Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Classics: An Ode to Imitation of Life By Lauren Ennis

This week we celebrated one of the most fundamental and complex relationships; that which exists between mothers and their children. Often idealized as a combination of love, duty, and sacrifice, even the healthiest of mother-child relationships are subject to misunderstandings, unreasonable expectations, and disappointments. The contradictory nature of motherhood was so expertly captured in the Fannie Hurst novel Imitation of Life that the story was adapted into, not one, but two classic films. Although released in two very different eras, both films challenge social, gender, and race relations, but the crux of both stories remains the enduring friendship between two women and their complex relationships with their daughters. This week’s review will focus upon the ways that these films reflect their respective eras, and the ways in which their shared message of understanding, tolerance, and acceptance continues to resonate today.
Break out a double dose of the hankies
The Mothers: Although promoted as a mother-daughter story, one of the greatest strengths of both films is the friendship and working relationships between its mothers. In the 1934 version, Bea (Claudette Colbert) is a recent widow struggling to raise her young daughter amidst the upheaval of the Great Depression. Delilah (Louise Beavers) is a fellow single mother trying to raise a daughter alone after her husband walks out on their family. Together, the pair make a mutually beneficial deal; Delilah will work maintaining the house and babysitting Bea’s daughter during the hours Bea is out seeking employment in exchange for room and board. Similarly, in the 1959 version Lora (Lana Turner) is a struggling widow and aspiring actress who hires recent divorcee, Annie (Juanita Moore) to manage her house and babysit her daughter, Susie, while she seeks acting work. In both films the women become fast friends and rely upon one another’s help as they endure the ups and downs of life as working mothers.

While both films showcase strong relationships between their heroines, they also highlight the racial divisions that continue to exist between the characters in spite of their friendship. In the 1934 film, Bea and Delilah work together to form a pancake mix business using Delilah’s recipe and Bea’s business acumen. Despite their mutual efforts, however, Bea only offers Delilah twenty percent of the profits. The situation then becomes even more unequal when Delilah flatly refuses her share in a scene that today plays awkwardly at best, and Bea still goes on to use Delilah’s image as an Aunt Jemima-esque mascot for the brand. The continued inequality between the two in spite of their mutual venture and friendship is superbly captured in a shot in which the two share a heartfelt moment, only to part with Bea going upstairs to her room and Delilah exiting downstairs to hers.  While the relationship between Lora and Annie is equally poignant, the racial tensions between them are more subtly incorporated, with Annie continuing her role as devoted housekeeper as Lora embarks upon a glamorous career as a Broadway star. While the opulence of the 1959 version is pleasing to the eyes, Lora’s stage success is far less relateable than Bea’s struggle to start her own business, and the stakes of Lora chasing her dream pale in comparison to Bea’s need to support herself and her daughter during the Depression. As a result, while the 1934 version is a grittier and more realistic tale of working class America as opposed to 1959’s glamorous tale set in the post-war boom, the 1959 version reflects the advances of the civil rights movement that were beginning to take root by the late 1950’s.
What a little elbow grease can do
The Daughters: One of the most crucial strengths of the original story and both adaptations is the depth with which the two very different daughters are portrayed. In both films the African American mother Delilah/Annie becomes estranged from her daughter Peola/Sarah Jane (Fredi Washington and Susan Kohner) after the daughter attempts to ‘pass’ in white society. In the 1934 version, Peola’s rejection of her race is portrayed as a rejection not of her mother or heritage, but as a rejection of the limitations society places upon her because of her family and heritage. Rather than using the temporary freedom afforded her by her lie to pursue any lofty dreams, Peola settles for an entry level job in a small town with the hope of working her way up to a moderate success. The fact that Peola sacrifices her family for such a modest path serves to remind viewers of just how limited her options for finding a better life as an African American would have been during that time. In the 1959 version, Sarah Jane also attempts to ‘pass’, but over the course of the film her motives become murky as she strives for a show-business career reminiscent of Lora’s success, and is portrayed as hungry for fame rather than merely desperate for a better life. The 1934 film also conveys a greater sense of authenticity through its casting choice of a black woman in the role of Peola, while the 1959 version fails to suspend audience disbelief through its casting of a hispanic actress in the part. In both films, however, Peola and Sarah Jane defy stereotypes through their portrayal as complex women who want to live life on their own terms, rather than those set down for them by society.

Similarly, both films feature a common dilemma for Susie and Jessie (Sandra Dee and Rochelle Hudson), who are both alienated by their mothers’ dedication to their respective careers. As a result of their isolation, both girls seek affection in surrogate father figures in the form of their mothers’ boyfriends. In the 1934 version, Bea begins a romance while Jessie is away at college, only for Jessie to return and develop an immediate infatuation with her mother’s beau (Warren William). In this film, Jessie’s insistence upon maintaining her fantasy is portrayed as a means of lashing out against her mother rather than a genuine attraction, and parallels Peola’s rejection of Delilah. In the 1959 film, however, Susie nurses a crush on her mother’s long-time on and off boyfriend, Steve (John Gavin), in large part because he has been there for her more often than the jet-setting Laura. As a result, Susie’s misplaced affection is an attempt to cry out for her mother’s love and attention, and stands in stark contrast to Sarah Jane’s blatant rejection of Annie. One of the most emotional moments in the 1959 film explores this contrast by showing the way that Susie and Annie turn to each other for comfort as they face estrangement from their own families. This scene also reminds audiences of the ways in which racism can be overcome, as both women find the solace that they need in their surrogate families outside of their own race. Despite their different approaches, both films reveal the ways that a lack of love and guidance, even if unintentional, can impact and skew a person’s understanding of the world around them, and highlights the fundamental need of all children for their mother’s love. Indictment of injustice, family drama, and tale of friendship, are all phrases that aptly describe the tribute to the very real triumphs and struggles of motherhood that is Imitation of Life
Now in glorious technicolor!

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