The Douglas Sirk film, "Imitation of Life", made in 1959 and based on a screenplay adaptation of Fannie Hurst’snovel of the same name, tackles and successfully constructs/deconstructs several forms of oppression at once,including white/black, master/servant, male /female and mother/daughter. The story parallels the lives of two single women, one black, one white, each raising a daughter. Using such devices as romantic songs, humor, dramatic musical cues, compelling acting and dialogue, melodramatic elements of mise en scene, and big name actors Lana Turner and Sandra Dee, Sirk lulls, mulls, and jars us along through these ordinary relationships made controversial by the ever present American socio-political "isms". And, though the main story can appear to be the unfolding of the life of Lora, the white woman, it is the struggles of Annie, the black woman, that are far more dramatic and compelling. If Sirk intended to use his film art to address the serious affects of racism in a America, Lora’s story is the perfect smoke to screen out the fears of a reluctant film industry.
The story begins in 1947 with the five main characters: Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) a White, outofwork actor, single mother who is raising a daughter in the bustling culture of New York; Susie (Sandra Dee-older), Lora’s daughter; Annie Johnson, a "coloured" woman who is, also, an outofwork, single mother, raising a daughter; Sara Jane, Annies daughter, who is light-skinned; and Steve Archer, a photographer with dreams of being recognized as an artist. They meet on the same day at Coney Island when the beachy sand playing of the two daughters brings all five together. All five characters interact in Lora’s various homes and the story progresses through Lora’s career, love, rise as a star, and neglect of her daughter, Susie falling in love with her mothers’ boyfriend, Annies stubbornness/insensitivity to her daughters’ racial situation, Sara Jane’s need to pass as white, and her animosity towards her mother, and lastly, Steve’s love, and art vs job struggle. The opening scene at Coney Island gives a lot of information as it establishes characters and hints at racism, romance, mother/daughter relationships and gender roles all in one fell swoop. The theme of the mother/daughter relationship is set up immediately when Lora loses sight of Susie and is jokingly accused of losing her through chronic neglect. "She not only spoils them, she goes around losing them." Her accuser is Steve, the the man who will become her lover, and will witness her do exactly that during the following years.
The introductory music and images lull the viewer into the comfortable illusion that this film will be about light-hearted romance. Shot in close-up against a black background, dozens of diamonds cascade silently into a pile at the bottom of the frame as the intro credits roll. "So and so" sings the theme song, "Imitation of Life". With lyrics like these... "What is love without the giving. Without love you’re only living...an imitation of life." and these... "Lips that kiss can tell you clearly without this our lives are merely...an imitation of life." ...viewers have every reason to believe that this film will be nothing other than a sweet story of love and romance. However, it is interesting to note that the first sound that is heard as the film begins, the short instrumental introduction that precedes the theme song melody, is very dramatic and ominous. Followed by the soft, enchanting melody and lyrics, this ominous introduction is overridden and the foreboding forgotten. Or is it? Sirk may have intentionally planted a seed to say that there are two stories here, parallel, and in a way, may have given us a little sugar with our medicine, as if to say, "Ok, folks, it’s going to be heavy, so I’m going to make it a little easy on you by adding lightness." Clearly, Sirk is using the genre of romance movies from the 1940’s (light) as a vehicle for delivering messages about racism (heavy). Sara Jane's rejection of Susie's gift of her black doll makes that clear. Being beaten by her boyfriend when he finds out she has a black mother, Annies statement, "How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt"?, and Sara Jane's pained insistence, "I’m white, I’m white, I’m white," all drive it home. Toward the end when Lora and Annie discuss that Susie has fallen in love with Steve, Lora says that Annies struggles with racism are real problems and diminishes her own struggles. Parallel lives. Heavy and light.
Lora and Annie first pass unknown to each other on the Coney Island boardwalk steps with Lora walking up from the sand and Annie walking down to the sand, parallel. Traveling in opposite directions, white woman ascending, black woman descending, this may be a metaphor for the parallel of their lives as well as the racial condition. Paralleling the black woman’s life with the white woman’s life is an interesting storytelling device. Whether Hurst, Sirk, or the two screenwriters penned it this way, it is an effective use of time, space and juxtaposition that proves exciting and evocative. Only one film crew and one group of sets are necessary for the two stories. The juxtaposition adds an element of interest for the viewer in switching from one story to the other, and also becomes a vehicle of contrast between the two worlds, black and white. Lora’s world and concerns seem frivolous at times compared to the concerns of Annie and Sara Jane. Lora has only a handful of heavy moments; when Loomis tries to "cheapen" her with the suggestion of doing sexual favors to get ahead in the business; when she and Susie cry together over Susie's love for Steve; and, when Annie dies. Annie and Sara Jane's’ heavy moments are nearly too numerous to count. Their plight is heavy, period. Paralleling Lora and Annies lives is a good device for contrasting a variety of life issues, and the racial differences and mothering similarities are made more emphatic. The viewer is able to see both the love and concern, and at the same time, the insensitivity of both mothers for their individual daughters. Racial differences have no baring on the ability of a mother to be close with her daughter and sensitive to her deepest concerns. Lora is absent from Susie's life and has no idea she is falling in love with Steve. Annie is not absent from Sara Jane's life, and instead is too much in her life with her stubborn, insistence that Sara Jane present herself as black instead of trying to pass as white.
