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Imitation of Life 1959




What the hell was Lana thinking? 2 years after one of the biggest Hollywood scandals that involved her and her teenage daughter in the murder of her gangster lover Johnny Stompanato, Lana decides to do a movie about the tangled relationships of a mother and her teenage daughter. To be fair she must have found it difficult to turn down a turn at doing a movie with the great Douglas Sirk who was known for his delirious and delicious romantic melodramas. Imitation came with known qualities. It was originally filmed in the 30’s with Claudette Colbert as a struggling working girl and her faithful “colored” housekeeper who hit on a scheme to sell pancakes and clean up big time.  An early “liberal” take on racism it was still useful as a movie in the late 50’s where racism and segregation raged in the country. For this remake several plot devices were changed. In this one Lana was a struggling actress who was 37 years old when the movie started production. Never mind. Lana looked good and the script makes a point of telling us that she is a little late to start an acting career. She meets Juanita Moore and her daughter one summer day at Coney Island in 1947 when her own daughter gets lost. Also on the beach that day is a struggling photographer played by the stunning John Gavin who takes the kids picture and with it has an in with Lana. Juanita and her very light skinned daughter Sara Jane are homeless and out of pity Lana takes them home to live with her and her perky little blonde daughter in a cramped Brooklyn apartment, where Juanita is doing the maid housekeeper bit, but no pancakes this time. Lana is being flirted by John but her career comes first before love, and in a fast montage Lana after doing a small bit in a play is the toast of the universe and Broadway. I love these montages, life moves on so fast and smooth in them. Soon our Lana is living large in a 50’s modern house in Connecticut and the two young girls have grown up to be Sandra Dee still perky and annoying and the miserable Susan Kohner who is still light skinned but is deep down in dark moods and is trying to pass as white much to her momma’s unhappiness. In the original film they cast a light skinned African American actress the beautiful Fredi Washington to play the conflicted daughter, but I guess in 1959 they couldn’t find an actress of color to do the role. To be fair Kohner is good in the role and received an Oscar nomination along with Juanita Moore who also got a nod both losing to Shelley Winters.  Sirk keeps his expressionistic shock style down to a minimum. There are still some nice color arrangements and scenes bathed in wonderful Eastman color, but nothing extreme like he used in “Written on the Wind” and “All That Heaven Allows.” Guess he thought the story was extreme enough, and he was right because it’s pretty disturbing to see the sadness that Juanita and Susan go through that usually ends with the audience drowning in tears. One of the top ten money makers of the year. 


This post first appeared on Ira Joel Haber-cinemagebooks, please read the originial post: here

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Imitation of Life 1959

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