Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Girl Week 2021: Imitation of Life (1959), a Guest Post by Joel

Welcome to Day 2 of Girl Week 2021! Day 1 got things off to a great start. And now, Super Reader Joel gets to put in his two cents. Without further adieu, I'll turn things over to him.

Directed by Douglas Sirk. 

1959. Not Rated, 125 minutes. 
Cast: Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, Susan Kohner, Sandra Dee, John Gavin, Dan O’Herlihy, Robert Alda, Terry Burnham, Karin Dicker 

On a crowded Coney Island beach in the late 40’s widow Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) becomes separated from her young daughter Susie. As she frantically searches photographer Steve Archer (John Gavin) offers his help and they quickly discover Susie safe with single mother Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane who is Susie’s age.

Lora and Annie become acquainted while the girls, who have quickly formed a bond, play in the sand. During their talk aspiring actress Lora mentions she often feels overwhelmed raising a child alone while trying to build a career and wishes she had help. Annie, unemployed and temporarily homeless, sees a solution to both their problems and offers to come and as she puts it “do for you.” Lora while appreciative of the offer, though she cannot afford to pay her, asks Annie why she would want to leave a job taking care of Sarah Jane and is surprised when Annie, who is black, states that the extremely fair Sarah Jane is her daughter. She explains that Sarah Jane’s father, who had deserted them shortly after her birth, was “practically white” and they had just come from somewhere where Annie’s color had “deviled” her baby. Since then, she had been unable to find work because she refused to be separated from her girl.

Lora, grateful and moved by Annie’s story, takes them into her tiny cold water flat for what she at first thinks will be only a brief period but almost immediately realizes that together they are a strong unit. Providing emotional support for each other, companionship for their daughters and the ability for Lora to pursue her career while Annie manages their home life their fortunes quickly turn around but there is trouble brewing.

Just as Lora finally gets a chance for her big break Steve Archer, who has pursued her ever since that meeting on the beach, lands a big job in advertising and proposes marriage. Lora is tempted but there’s a catch. Steve wants her to abandon her dreams of an artistic life to be a housewife. She feels that after all her years of toil and with success within her grasp she cannot give it up. Steve unwilling to see her perspective gives her an ultimatum which goes badly and they part. Enormous success follows shortly after when she becomes the toast of Broadway in a frothy comedy.

But an even larger problem looms. Unknown to all fair skinned Sarah Jane has been passing for white at school. When her mother brings her lunch one day her secret is exposed, and Sarah Jane flees in horror. The immensely kind and understanding Annie draws a line at this and tells her daughter it’s a sin to deny who you are but Sarah Jane, seeing the privileges of being Caucasian in pre-Civil Rights Movement America, is unswayed. When Lora tries to comfort her saying it’s simply a phase Annie, who sees a deeper problem of identity, says she doesn’t think so and asks, “How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?”

As a decade passes Lora, now one of the biggest stars on Broadway moves the family to a lavish home in a tony New York suburb. But though the surroundings have become more plush thorny issues remain.

In pursuit of her successful career Lora has relied on the ever-faithful Annie-homemaker, governess, confidante, and best friend, to be the emotional support for Susie leading to a somewhat strained relationship between mother and daughter. At a party after Lora’s latest stage triumph Steve reenters her life and the two, admitting their feelings for each other have never faded, quickly become serious. However, Lora signs to do a film in Italy and asks Steve to watch over the now-teenaged Susie (Sandra Dee) and she promptly develops an unrequited crush on the dashing older man who remains obliquely unaware.

But the true heartbreak continues to come via Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) who has tried to establish herself in their new surroundings as a rich white girl. When she takes Susie into her confidence the other girl warns her that neither of their mothers would stand for the deception if they knew but Sarah Jane heedlessly begins dating preppy teen Frankie (Troy Donahue). Hoping for an escape through a quick marriage he instead beats her severely after learning she is black. Crawling home she lashes out at Annie blaming her for telling people she is her daughter. The situation only worsens afterward taking a heavy emotional and physical toll on Annie when Sarah Jane flees leaving no clue to her whereabouts.

Returning from Italy Lora takes charge asking Steve to hire a private detective who quickly finds Sarah Jane working in California as a showgirl under the name of Linda Carroll and still passing. Lora offers to retrieve her but Annie, despite being ill insists on flying there herself. What follows is a heartrending encounter with a beaten down Annie apologizing for selfishly loving her daughter too much to leave her alone without knowing she’s alright and Sarah Jane anguished and torn but determined to lead the life she desperately desires, even if that is an imitation of life. As they share one final embrace Sarah Jane's roommate enters and presumes Annie is the maid, but Annie says that she is the former nanny of "Miss Linda" and leaves. The roommate teases “Linda” saying “Why honeychile you had a Mammy” to which the shattered Sarah Jane tearfully responds “Yes, all my life!”

