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Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life 1959 poster.jpg

This is a stunning film about American women, race, sexism, work, performance, relationships, family, mothers and daughters. It stars Lana Turner, lately the star of a huge scandal in which her lover, a gangster named Johnny Stompanato, was allegedly stabbed to death by her 14-year old daughter Cheryl (was it really her?!) and needing another big role to sustain a career that had begun in classic Hollywood style at Schwabs’ Drug Store, or so the myth would have it. The novel by Fannie Hurst was a bestseller that had already been adapted in 1934 and directed by John Stahl, starring Claudette Colbert. The role of Lora Meredith, the widowed (maybe) actress trying to make it in a coldwater flat with a tiny daughter, was perfectly inhabited by Turner. Her brassy look was hardening into something darker and the grasping ambitious matriarch that she becomes is not a huge leap for an empathetic audience. Two screenwriters were involved in the adaptation:  Eleanore Griffin, who had a long career, principally in originating screen stories. She would go on to adapt Hurst’s Back Street in a few years. Allan Scott had written some of the great musicals in the 30s – Follow the Fleet, Top Hat, Swing Time, Carefree, Shall We Dance… Their combined interpretations work amazingly well here. Both of them would die in 1995. The director was German emigre Douglas Sirk. He was reappraised as an auteur in the late 60s and his kitschy melodramas of the 50s were interpreted as analyses of society in the United States, distinguished by garish colours, stunning production design and coded drama. There are so many dramatic high points here it seems useless to enumerate them, but the performance by the great Mahalia Jackson is a personal favourite and Susan Kohner’s uneasy presence as the half-caste girl is perfectly matched by Sandra Dee’s sweetness. Juanita Moore is an ocean of decency as the help. It is too easy to put this down as a melodrama, but it really is one, in the original, political sense. Classic.

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About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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