"Imitation of Life" (John Stahl, Douglas Sirk; 1934, 1959)

For some reason I've been catching Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli films.

Interesting to see the two versions of Imitation of Life; thought John Stahl's version has a wonderful performance by Claudette Colbert, and some lovely give-and-take between her and Warren William as her boyfriend. Liked the film overall, and wondered how Sirk could improve on it.

Few days later, saw Sirk's version. No, I didn't think Lana Turner was quite the equal of Colbert (I can't think of many women who are), and John Gavin was a poor substitute for the suave William.

Juanita Moore, however, was tremendous as Annie Johnson, and she answered the one question bugging me about the classroom scene in the 1934 version: how can a mother be so dense as to not realize the effect her visit to her white-looking daughter would have at a school full of white children (in Juanita's case, Annie had expected her daughter to admit she's not white)? Louise Beavers played Delilah Johnson as a sweet simpleton; Moore's Ms. Johnson is cannier, wiser to the ways of the world--when her heart breaks, it's more affecting.

And her daughter, Sarah Jane, has been reworked into a more malevolent presence. As played by the young Karin Dicker, Sarah Jane's chillingly impassive; as played by Susan Kohner, she's an intimidating sexual presence as well. I actually felt a thrill when she looked hungrily at Gavin, thinking she'd make a play for him, was disappointed when she didn't; she added a lot of heat to the film's already melodramatic mix.

Maybe the one scene of hers that I disliked was her meeting with her boyfriend--that somehow felt off, like they should have perhaps played that scene physically closer together, or perhaps they should have talked faster, in a more casual manner; I'd also like to see more convincing blows from the boyfriend; as is, they seem to miss completely. And I wish the music had been anything other than the obviously lurid jazz piece actually used.

Sandra Dee's plotline isn't so hot, either. It wasn't when Rochelle Hudson played Colbert's daughter, but at least she provided the catalyst for Colbert and William's conflict; in Turner's case, she just looks distressed for a while, then forgets the whole thing because Sarah Jane's in trouble again. The black women's story consistently overshadows the white women's; only Colbert is able to give her dilemma some poignancy towards the end.

Turner, to her credit, plays some of her best scenes near the beginning, when we see her struggling to succeed. The subplot in the '34 version involved pancakes (it's amusing to see Delilah incarnate the story of 'Aunt Jemima'), and while setting up a successful business is probably harder and more involved work than succeeding on the theater stage, it isn't as dramatic, which is what we get with Turner's story, and she runs with it as far as she can.

Lovely to watch Sirk tell the story--I'll have to admit, I like the 34 version's no-frills storytelling, but there's something to Sirk's voluptuous, bright-colored style that's maddeningly seductive. He'll give you a deceptively simple setup, and have the actors walk from one side to the other, away and towards the camera, and you realize that no matter where they walk, they end up in a series of interesting compositions. At a dramatic moment Sirk moves the camera in closer, and the movement is like a punctuation mark, like the thrill of feeling a rollercoaster car jerk closer towards a sheer drop.

I'm afraid I don't like the music--I'm hardly an expert, and almost definitely not qualified to judge, but the score seems to do a disservice to the intelligence of Sirk's visual style, points up the melodrama when I'd much prefer it underplayed--or maybe used as some kind of ironic counterpoint.

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