A broken Annie returns home and with roles reversed the self-involved but loyal Lora looks after her with Susie’s help. But the years have taken a heavy toll on both women and there is still more sorrow ahead for all before a tear-jerking resolution. What remains unchanged through everything though is the two mothers deep and steadfast friendship and unflagging devotion to each other.

What seems on the surface a lush soap opera is thanks to director Douglas Sirk’s bold use of colors, subjective camera angles and lighting as well as his ability to wrap social comment on a variety of subjects (racism, social inequality, casual misogyny, the bonds of female friendships and other of life's vicissitudes) in palatable cinematic language and textures (as well as wardrobe-the jewelry that Lana Turner wears was touted as worth one million dollars!) it becomes a layered indictment of those very themes…. plus, a good cry. Considered his masterpiece exploring the pain and futility of pretending, the fraud of upward mobility, the rejection of a mother's love, and the walking hell of unresolved regret Sirk closed out his career with this film.

It certainly struck a chord with the public becoming a top hit of the year and one of Universal’s most profitable films in its history earning 6.4 million (that’s approximately 70 mil in 2021 dollars) in its first year of release earning both Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner Best Supporting Actress nominations for their powerful performances. Though there was some comment on the fact that Susan Kohner was not biracial-her mother was Mexican film star Lupita Tovar (who lived to 106!) and her father Austrian-American producer Paul Kohner-that was a standard practice at the time and the power of her performance speaks for itself.

(Editor's Note: Kohner having a white father and a Mexican mother does make her bi-racial, but not in a way relevant to the character, so Joel's point stands)

While much of that can be credited to the power of the picture there are other factors that fed into its success.

One was the presence of the rapidly rising Sandra Dee as the teen Susie. She’s sweet in the film but hers is the least demanding role. Just seventeen at this point by the following year she would be a Top Ten box office star (she ranks #6 of all 60’s stars) and remain there from 1960 through 1964 as she starred in a string of hits and had what appeared a fairytale marriage to singer Bobby Darin. Unfortunately, that was mostly an illusion. Though their union did produce a son-Dodd the marriage was plagued by Darin’s ego, insecurities (during their marriage he discovered the woman he thought was his sister was in fact his mother and was devastated) and health issues (frail from birth he had a rheumatic heart which resulted in his death at 37), separations and her own scarifying issues. Pushed into a career by her mother as a child model at 10 and later an actress and sexually molested by her stepfather for years she sought refuge in a secret eating disorder throughout her major star years. After the collapse of her marriage and fading of her career that was exacerbated by alcoholism. Eventually afflicted with extreme agoraphobia and a host of other phobias for some time she was still able to perform (that was work) but unable to endure anything that involved actual social interaction (for instance she was unable to attend her son’s wedding). Ultimately, she became a shut-in dying at 62 from the effects of years of self-punishment.

But the major draw was the return to the screen of Lana Turner after a headline grabbing scandal. One of the biggest superstars of the 40’s and 50’s Lana was at a crossroads and her private life in tatters. An appallingly poor judge of men, partly it seems because her own father was beaten to death when she was six-the murder never solved-leaving her mother and she impoverished, and she was always seeking the security of a man without weighing the consequences or value of the individual. Her daughter later said that out of her eight marriages to seven different men she had managed only one worthwhile husband (that one man was not her father who she considered a good man but a lousy husband). But her biggest misjudgment was becoming involved with mobster Johnny Stompanato (she was not aware of his mob connections at first). Their relationship was brief but catastrophic. A dangerously violent man he was frequently physically abusive to Lana retaining his hold on her through intimation, but his threats escalated when she chose to attend the Academy Awards (where she was nominated for Best Actress in Peyton Place) without him. A few days afterwards he appeared at her house threatening to first disfigure then kill Lana, her daughter Cheryl, and her mother. Fourteen-year-old Cheryl hearing the altercation went to her mother’s defense grabbing a knife as she passed through the kitchen. Upon entering the room Stompanato lunged at her impaling himself on the blade and bleeding to death. A media circus descended on mother and daughter and though the death was ruled justifiable homicide Lana was treated like toxic waste by most studios, however producer Ross Hunter took a chance on her. Because of the similarities in the script to her life Lana was reluctant to accept but the trial had wiped her out financially and she had little choice settling for 50% percent of the profits rather than salary. That turned out to be a wise move, when the film was a hit she became financially secure for the rest of her life. Her luster restored she maintained a solid film career for another half decade then worked intermittently but did manage to repair her relationship with her daughter before her passing in 1995.

