HTS Moderator , Reviewer
Title: Imitation of Life: 2 Movie Collection
HTS Overall Score:82
WARNING: THE SCORES ABOVE ARE A COMBINED SCORE FROM BOTH FILMS, THE INDIVIDUAL SCORES ARE CONTAINED BELOW IN THE INDIVIDUAL SECTIONS OF THE REVIEW
Fannie Hurst’s famed novel “Imitation of Life” has spawned not one, but two movies which was met with much commercial success, despite being made very differently and decades apart. Coming from a wealthy Jewish family, Fannie moved from a small town in Ohio to New York City where she pursued her passion for writing. Working crummy and menial jobs, Fannie slogged on until about 1920 when she broke into the big time, writing over 17 novels and plays along with several short stories and other literary accomplishments. “Imitation of Life” will always remain her crown jewel, as it tells a tale of love, betrayal, hurt and racism in the early 1900s.
In the novel, Beatrice is a young woman who marries young only to be struck by tragedy after her husband dies in a horrible accident shortly after her father passes away of stroke. Left with a child on the way Beatrice is forced to carry on her husband’s business of selling pancake syrup to the public and is barely making ends meet. Happening to meet Delilah Johnson, an African-American woman with a child of her own, Beatrice finds friendship and love in a bond that will define the two of them. Delilah has a child who is so light skinned that she could pass for a while girl if it wasn’t for her mother. This is where the conflict arises as Delilah watches her daughter, Peolla, get farther and farther away from her as the child tries to pass as a white girl in order make life easier for herself, shunning her mother and marrying a white man. Moving to Bolivia with her own husband Peolla no longer has to be associated as white and lives the end of her days there. Beatrice falls in love with a younger man, only to get caught in a love triangle as this man plays both herself and her daughter Jessie, leaving no one in the story with a happy ending.
The 1934 version of the movie takes a decidedly less bleak outlook on the whole story and some may say has some decidedly “Song of the South” undertones where you have a bit too much happy slave syndrome. Respectfully I have to disagree as I thought the reasons why are well done and culturally relevant. Beatrice (Claudette Colbert) is widowed at the beginning of the movie and selling her husband’s syrup to make ends meet. In an accidental meeting she comes into contact with Delilah (Louise Beavers), an African-American woman who happens to be looking for work as a live in maid. Brought to Beatrice’s address by mistake the poor woman asks Bea would be in need of her services. Promising to work for food and shelter only, free of wages, Delilah and Beatrice form a friendship that will last a lifetime.
Beatrice has no intentions of being poor the rest of her life, and once she realizes how incredible Delilah’s flapjack recipe is brainstorms a brilliant proposition. With her behind the scenes as the store owner and Delilah using her family recipe as the foods the two open up a flapjack house to the public. With no money and no collateral, Beatrice has to use her words to talk the creditors into giving more than they ever wanted. Her tenacity wins out though and the creditors end up loaning her the money and selling for little to no down payment only to be rewarded with success. Taking it up a notch the ladies take a stranger’s advice and package the pancake mix and sell it directly to the general public which turns them into millionaires with a gigantic business.
The issues that plague the plotline start popping up early on as Peolla is increasingly ashamed of her black heritage. Not wanting to be picked on by the other kids at school she passes as white for a time until her mother accidentally spoils her trick. As the young girl ages, Peolla (Fredi Washington) becomes even more ashamed of her heritage and desperately tries to cut off all ties with her mother so that she can live with everyone else assuming that she’s a white girl. Poor Delilah doesn’t understand why she’s being shunned and all she realizes is that her own baby girl doesn’t want anything to do with her. Her daughter announcing that she disowns her mother is the final straw and Delilah slowly starts to shrivel away, piece by piece.
