Imitation of Life was a book about two women bonding, the complicated mother-daughter relationship, and the even more complex issues of race. It was adapted into two films, the first of which came out in 1934, starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, and the second of which came out in 1959, starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore. They're both very good films in their own right, but which is better?
|Bea (Claudette Colbert) vs Lora (Lana Turner)|
|Delilah (Louise Beavers) vs Annie (Juanita Moore)|
This is tough, because as much as I like and admire Louise Beavers, her character of Delilah is such a painful mammy stereotype. She injects genuine warmth and love into the role, but it's hard to ignore that Delilah is such a product of her time. The scene where Bea asks her to smile is just cringe-worthy in its awkwardness. It's sort of like when your 90 year old great-aunt uses the term "colored"...it's embarrassing, but you sort of can't get mad at her because that's just the way things were back then.
By contrast, Juanita Moore as Annie seems to be way more realistic. She's a little less subservient, a little smarter, and has a more complex relationship with her daughter. When she says, "How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt?" that's just a heartbreaking moment. She fully understands why Sarah Jane runs away, but she still doesn't want to lose her baby. At the end, when she makes an effort to interact with Sarah Jane on her own terms (pretending to be her old nanny rather than her mother), it's depressing that she would have to do that, but it's also touching that she wants her daughter in her life no matter what. Even if it means doing something she disagrees with, she would rather do that than die on bad terms with her daughter. I think that effort is what makes Sarah Jane realize how much her mother means to her.
Winner: Juanita Moore, 1959
|Peola (Fredi Washington) vs Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner)|
I have to be honest, I'm a little bit influenced by the realism factor. I think it's amazing that in 1934 they cast Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African American woman who was a very talented actress but refused to pass as white. There's something raw and truthful about her performance, because you know that the issue was incredibly real for her. It's a bit strange that in 1959 they cast an actress who was half Latina, half white, settling for someone who was just ethnic-looking enough to pull off the role. What gives, Hollywood?
|Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) vs Susie (Sandra Dee)|
Winner: Rochelle Hudson, 1934
I have to give credit to Karin Dicker, the girl who played the young version of Sarah Jane in the 1959 film. She was a really strong actor. Especially in the scene on the beach, when they ask her for her address, and she just has this stricken look on her face like she doesn't know what to say. She did a great job with limited screen time and complex emotional material, so hat's off to her.
In general, I think the two little girls from the 1959 version were vastly superior to the kids from the 1934 one. They seemed very natural and confident, while the girls in the older version were flat and just sort of reading their lines. Except for Baby Jane, of course. She was adorable.
Also, I love Elmer in the 1934 version. He is hilarious and I love listening to him, especially with Steve. "You're late." "You're drunk." "You're a liar."
Overall, I guess I would have to say that I prefer the 1934 version, but the 1959 film has some great moments, and definitely has the superior funeral scene. And they have Mahalia Jackson singing in it. Come on. That's awesome.
Thanks for reading, and come back next time!