Imitation of Life Review

Imitation of Life is Douglas Sirk’s final feature film and one of his most lauded by critics and fans. A huge box-office smash back in 1959, this turbulent, heartbreaking story of two mothers-and-daughters torn apart by materialist ambition and racial tension has the trappings of an epic and the feel of a would-be masterpiece.

Beginning in 1947, the hard-up Annie Johnson moves in with struggling actress Lora Meredith after their daughters become best friends on a chance encounter at Long Island beach. Annie is black, but Sarah Jane decidedly isn’t (“She favours her daddy…he was practically white,” Annie tells Lora) and wants to keep her heritage a secret. Meanwhile, Lora has her heart intent on becoming a Broadway star, becoming a stranger to her own home as she lives a life of photo shoots, auditions, agents and parties. As the years tick by, Lora’s ambition and Sarah Jane’s determination to “pass” for white only become more intense, with harsh repercussions for all involved.

A fabulously entertaining movie, Imitation of Life barely pauses for breath once it gets going. With a bold, splashy storyline that only the most feeble and talentless director could render dull, it’s a soap opera in the very best Hollywood tradition. The themes of searching for fame and attempting to hide one’s true background (I don’t think the Sarah Jane story element deals purely with racism – it could be just as much about homosexuality, class, religion or what have you) still resonate today and the film packs a surprisingly emotional punch. As big a fan as I am of Sirk’s other work, I can’t say I find it particularly moving, but here the last act of the film, although predictably tragic, strikes a very real and human chord.

Sirk has his great Universal team assembled here – producer Ross Hunter, cinematographer Russell Metty, art director Alexander Golitzen and composer Frank Skinner, and all provide sterling work. Russell Metty is unfortunately slightly hampered by the use of Eastmancolor stock, which results in the colours being nowhere near as vivid as they should be (and in a Douglas Sirk picture, this is far more important than it sounds – characters’ surroundings are often virtually colour-coded to their emotions). Alexander Golitzen provides a nice contrast between the cramped, dour apartment that the characters share in the film’s first half and the glamorous mansion in the second that just spills over into nouveau riche. Frank Skinner’s score is, as always, ever present to underline every emotion, but here is more poignant than slushy and Ross Hunter, evidently, got the film made, so full marks to him as well.

Sirk himself provides something of a 101 in his own technique. Using no end of Brechtian and alienation devices - rarely positioning any shot at eye-level, putting objects between the camera and the actors and an abundant use of mirrors for moments of literal self-reflection - he encourages the audience to not simply become wrapped up in the storyline and characters, but to look more objectively at them and the choices they make.

Everyone involved gives fine performances; Lara Turner provides exactly the kind of strong-willed independence that the role of Lora requires and Juanita Moore as Annie and Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane were both deservedly nominated for supporting actress Oscars – odd, seeing as they’re essentially the heart and soul of the film), with the possible exception of Sandra Dee who, as the 16-year-old Susie, gives what could be kindly described as a spirited turn. Indeed, much of the acting and script, although slightly overripe in some instances, has led many audiences to believe that this is a campy, silly piece of Hollywood trash, when it certainly is sincere, but in a style now very much out of fashion.

However, this is by no means a perfect film. Much of its problem lies in the fact that it feels like a three-hour movie cut down to two. Such a vast amount happens within the film (that I haven’t even been able to get onto), 125 minutes simply isn’t enough, and many subplots are turned into mere footnotes simply to explain how one thing leads to another and is frustratingly episodic in nature, often feeling like two separate films spliced together, rather than intertwined plots. Many tantalising elements that are only glimpsed makes you wish they’d been fleshed out more fully – Lora always treats Annie as an equal, but all you see in the mansion are black servants, for one. In another instance, Annie goes out to search for Sarah Jane at a sleazy nightclub after she runs away from home, then does the same thing again 10 minutes later. The jump from 1947 to 1958 is also somewhat jarring, done through a slightly tacky montage of various Broadway shows that Lora appears in, and dates that fly out towards the screen.

However, when all’s said and done, this is a wonderful piece of cinema and a fittingly glorious final film for a great director. I can’t, with a clear conscience, describe it as a masterpiece, but by no means is it far from the mark either.

The video

The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer (even though the opening Universal logo is oddly at 2.35:1). Sadly, nowhere near what it should be, but nor is it a travesty. Already dealing with notoriously unstable Eastmancolor stock, there are some problems with the print used. At times, it appears overly grainy with muddy colours and occasional fluctuation, a disappointing lack of detail and some surprisingly heavy print damage in several instances - a clear sign of dupe elements being used rather than pristine originals. At others, it appears razor sharp, brightly colourful and quite beautiful. However, for most of the time it looks fairly good, subdued grain and fairly accurate colours. The decision to squeeze the film onto a single-layer disc was not a wise one, and has not helped a less-than-superb transfer to begin with. Generally average, sometimes above, sometimes below, but Sirk’s use of light of colour are nowhere near as striking as they should be (and I’ve seen it on 35mm), which is very disappointing.

The audio

Generally fine for a 44-year-old monaural soundtrack, without pops, hiss or clicks, but there is some high-end distortion during the final few minutes, which is something of a pity. Subtitles in English, French and Spanish are available and there are 20 chapter stops.

The extras

Nothing of note except for a heavily windowboxed full-frame trailer that gives a reasonable idea of the film. I also have a slight problem with Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner nowhere to be seen on the front cover of the DVD, which seems very strange.

Overall

A fine film presented on a comfortingly cheap DVD, though I couldn’t blame you for waiting around in case something better comes out in the future. Consider this a cautious recommendation.

Film
8 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
5 out of 10
Extras
1 out of 10
Overall

5

out of 10

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