5 Things You May Not Know About Douglas Sirk's 'Imitation Of Life'

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by Oliver Lyttelton
April 17, 2012 10:02 AM
9 Comments
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The Oscar-winning success of last year's "The Help" was a throwback in many ways, principally to the socially-conscious melodramas of Stanley Kramer, like "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner." Another comparison point that came up frequently in reviews of Tate Taylor's film was "Imitation Of Life," the 1959 film by director Douglas Sirk, but it's scarcely fair: over fifty years on, Sirk's picture stands head and shoulders above virtually every other melodrama.

The story follows widow and aspiring actress Lora (Lana Turner), whose daughter Susie goes missing at the beach, and is found by an African-American divorcee, Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), there with her own light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane. The two become friends, Lora taking Annie in as a housekeeper, and Annie's care helping Lora achieve her dream of becoming a Broadway star. Eleven years later, however, their children have grown up, and Susie (Sandra Dee) develops a crush on her mother's boyfriend Steve, while Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is breaking her mother's heart by attempting to pass for white.

It all sounds like a soap-opera (a common criticism of Sirk's films at the time), but that belies the subversiveness of the director's work, the truthfulness of his emotion, and the care of the performances. Torn apart by critics on release, it became a huge box office hit, and after Sirk became a favorite of the auteurist movement, became a film beloved by cinephiles too. "Imitation Of Life" was released 53 years ago today, on April 17th, 1959 and below, you'll find five pieces of information that even the biggest Sirk fans might not be aware of.

1. The film is a remake, or at least the second adaptation of Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel.
All of the remake-bashing these days (and we're not saying we're fans of them) does tend to ignore the number of classic Hollywood movies which are themselves remakes. "Imitation Of Life" in fact followed twenty-five years after the first version, which was released the year after Fannie Hurst's novel was published. Directed by John M. Stahl ("Leave Her To Heaven"), and penned by a legion of writers, included the uncredited Preston Sturges and humorist Finley Peter Dunne, that version stuck closer to the source material, with Claudette Colbert as Bea, who gains fame and wealth by bringing her housekeeper Delilah's (Louise Beavers) pancake recipe to the masses, offering her 20% of the profits, which Delilah refuses. Sirk, and co-writers Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, correctly figured that that wouldn't fly at a period when the civil rights movement was beginning to gain steam, and reworked the plot to make their lead Lora a Broadway actress. That being said, Stahl did at least cast a light-skinned African-American actress, Fredi Washington, as Delilah's daughter Peola, something that the remake didn't manage...

2. Natalie Wood, Margaret O'Brien and Pearl Bailey were all in the running for parts.
Despite testing a number of actresses, Sirk neglected to cast an African-American actress as Sarah Jane, the light-skinned daughter of housekeeper Annie. Instead, young Jewish actress Karin Dicker would play the eight-year-old Sarah Jane, while 23-year-old Mexican/Czech Jewish actress Susan Kohner ("Dino") played the elder version. Meanwhile, Sarah's father was played by Paul Kohner who was Lana Turner's agent (Kohner got an Oscar nomination for the part, but would retire from acting five years later after marrying German fashion designer John Weitz -- "About A Boy" writer-directors Chris & Paul Weitz are their children). Natalie Wood and former child-star Margaret O'Brien were both considered to play Lora's daughter Susie, the part won by "Gidget" star Sandra Dee, and star Pearl Bailey ("Carmen Jones") came close to taking the part of Annie, until the mostly unknown Juanita Moore won it, despite being only 14 years older than her screen daughter. She, too, earned an Oscar nomination.

3. Lana Turner turned down a salary in favor of a hefty cut of the profits.
Lana Turner's star had become tarnished in the run-up to "Imitation of Life" -- her last film, "Another Time, Another Place," co-starring Sean Connery, had flopped, and in 1958, her 14-year-old daughter Cheryl Crane, had stabbed Turner's lover, gangster Johnny Stompanato, to death, purportedly to defend her mother. However, unfounded gossip was flying that Crane was having an affair with Stompanato, and Turner had misgivings about taking on the part of Lora, fearing that parallels would be drawn between the character (whose daughter develops a crush on her fiance) and her personal life. She soon overcame her worries, and was so adamant on playing the part that she refused a salary, in exchange for taking a large chunk of the film's profits. The gamble paid off: Turner ended up with a $2 million payday, a record for the time. The money she deferred ended up on screen as her wardrobe alone cost a whopping total of $1 million.

