Notes on film: Imitation of Life

“It’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are.”

Director Douglas Sirk is now recognised as one of the great masters of Hollywood cinema. His reputation as an innovative storyteller and commander of great visuals is significantly due to his final Hollywood film, Imitation of Life, which was a massive success upon its original release and is still now recognised as one of the defining examples of melodrama. As well as being visually rich in colour detail, it is a genuinely moving film and an important example of covert subversive filmmaking since it contains a very strong anti-racist message at a time when racial segregation was still very much alive in the USA. What has become Sirk’s trademark use of colour, heightened emotions and sly social critique has influenced generations of later filmmakers.

Douglas Sirk had Danish parents but was born in Germany and later moved back to Germany from Denmark as a teenager. Sirk began his career working in theatre and film during Germany’s Weimar Republic but like so many other filmmakers in Germany at the time, he left for Hollywood when the Nazis seized power. Sirk found his niche with lush melodramas that were hugely popular at the time but critically ignored and dismissed as “weepies” or “women’s films”. Critical opinion about Sirk has since dramatically changed and four films that he made in the 1950s are now deservedly recognised as brilliant exercises in irony. These films are All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1958) and Imitation of Life (1959).

The melodrama film examined conflict within the home, often with an emphasis on gender roles. These films contained very obvious characters, were full of sentiment and contrivances and sought to illicit an emotional response from the audience rather than challenge them intellectually. Stylistically they were frequently over-the-top with bold colours, sweeping musical scores, dramatic acting and stories about emotional anguish, love affairs that go wrong, unrequited love and life threatening situations. These are also the trademarks of soap-opera television but to dismiss many of these original melodramas as mere soap-operas would miss the carefully concealed symbolism, irony and social critique that Sirk carefully placed within his films.

Imitation of Life is certainly a great example of melodramatic mise-en-scene where everything within the film is excessive. The colours boldly indicate the emotional state of the characters, the music is suitably sweeping to clearly indicate the emotional response required from the audience and the themes of love, death, social standing, loose morals and heartbreak are all standards of the genre. But what makes Imitation of Life so interesting is the subversive and ironic touches that Sirk includes. Imitation of Life was originally a popular but unremarkable romantic potboiler novel by Fannie Hurst. Director JM Stahl first made it into a film in 1934 and by the time Sirk brought it to the screen for the second time, the story had been stripped down to the basic skeleton of Hurst’s original novel.

Sirk’s key change was to give more emphasis to the African American component of the story. While Lora’s story dominates the first half of the film, it seems almost trivial by the second half of the film when the Annie and Sarah Jane story dominates. Lana Turner, who had been a huge star in the 1940s and early 1950s and who had recently been in the headlines at the time due to a murder scandal, played Lora.  Susie as a teenager was played by popular teen-star Sandra Dee. Nevertheless through close-ups and emotive dialogue Sirk gives the most poignant moments in the film to unknown actors Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner who respectively play Annie and Sarah Jane as a teenager. Moore and Kohner were both nominated for Academy Awards for their powerful performances. Their scenes together are the emotional highpoints of the film.

Imitation of Life also contains several subtle moments of passive and unintentional racism, such as Sarah Janes’s roommate assuming that Annie is the maid and Lora confessing that she had no idea that Annie had so many friends. A nice ironic touch towards the end of the film is when Annie reveals that she has always owned a mink coat while earlier in the film Lora was offered one as a loan so that she could appear in public within the upper social circles. Despite the fact that a major theme of the film is public performance and Lora’s dream is to be an actor, the only performing depicted in the film by Lora is her brief audition piece. This contrasts to the lengthy funeral scene at the film’s climax where everybody who appears in the film is present. While the typical gushy melodramatic music is present throughout Imitation of Life, the funeral hymn is the emotional climax of the film.

While the title Imitation of Life on the surface seems to be referring to the artificiality of Lora’s glamorous career that takes her away from her daughter, the title is perhaps more of a sly comment on how racism in 1950s America denied African American people the life that white people took for granted. Sarah Janes’ self loathing at being African American and having an obviously black mother also leads her into an imitation of life as she estranges herself from Annie in order to pass as white and therefore not have to suffer the indignities of discrimination.

Sirk’s subversive use of the excesses of melodrama have established him as one of the most significant directors to have worked in Hollywood, even if he was not recognised as such at the time. His legacy has influenced several filmmakers since, including John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar and François Ozon. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) and Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven (2002) are direct tributes that explicitly explore many of the issues that Sirk covertly confronted within the constraints of the time.

Originally appeared in the film notes for the Region 4 DVD box set A Beginner’s Guide to Cinema 2, released by Madman Entertainment

© Thomas Caldwell, 2008