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Imitations Of Lives

30 Sep

Imitations Of Lives, 1934, 1959. directors John. M. Stall and Douglas Sirk. 108 minutes Black And White 1934. 124 minutes Color 1959.
★★★
The Story: A black woman and a white woman raise their daughters together, but one daughter wants to pass as white and the other wants her mother’s boyfriend.
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The difficulty with the films’ material lies in that the attention given to the white story is greater than the attention given to its greater, unique, deeper title story, the story that actually would carry the film if it were handled honorably – that of the black business-partner/housekeeper and her daughter who wishes to pass as white.

The prosperity-story of the white woman’s rise to professional security is never in doubt because each lady is played by superstars Claudette Colbert and Lana Turner. When each has her success, each becomes a fashion plate. Even when poor, we never see them messy. We never see them seriously depressed. These things are touched on, but we are spared. Each ascends into fox furs by the hot air balloon of Hollywood narrative bunk.

Colbert has an advantage over Turner in that Colbert’s leading man, Warren William, is a more ambiguous charmer than Turner’s and possesses a masterful wit in lovemaking and dialogue, whereas Turner’s fella’s sense of humor is nowhere evident.

Colbert also has more natural presence and give as an actor than Lana Turner, is more humanly appealing, just as pretty, more instinctual, just the right age, and a lot of fun. She can also play on several levels. That is, she has the advantage of being more diverting. Being diverting was enormously important for a film actor of her era, for presence, charm, humor, and sheer character was necessary to divert us from the improbable routines of the stories.

Lana Turner is diverting, yes, for as long as you find an artificial flower to be diverting. For Turner has a hard time holding your attention surrounded, as she is, by her accoutrements of makeup, dress, and a hairdo as stiff as a mummy’s beard. In the 1959 remake, instead of rising to fortune on pancakes she rises to it as a Broadway actress, if you will. Saddled with a young daughter, a widowhood, and a cold-water flat, her costly, peroxide perm stretches our credulity way past Lana Turner’s girdle. For Turner is already a woman of a certain age, and what encumbers her even more is that her leading man, John Gavin, is younger and far more beautiful than she.

Jean-Louis coifs Lana Turner with his costumes. They stun and they are no more to be believed than her hairdos. Turner knows how to entice. And she has a moment or two as an actor, but she is left to her own devices by the director, and since she lacks taste and sensibility as an artist, her moments get lost in her performance decorations, one of which is her refuge to easy tears. We also come to understand why she never played in comedy, for she has no sense of humor.

And then enter My Lady Squeal, Sandra Dee – immediately at one with the vulgarity of the Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk treatment. For the screen smears us with the candy of technicolor general lighting – that favored Hollywood illumination of the ‘50s which cursed us with American Dream pastels and avocado kitchen appliances. It fattens the film as it fattened the age. The film is swinish.

In both versions their false-eyelash direction, acting, writing, lighting, sets forbid the black women’s story from being played authentically. Juanita Hall and Louise Beavers, actors of quality, cannot play the parts because they cannot play the parts realistically but only as written in the false styles of each film, styles dead to any human relationship that is not narrative in motivation.

The issue of the story is not that of wanting to pass, but why. We never see it.

So, neither Beavers nor Hall can play their parts of the mothers beyond a general expression of sweetness, forbearance, and pain – sometimes all at once. The writing allows them no particularity, idiosyncrasy, or detail. We have to swallow an indigestible self-sacrifice from each. To these actresses of this race no other choice is provided. It’s really a form of racial bigotry passing.

Both films do have grand black funerals — the Beavers’ one being particularly characteristic — the pallbearers’ itching their rears, the horses caparisoned with net. The Juanita Hall cortege imitates it, but, of course, it is less impressive in color. Mahalia Jackson sings the elegy, and even Lana Turner is allowed to show a line on her face.

Turner’s version is an imitation of the life of An Imitation Life which wasn’t even an imitation of life to begin with. It makes no sense to think of these films as Black Flicks That Matter, but does make sense to think how, for a long time, black flicks, even when they appeared to exist, didn’t matter because they really didn’t exist at all, except as tokens still content to shove blacks into the rear of the human bus.

 
 
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