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Imitation of Life: 2-Movie Collection (Blu-ray Review)

20 Apr, 2015 By: Mike Clark

$26.98 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Louise Beavers, Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, Susan Kohner.

The lush 1959 remake of the Fannie Hurst perennial (or at least as lush as Eastman Color could be) is so revered by Douglas Sirk worshippers that the not insignificant power of the ’34 John Stahl original tends to be obscured (and I’m one of those Sirk worshippers). This is why the pairing here made up one of the great twofers in DVD history and why a higher-def upgrade makes sense, especially since above-average care seems to have been taken after last year’s god-awful Region B release of the second version. Leaving aside the Sirk momentarily, the earlier Claudette Colbert starrer — a best picture Oscar nominee in its day and 2005 National Film Registration selectee — is one of the more impressive transfers I’ve seen of a vintage black-and-white Hollywood release. Can you believe that Colbert’s filmography can claim this and It Happened One Night plus two DeMille concoctions (Four Frightened People and career hallmark Cleopatra) in the same year?

Of course, Hurst’s race-propelled story is a product of its time with the more specific Depression benchmark thrown in, which is to say that the domestic played by Louise Beavers in the original will never be mistaken for Angela Davis on an activist binge for the Black Panthers or on some anti-Reagan soapbox. Subservient with the “ma’ams” even after she and the white entrepreneur Colbert plays have been partners and living in the same home for years, Beavers provides the recipe that becomes the nucleus for “Aunt Delilah’s” nationally renowned pancakes — putting her on the low end of an 80-20 financial split (though it’s Colbert who takes every penny of the business risk and thus earning her heavier end of the profits, no matter what some IMDb.com chat-room firebrands insist).

The original may be the first movie, or at least major one, to put the family woes of a black character on equal footing of a white — in this case, daughter trouble. Delilah/Beavers has the more serious concern: a daughter (Fredi Washington) trying to pass as white when mom keeps blowing her cover. By comparison, Colbert has an easier go of it dealing with the puppy-love angst of a daughter played by Rochelle Hudson, an actress who’d much later play Natalie Wood’s mother in Rebel Without a Cause. On the other hand, Hudson does fall for mom’s intended (Warren William, who was also Julius Caesar to Colbert’s ’34 Cleopatra) in what must be the only ’30s movie in which William takes the high road when faced with a barely legal opportunity. Washington performance, by the way, is still really powerful — and unlike Susan Kohner in the Sirk counterpart, she was African-American in real life.

Though they never fully pulled it off until the early 1970s, there were signs that Universal was trying to become a full-fledged “A” studio (that is, something beyond horror, talking mules, Abbott & Costello and Audie Murphy) by the second half of the ’50s. Director Sirk’s subversive soapers meant a lot at the box office and occasionally even awards (see Written on the Wind) for what was then Universal-International; in ’59, the remake capped his career with the biggest hit he ever had (five weeks first-run at my downtown theater when only the year’s top smashes ever got held over). The remake’s screenplay is substantially recast into a clotheshorse vehicle more suited to lead Lana Turner, which is one reason why watching both films together is such a rewarding experience and not repetitious slog work. Still basking in her Peyton Place comeback glory (though interrupted by her own daughter’s real-life knife-in-the-gut slaying of hood Johnny Stompanato, which dominated male discussion on my fifth-grade school playground at the time), Turner plays — and very well — a Broadway actress who has come up the hard way without peddling her body to anyone (the script says).

The backstage-Broadway part of the story and any scene with John Gavin threaten to get in the way of the race angle, but Sirk’s visual style and ability to get better-than-expected performances from potentially tepid casts burnish the emotion; even Sandra Dee, as Turner’s daughter, has a scene where she successfully pulls out the stops, and, of course, no one got more drama out of photographed staircases than Sirk. And whereas the Delilah/Beavers character can be a little on the dim side, counterpart Juanita Moore seems to have more on the ball emotionally than Turner’s character does, though you can see how daughter Kohner — trying desperately to pass as a way of survival in a racist power structure — is at the end of her rope after well-intentioned mom keeps interfering in her life. Sirk was too sophisticated a guy not to have been aware that Kohner’s daughter at least has a case given the times, no matter the story’s powerful final resolution. On the other hand — and this is why the film was kind of a beautifully filmed relic even at the time — the Montgomery bus boycott hadn’t just happened a day earlier.

Moore and Kohner were both up for deserved supporting Oscars but likely spit the vote, enabling Shelley Winters to win for The Diary of Anne Frank. And the movie’s success, atop Peyton Place, kept the “mature” Turner going on screen for a few more years; I’ve always wondered what the double-barreled ’59 career effect would have been had she and Otto Preminger not had a falling-out on Anatomy of a Murder, forcing her to leave the picture (and giving Lee Remick a huge break that she totally aced). Whenever U-I made a big picture in this era, Russell Metty always seemed to be the cinematorapher, as is he case here (can you imagine shooting Touch of Evil, Imitation of Life, Spartacus and Flower Drum Song in successive years?). The opening scene is packed with detail on the beach, and even a Blu-ray rendering isn’t very good. But matters improve, and some of the later scenes look satisfyingly robust, though (Eastman Color again) not up to Criterion’s Blu-ray of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (which is off the charts) or the handsome new German Region B release (Koch Media) of Captain Lightfoot. Overall, though, this pairing is a winner.

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