Imitation of Life (1934) vs Imitation of Life (1959)

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?

The stories are, for the most part, incredibly similar.  There's a white single mother with a little girl to look after who's struggling to make ends meet.  The "Magical Negro" shows up and offers to help her out around the house, in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter.  Her daughter is a very light-skinned African American, so much so that she can get away with "passing" as white.  She resents her mother for being black and tries to fight her own racial background.  This is the source of most of the conflict throughout the film.  The only real difference between the films is that in the 1934 version, Bea (Colbert) makes her fortune by opening a pancake house and marketing Delilah's (Beavers) pancake recipe, while in the 1959 version Lora (Turner) finds success as an actress.

For me, this is an incredibly character-driven story, so I think it would be a good idea to look at them first, in trying to decide which film is better.

Bea (Claudette Colbert)           vs               Lora (Lana Turner)

A lot of this one comes down to personal preference.  I'm not a huge fan of Lana Turner, and I think she lacks the warmth needed for this role.  She's just kind of unlikeable.  I don't really buy her relationship with Annie, and I don't blame Susie for calling her out on her not being a good mother.  She's overly ambitious, and is willing to put aside any commitment she has with her family or boyfriend for an opportunity in theater. I don't think this story works as well when so much of it is about her drama.  I prefer the more friendly, laidback Claudette Colbert.  Even though her work ends up taking over a lot of her life, there's still a great connection between her and her can tell how much she loves Jessie.  I feel like she and Delilah have a wonderful partnership and friendship.  Most of all, she comes off as a nice person who worked her way to the top with hard work and risk taking.  When Lora manages to get ahead, it feels contrived.  She gives a bad audition and criticizes the playwright, but somehow that's exactly what he wants. Please.  Also, I think having so much of the film revolve around Lora and her work as an actress takes away from what should be the more important story.

Winner: Claudette Colbert, 1934

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"'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?

That said, both of these actresses do a really great job.  I think Peola comes off as being a little more reasonable and conflicted about her decisions, which for me makes her more realistic as a character.  But Susan Kohner OWNS the funeral scene at the end of the film.  Seriously.  I watched it twice, and cried both times.  Watching her running down the street, sobbing, "Mama!" makes me lose it.  My only real issue with the Sarah Jane storyline in the 1959 version is the plot with her boyfriend.  I think it's a really good idea to address the issues that go along with a light-skinned black girl dating a white boy, but I felt like it was done a little awkwardly here.  

First of all, I couldn't stop thinking about how Sarah Jane possibly expected it to play out.  Even if they did get married and stayed together, if she ever got pregnant that would be a disaster.  It's too much to expect that her baby would be as light as she was, and I can only imagine what a white husband would do if his apparently-white wife gave birth to a black baby.  Probably wouldn't be pretty.  But beyond that, the whole scene where her boyfriend finds out she's black is so over the top and melodramatic and tonally off that it feels like it's from a completely different film.

Winner: Fredi Washington, 1934

Jessie (Rochelle Hudson)            vs                       Susie (Sandra Dee)
I find Sandra Dee to be pretty annoying throughout this film, except for the scenes towards the end when she grows a pair and is telling off her mother.  I just find her to be too wide-eyed and girlish...her little high-pitched voice drives me up a wall.  It's almost comical when she falls in love with Steve, because she really does come off as a child.  Jessie, on the other hand, seems more mature and likeable.  It seems more believable that she could relate to Steve on an adult level, so well it's obvious that her feelings aren't reciprocated, it makes for a more interesting situation.  Interestingly enough, in the 1934 film, Bea and Steve decide against getting married so that Jessie doesn't feel that her mother got in the way of her happiness.  In the 1959 version, Lora offers to call the engagement off, only to have Susie snap at her that she'll get over it, and she tells her mother not to "play the martyr".  As much as I prefer Rochelle Hudson, I find the 1959 version's way of resolving the issue incredibly satisfying.

Winner: Rochelle Hudson, 1934

Other People:

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!

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Aquaria said...

I think you missed Sirk's point about Lora. He intentionally undercut Lana Turner's role at every turn, and Lana Turner pretty much not only got what he was doing and why, but also agreed with it all.

Once you understand that, Turner's performance becomes far more complex and nuanced than it seems at first. She wasn't supposed to be likeable. She was supposed to be cold, brittle, ambitious and artificial. She's living her own imitation of life--she seems to have everything...but the reality of her life is that it's as cold, empty and meaningless as she herself is.

Lana Turner did a far better job with this role than most viewers give her credit for. It was an incredibly brave performance for an established star.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this review. I haven't seen the 1934 version. My mother introduced me to this film when I was a kid and I never forgot it. She preferred the Lana Turner version. She liked Lana Turner. I now want to see Claudette Colbert version and make my own comparison. D.Stone

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