Ironically the two performers who had the worst of it in the film Juanita Moore (Annie) and Susan Kohner (Sarah Jane) had much happier lives than their counterparts.

While her Oscar nomination didn’t lead to a bigger career as it would today Moore continued to work consistently in film, theatre and television while enjoying a 50-year marriage and living to the age of 99 passing away in 2014.

Susan Kohner on the other hand seemed poised to be a major star but after acting for a few more years she married novelist John Weitz and chose to retire and raise their children. Those children, Chris and Paul Weitz, are the producing/directing team behind the original American Pie, About a Boy, Twilight and many other films. She is the lone surviving member of the cast.

Imitation of Life based on a Fannie Hurst novel and adapted previously for the screen in 1934 under the same title with Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers-a good film but missing this one’s emotional resonance-was added to the National Film Registry in 2015 and has been named by multiple critical surveys as one of the fifty greatest American films. It also inspired a book about the making of the film and the issues that swirled around it entitled “Born to be Hurt.

Thanks, Joel! It so happens that I've reviewed this film myself. Click here for my thoughts on Imitation of Life.

Day 1 Wrap-Up

As stated at the beginning of this post, Girl Week 2021 got off to a great start yesterday. Here are the links to the all the posts that came in - an embarrassment of riches.

As always, if I missed your post, just let me know in the comments below and I will gladly edit this post to fit you in. Please check out all of these posts that everyone worked very hard on. And of course, keep those entries coming!


  1. While it's not my favorite film by Douglas Sirk that I've seen from him so far (All That Heaven Allows is my favorite so far), this is still a devastating film to watch as I just love his approach to melodrama as well as his presentation with lush colors.

    1. This one takes the top spot for me but I LOVE All That Heaven Allows! That's such an incisive film that like this one cloaks it's punches in rich colors and sumptuous settings. Definitely in my top 5 Sirk films.

      The other three along with these two are Written on the Wind, Lured (a wonderful noir with a very eclectic cast-Lucille Ball, George Sanders, Charles Coburn and Boris Karloff-if you haven't seen it) and The Tarnished Angels. I have however really liked every film of his that I've seen except perhaps Magnificent Obsession which is a beautifully made film with good acting but it's subject matter is so much gobbledygook.

  2. What a lovely review! Definitely adding this to my list.

    1. Thanks Brittani! It is so worth seeing.....but have the tissues handy!!

  3. Excellent review Joel. This film is melodrama at its best and the 4 main characters give it their all. I love Juanita and find her so great in this role. Sandra Dee was a handful as I saw something on tv about her and her son who turned out excellent. His wife was not a fan of her mom in law and I can understand why but her husband , Dee’s son, was patient yet knew how to maintain balance. Lana led quite the life who did look at all the wrong places for a man. Douglas Sirk was known for these films and he could really work a film using colour as part of the backdrop.

    1. Thanks Birgit! Poor Sandra was so damaged and fragile I'm sure if wasn't easy to deal with her. I know she had one phobia which prevented her from eating food if it had touched others food or touched anything else on her plate, and that was just one tip of the iceberg.

      I've seen her daughter-in-law interviewed and I don't think it was so much that she didn't like her, Sandra from what I've read was good-natured when she had it together and felt in control, but just found it wearying and frustrating trying to navigate her many problems. She said when she and Dodd had their daughters it helped somewhat but not as much as they hoped.

      That Lana was a pistol and certainly lived a big life. It's amazing in a way that she married 8 times and yet was single for the last 26 years of her life! I guess she finally figured out that the marriage thing just wasn't meant for her.

    2. Yes, you are right about the daughter in law. She just had enough, I think and she felt Sandra was quite manipulative as she stated that in the interview I saw. This is very plausible because people with men5al illness often are because of their fears and anxieties. Sandra Dee did suffer from anorexia. John Saxon was very concerned since he stated he could put his hand almost around her waist. At that time, no one knew what to do. Lana was a pistol! I bet she had some lovers after but realized never to marry again. To me, she died too young.

  4. This looks so great Dell! Love how you put a picture of each of the women after their paragraphs. Sandra looks so happy! Sad to realize that it was mostly a front.

    I jumped over and read your review, how did I miss that you had written one? It was a terrific overview. Love this film! I've watched it more times than I can count. I remember watching it with my nieces when they were young girls, I'd guess around nine. Perhaps a bit too young I realized when it was over, they were weeping so hard my sister had to sit with them for a half hour before they calmed down enough to go to bed!

    Thanks for letting me participate!!

    1. No problem, Joel! I only do what the writing leads me to, so kudos to you. Thanks for checking out my review of it - definitely an overview compared to this deep dive. Yeah, nine might be a tad young for this, lol.

      You're always welcome here, Joel.