I was very pleased to have ‘Imitation of Life’ as my second film of the top 100 to watch. I had watched a couple of Douglas Sirk films (‘All That Heaven Allows’ and another one…) and enjoyed the decadent, hyperbole of the melodrama. Unfortunately, as soon as I pressed play, I realised that the other Sirk film I had seen was this one! Of course I would have watched it anyway (I’ve probably watched 50% of the top 100 before) and I am now looking at it for different reasons, but I couldn’t believe I had forgotten a film I saw in the last year. My brain is clearly packing up. Anyway, Kate and I settled in with some lovely food (always on offer at her house) and some pink fizz to suit the 50s tone.
I was very impressed with the way the film dealt with some major issues (harassment, sexism, racism, the role of women and the struggle of everyday working-class American life) in a straight-forward and adult way. Occasionally it was a little heavy-handed, but the strong female characters were engaging and it was interesting that Lora and Annie were almost allowed to be more complex because they are widows, they are removed from the girlish romantic storylines of conventional Hollywood.
I started to investigate Sirk, who is an engaging Hollywood character. He was born in Germany to Danish parents and was always an outsider in Hollywood. He had to leave Germany in the 1930s as his second wife was Jewish. With this outsider view he was able to see the excesses and hypocrisies within his adopted culture and create some ‘paradigmatic dissections of conformist 1950s American society.’ On his retirement after this film in 1959, he was considered a second or third rate director, although very popular at the box office. ‘Cahiers du Cinema’ and Godard revered him as an auteur and created his current reputation. I am always really interested when critics re-evaluate artists and re-write film history. Throughout his career, he focussed on cultural mores, constraint and repression. This repression is obvious in the mise-en-scene in ‘Imitation of Life’ with the use of ceilings, low angles and placement of things in front of the camera (banisters, fences etc.). There are a lot of fragmenting lines. The female characters are also always physically corseted and constrained by their clothing. The reflection of society is potentially represented in the multiple scenes where characters are seen as reflections in mirrors or shop windows.
I thought some of the acting was great – particularly from Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner. Mahalia Jackson is amazing when she sings ‘Troubles of this World’ at the funeral. A YouTube clip that I sent my dad (a big Mahalia fan) last time I watched the film!
Only at the end can Lora (Lana Turner) be the proper mother of Susie and Sarah-Jane – she had drafted out those duties to Annie, Juanita Moore’s character. Is this a comment on women’s possibility to have a career and be a mother?
Ideas for creativity:
- Colours – bright reds/dove grey
- Lush Technicolor photography
- Very forced/artificial/consciously fake – the painted backdrops
- Spotlight lighting
- Long depth of field
- Vaseline on the lens/soft focus (especially on Lana Turner)
- Static cinematography to focus on the lush sets.
- A painterly quality – Sirk was influenced by Delacroix and Daumier.
Details of the film: USA, 1959, Universal. Directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore
Details of viewing: 22nd October, with Kate at her house in Stanwick on DVD.