4. Despite the huge success of the film, it was Sirk's last Hollywood picture.
Douglas Sirk (who was Danish in origin, but grew up in Germany, born Hans Detlef Sierck) had fled Germany in 1937 for the safety of his wife, who was Jewish. He soon made it to Hollywood, making his debut with propaganda picture "Hitler's Madman," but found greater success once he went to Universal, with the melodramas "Magnificent Obsession," "All That Heaven Allows" and "Written On The Wind." But "Imitation of Life" was the biggest of them all. At the time, the film was Universal's biggest-grossing picture in the studio's history. But Sirk's films were never well-received by critics, and he had never felt comfortable in Hollywood saying at the time "I was, and to a large extent, still am, too much of a loner." When health problems began to arise, soon after the release of "Imitation of Life," he left Hollywood, moving to Locarno, Switzerland, and producing only a handful of experimental German-language pictures until his death in 1987, aged 90. Almost as soon as he moved, his critical reputation began to be restored with Jean-Luc Godard wroting a love-letter to "A Time To Die" in Cahiers du cinema in April 1959. The magazine would feature him extensively in April 1967, and between Andrew Sarris' "The American Cinema" the following year, and Jon Halliday's 1971 book "Conversations With Sirk." the director would become a firm favorite of the auteurist movement.

5. The film inspired songs by Diana Ross & The Supremes and R.E.M.
Sirk has proven to be a key inspiration for the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodovar, and John Waters. Indeed, Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" is an acknowledged love letter to Sirk's Universal melodramas. But his influence has gone beyond the film world to encompass music too. A decade after the film's release, Motown songwriters The Clan wrote "I'm Livin In Shame," a song inspired by "Imitation Of Life," for Diana Ross & The Supremes. Thirty years later, R.E.M. would borrow the title for the lead single of their 2001 album Reveal. There's not much DNA between the two beyond the name, it should be said, but it does at least feature a terribly clever pan-and-scan video from Garth Jennings ("Son Of Rambow"). 

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9 Comments

  • Marsha Berger Coleman | January 1, 2014 4:38 PMReply

    Saw Imitation of Life in Texas with my parents, kid brother and my dad's parents. I was a young teen. We left the movie house and for the only time in my life I saw my grandfather, Papa Charlie, cry.

  • James El Patterson | April 25, 2012 10:25 AMReply

    Alwys has been...Will always be, my favorite mvie of ALLTIME!

  • Lesley Lawson | April 18, 2012 9:43 PMReply

    I love Annie's deathbed speech. My favorite part is about giving $50 to the milkman who delivered to the "old, coldwater flat"-"He was always so kind and understanding about the bill."

  • David Ehrenstein | April 18, 2012 11:19 AMReply

    If the grand finale of this film where Susan Kohner throws herself over her mother's coffin and begs forgiveness doesn't get to you then you're virtually DEAD.

  • charles c. | April 17, 2012 7:28 PMReply

    No one played Sarah Jane's father in Imitation of Life. Annie was a widow. Paul Kohner was Susan Kohner's father in real life, a major Hollywood agent whose clients included Lana Turner.

  • James | April 17, 2012 3:03 PMReply

    There's a mistake above. John Kohner did not play Sarah's father in the film, he was the real father of the actress Susan Kohner.

  • Galapagospete | April 22, 2012 2:00 PM

    So I guess John-Paul Kohner, who was Lana Turner's agent, also did not get an Oscar nomination for the part of playing Susan's father; nor did he retire from acting five years later after marrying German fashion designer John Weitz, with whom he also apparently did not have two children, "About A Boy" writer-directors Chris & Paul Weitz.

  • James | April 17, 2012 3:07 PM

    Also, his name was Paul Kohner, not John.

  • Kevin | April 17, 2012 10:36 AMReply

    Kinda forgot how much I like that R.E.M. song

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