Simultaneously, Beatrice is finding love once more with a charming man who happens to meet her at one of her social parties. Falling in love with Steve (Warren William), she is blissfully happy, but wants to have her college age daughter, Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) to warm up to the man first. This may be a slight mistake as Jessie soon falls in love with Steve and a slight (but unintentional) love triangle forms with Jessie attached to Steve and Steve blissfully unaware while he and her mother keep their love hidden from Jessie. Once this comes into the open lives are changed and things have to be put on hold, especially as Delilah passes away before Peolla can come home and say goodbye.
I have to say that I was enchanted with this version of the story. It’s decidedly simple and sweet. There’s several layers to the story with the mother and daughter relationships, but still incredibly simple and straight forward. Jessie and Beatrice’s love triangle with Steve is more cute than tragic, and the decision that Steve and Beatrice make at the end of the film is incredibly loving and indicative of the respect between all parties. The real tragedy is with Peolla, as the young girl’s complete dismissal of her racial heritage keeps her from a loving mother who only wanted the best for her child, even if she wasn’t sure how to give it to her. The end scene with Peolla and the casket is heart wrenching and only the most cold hearted of us could get away without shedding a tear.
I’ve heard some people say that it’s too “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” like with the poor black woman serving till the end of her days. I didn’t come away with that impression, but rather took it as Delilah doing what Delilah knew how to do. Beatrice started the business with Delilah’s help and wants to sign over 20% of the company and profits to her, but Delilah declines, wishing to just do what she’s done for the last decade instead of buying her own house and moving on. Beatrice still transfers those profits to Delilah, but Delilah loved Bea and their bond of friendship kept them in the same house, doing the same thing for decades. I felt that Delilah wasn’t taken advantage of as she had all the money that she would ever need, but rather she was a simple woman who hadn’t known anything else. She felt most comfortable doing what she had been doing for the people she had been doing it for. Her expression of love was to give her services as a sing of love to Beatrice and Jessie and Peolla, much as Beatrice gave an unheard of opportunity of a portion of the business to Delilah in 1930’s culture.
Claudette Colbert really makes the movie along with Louise Beavers. The two leading ladies are so full of charm and loveable smiles that you can’t help but adore them. Claudette Colbert just exudes class and sophistication in every movie she’s ever been in and Louise Beaver’s is so warm and homey that you just want to go up and give her a hug every time you see her. The rest of the cast does a great job, but those two ladies really have the chemistry that makes the film work in so many levels.
The 1959 version takes on a decidedly different cultural feel as it not only is made in the 1950’s but also set there as well, so the characters and actions take on a different tone. This time the characters are renamed and set in the future (for the book that is). Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) replaces Beatrice and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) replaces Delilah as the titular main characters. Annie meets Lora by chance and soon becomes the live in maid, much like the original take, but this time Lora is an aspiring actor. Struggling to make ends meet she is relieved by the help that Annie is in taking care of the household while she tries to break into the world of stage and television. As luck (or hard word) would have it, Lora breaks into a role and starts and uphill climb with her career. Her narcissistic nature and decidedly modern world view has her selfishly pushing for the top, even if it drives a wedge between herself and her daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee). Issues of sexism and a “woman’s place” are delved into as Lora pushes herself higher and higher against all odds. The only problem is that she’s less of a mother and more of a rich socialite, which leaves the raising to be done by the kind hearted Annie. While Lora has had three or so boyfriends in the film, she constantly goes back to her first sweetheart of the film, Steve (John Gavin) and the same love triangle forms between herself, Steve and Susie. The ending of this one is much different due to the whole mother/daughter strain that happens with Lora being a self-serving actress, but general premise remains the same between the two movies.
Annie has her own problems, as her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) falls into the same trap that Peolla did. Being a pale skinned African-American she desperately doesn’t want to be seen as black and does everything she can do to pass for white. This soon lands her in trouble when her boyfriend finds out her heritage and beats her senseless in rage. Becoming increasingly petulant and resentful, Sarah Jane finally has enough acting out and leaves, much to the heartbreak of Annie and Lora. Becoming a dancing girl, Sarah Jane pushes her mother away each and every time she visits, even going so far as to give the famous “disowning” speech. Annie’s heart can’t take the pain of losing a daughter and slowly dies of a shattered soul. Annie is given a ridiculously lavish funeral and melodrama is brought out as Sarah Jane comes back at the very end and drapes herself over her mother’s coffin sobbing, only to be consoled by Lora, Susie and Steve where they ride off into the sunset.