By shooting scenes across door frames and other dividers, the separateness of the parallel lives is suggested. As Lora and Susie sit on Susie's bed with the bedroom door open, there is a clear view through the door frame of the apartment door as Annie and Sara Jane enter and appear upset. Sara Jane has been outed by Annie at school as black. With this technique it is much like looking from one set into another, and is that not perfectly appropriate when considering that the two life issues are separate yet intertwined. Though both Annie and Lora are single mothers raising daughters, only Annie (and Sara Jane) deal with the harsh realities of racial hate, ignorance and misunderstanding. Sirk makes ample use of doors and door frames to develop the plot and contrast lives. Characters slam, leave, enter or approach doors during dramatic dialogue. At Lora’s first audition she reads her lines, criticizes the writer, heads for the exit door, and is stopped by the writer before exiting. He accepts her criticism, asks her suggestions, likes them and keeps her on for the next 10 years, making her a star. Quite a turning point there at that exit door. In addition to suggesting parallels, doors can represent beginnings, endings, and changes.
Sirk uses interruption to heighten the drama and anticipation. Nearly every time Steve attempts to advance his intimacy with Lora, a telephone, telegram, note or message in some form arrives and all bets are off for Steve, as Lora is constantly given the opportunity to choose and continually chooses her career over Steve’s proposals, sometimes callously. It is interesting to note that toward the end, when Susie finally has a crying heart to heart with Lora about her love for Steve and Lora’s neglectful mothering skills, she points out some of these very devices.Susie..."Annies always been more like a real mother to me. Lora..."You’ve always had a mothers love." Susie..."Only by telephone, postcard, magazine interviews."
Sirk uses a lot of close-up and medium close-up shots all throughout the film so that the relationships are predominantly intimate, personal and social. In this way the viewer is brought closer in to the emotions conveyed by each character and may identify more easily with the feelings. When Lora first meets Annie and her light-skinned daughter, Sara Jane, she assumes Annie is Sara Jane’s nanny, not her mother. Lora, who is a kind, genuine, somewhat naive, and in no way malicious woman, is a lot like the average white American and may represent internalized racism. In close-up we see her blank expression, a pause, and then the realization wash over her face as she comprehends that Annie is Sara Jane’s mother, not her nanny. "Sara Jane is your child"? The unsaid thought is ?Well, naturally I assumed your were her nanny because why else would a black woman be with a white child. It never occurred to me you could be her mother because she looks white.? A common racial experience for many people is made easy to identify with. Annie responds sympathetically by saying that it happens all the time because Sara Jane is so light, and goes on to explain that her father was "practically white". The reference to a "practically" white father is another aspect of racism in that it was more acceptable than a white father would be. Racial mixing was still outlawed in places. Though it may not be the job of Black Americans to educate White Americans, Annies gentle education of Lora in this scene and others, makes this kind of racism easier to face. And, Sirks handling of the location and lighting, the brightness of a sunny day at the beach, add a more hopeful element to the seriousness of the topic.
Sirks use of the transitory nature of the hallway is fascinating. Sirk uses this narrow space in Lora’s apartment building to reveal more about the characters, and especially to emphasize stages of change, conflict and frustrations in character and plot development, especially Lora’s relationship with Steve. The hallway is a place between two locations and a good metaphor for where one has been and where one is going. Lora discusses her acting ambitions with Steve and Steve asks Lora to marry him while they are in the narrow apartment building hallway. Lora is surprised but not thrilled or ready. She expresses that marriage will interfere with her career plans and her vision for Steve’s career. She challenges his acceptance of a job that will not advance his dream to be recognized for his artistic merit as a photographer.
Mirrors are used for important dialogue, as well, and appear to be a device of metaphor for the "imitation" of life. The non-reality that each character who speaks into them tries to live. Lora phones Annie and young Susie while looking in the mirror to tell of the successful opening of her first play. Ten years later, a super star, she is looking into the dressing room mirror as she says, "You make it and find out it wasn’t worth it in some ways." Sara Jane faces a mirror as she answers Annies question, "Are you happy?", with this response, "I’m somebody else. I’m white, white, white!" Staircases are used during times of hurt. Sara Jane collapses onto the stairs at home after being beaten by her boyfriend. All four women gather on the stairs to address Sara Jane's situation. Yet, Annie collapses on the outside stairs of a city apartment as she pleadingly follows Sara Jane and is there all alone.
The editing is effective and interesting at times. Annie and Sara Jane have a huge, dramatic fight out in the falling snow about Sara Jane passing as white at school. This followed by a cut to the indoor warm and simplicity of Lora sitting on young Susie's bed in loving bonding. Or, after Sara Jane is beaten by her boyfriend outside in a wet alley, the next scene is the warm, happy interior of Lora’s home with Annie rubbing her feet.
Sirk seems to have a sense of humor in all of this drama. When Lora tells David that she will not star in his latest comedy, and instead wants to begin real acting and take a part in a dramatic play she likes by another playwright, David replies, "...the colored angle in it is absolutely controversial." In this way the film seems to be making a statement about itself.