeling in black religion.” He highlights her inability to lip synch with an earlier recording, thus claming that “the film medium… is unable to capture her untrammeled outpouring of emotion” (Dyer 206).
Douglas Sirk’s biography must be mentioned, as he too is intimately familiar with many of the storylines in the film. Originally named Claus Detler Sierck, Douglas Sirk was an acclaimed German filmmaker in the 1930s that escaped the Weimar Republic in 1937 under the guise of “scouting locations” in Italy. He was invited to expand a Renoir short film into a feature, but the project was abandoned after Sirk had immigrated to the United States in 1940. He continued to work around Hollywood, but soon became disgusted with the industry and left to raise chickens in the San Fernando Valley. In 1942 he signed a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures as a writer but also directed a series of films. At the end of his contract, Sirk traveled to Germany for a year, returning to America in 1950 to direct for Universal-International, where he would earn his reputation as a director of “women’s pictures.” Sirk made his frustrations with the film industry public, often vocalizing his disgust with the conventions of Hollywood and Hunter’s limited vision.
This film affected me remarkably. As an individual of mixed races, I am all too familiar with the dilemma of being caught between cultures and I thought that Imitation of Life captured the failure of American binaries perfectly. It was only by overcoming my desire to be stereotypically beautiful (read: white), was I able to recognize my own place independent of racial expectations. The unresolved ending between Lora and Susie in the 1959 version seems to represent the lack of resolution regarding race. Although troublesome endings may have been a convention of postclassical films, Sirk forces the audience to consider the future of Lora, Steve and Susie, and, in the process, alludes to the unresolved issues of Sarah Jane’s existence. Annie’s death may have forced her to recognize her misgivings as a daughter, but her life as a light-skinned young woman has only begun, just as our battle with civil rights.
This example defines the term “Sirkian irony” which has come to define the conventions of Sirk’s filmmaking and comments regarding American culture. For me, Sirkian irony possesses two possible definitions: (1) simultaneously employing and questioning American values and (2) creating jokes at the audience’s expense. He utilizes the conventions of the female and family melodrama to subvert American values and mocks Americans for not recognizing seemingly obvious contradictions in their culture. This is most evident in his approach to motherhood and race.
Although Sirk presents two drastically different mothers, one domestic, the other business, neither proves to be successful. He punishes Lora for choosing herself and her career over her womanly needs including her daughter and her lover, but Annie, the matriarch of this alternative family, also meets an untimely end. Despite conforming to the classic mother, doting and unselfish, Annie is still punished for her inability to let her daughter live her own life. Here, Sirk is making a statement of the perfect mother: even though America tends to demonize working mothers, its stereotypical perfect mother is no guarantee of success either.
On the other hand, Sirk’s handling of racism is slightly more troubling. After escaping Nazi Germany, one would expect Sirk to understand the extreme repercussions of racism, but, in Imitation of Life, race becomes an insurmountable subject as well. American values state that we should remain true to ourselves and not to deny our heritage, a point that Annie makes regularly. By questioning this established value, Sirk allows Sarah Jane to traverse the boundaries of race and explore a world available only to privileged whites, but every time she attempts to transcend race, she is brutally dragged back to her subordinate position. This same ironic stance is assumed with Annie’s character; even though on the surface, Sirk has expanded her role, she still performs her duties as mammy.
Since its production, the film has been a major point of discussion for cultural theorists. Sirk tackled the expectations of racism and womanhood, subjects that would come to define the 1960s. In 125 minutes, he summarizes the situation of blacks and women in a manner that is non-threatening: the female melodrama. He employs the formula of this genre to the characters and the format of the movie itself. The first half highlights Lora’s rise to stardom, allowing the audience to connect with the character and revel in her fabulous wardrobe then confirms that money does not buy happiness in the second half (Handzo). Sirk introduces the audiences of 1959 to their own cultural obstacles then departs Hollywood, leaving the nation to contemplate its situation. Richard Dyer summarized it best
“The problem the film poses is whether there is, in fact, anything but imitation in life.” –Dyer 203
Variety 4/1/59 (Academy of Motion Pictures)
Hollywood Reporter 2/2/59 (Academy of Motion Pictures)
Hollywood Reporter 2/3/59 (Academy of Motion Pictures)
Affron, Charles. 1980. Performing and Performing: Irony and Affect. Cinema Journal 20:42-52
Crowther, Bosley. 1959. Imitation of Life in a familiar soap vein. New York Times, April 19, 1959.
Dyer, Richard. 1977. Four Films of Lana Turner. Movie 25:30-52.
Fischer, Lucy, ed. 1991. Imitation of Life; Douglas Sirk, director. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Halliday, Jon. 1972. Sirk on Sirk. in Imitation of Life; Douglas Sirk, director, edited by L. Fischer.
Handzo, Stephen. 1997. Intimations of Lifelessness. Bright Lights Film Journal (18).
Haskell, Molly. 1973. From Reverence to Rape: The treatment of women in the movies. 2nd ed. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Universal Studio History