Watching both movies back to back naturally brings forth comparisons of the two movies. Watching them separately I might have given the 1959 version a slightly better score, but comparing them together gave me all the ammo I needed to declare the 1934 film the superior rendition of Fannie Hurst’s novel. The simplicity of the original movie was exquisite while the 1959 movie felt decidedly crowded with material. Especially material that was seemingly added to take advantage of the 1950’s culture, such as Lora’s narcissism, and the mother daughter spat over Lora’s poor mothering. It dips a little farther away from the original source material and feels a tad too melodramatic at times. It’s still good on its own merits, but I have to say I enjoyed the original more.
Not Rated by the MPAA
Both films were given rather lackluster releases, multiple times, on the DVD format and I wasn’t really expecting a whole lot of effort into these old films being put on Blu-ray, especially with both 2 hour films being put on one BD-50 disc. Color me surprised when I saw the 1934 film and had my eyeballs near pop out of my head. The film has been completely restored and looks incredible. There is a nice heavy layer of natural film grain over the entire movie, and the black and white photography looks simply magnificent. Deep black levels dominate the picture and give the film its dimensionality with excellent detail. The contrast levels are well done and while there is some minor speckles and a light flickering due to the film stock, the image presented today is light years better than anything that has been shown before. A+ all the way.
The 1959 DVD has always looked flat, washed out and filled with sallow colors. The Blu-ray presentation is another night and day difference as the color levels are bright and well saturated with tons of blues, reds, pinks and other 1950’s coloring to give a warm and pleasing image. Detail is fantastic as the natural film grain shines through and so does all the little details that can be seen in a cinemascope picture. There is a hint of softness to the picture, but I don’t detect any DNR or major tampering with the image so I can only assume it is the film source. Another A+ job.
Both Films are presented in 2.0 DTS-HD MA mono, and both also sound like they’ve been given a facelift as well. The dialog is clean and clear with crisp vocals and a nice front soundstage to manage the effects. There isn’t a whole lot of action going on in the drama, but you hear a fair amount of hustle and bustle in the city environment, whether that be a time at the beach for the 1959 version, or the honking of city traffic in the Claudette Colbert rendition. Clarity is spot on and both show incredible fidelity. There is a mild bit of recording hiss in the early movie, but that’s mainly due to the microphones and recording equipment used during the 1930s. It is very minimal and only noticeable as a background noise rather than as a distraction. There is no surround or LFE usage, as one would expect from a 2.0 Mono track, but the restored audio files sound simply magnificent considering only 2 channels of use.
• Lasting Legacy - An Imitation of Life
• Audio Commentary with African-American Cultural Scholar Avery Clatyton
• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Foster Hirsch
Which version is the better of the two? That’s wildly debated by critics over the years, but I have to say I know which one I’m giving my vote to. Both films are good, and both have their distinct advantages with the 1934 version having the most likeable characters, with the 1959 being the more lavish and over the top production (much like many films during the 1950s). Both films have been lovingly restored for Blu-ray and the audio and video scores certainly are a huge appeal for classic film lovers. With both features together in the same package it is a must buy for anyone who is even remotely interested in the movies and definitely deserves a watch. Highly recommended.
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Warren Williams, Rochelle Hudson : Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee
Directed by: John M. Stahl : Douglass Sirk
Written by: William Hurlbut : Eleanore Griffin, Allan Scott
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 AVC : 2.00:1
Audio: ENGLISH: DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono (Both Films)
Runtime: 111 minutes : 125 minutes
Blu-Ray Release Date: April 7th, 2015
Buy Imitation of Life: 2 Movie Collection Blu-ray on Amazon
Recommendation: Watch it
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