Sunday, September 7, 2008

The most over-the-top funeral

Now that the summer is over, TCM has finished its Essentials Jr. series and goes back to more grown-up movies on Sunday evenings. This first post-Labor Day Sunday sees the 1959 version of Imitation of Life, at 8:00 PM ET.

Lana Turner stars as Lora Meredith, a struggling actress with a young daughter. One day at the beach, she meets a black woman named Annie Johnson (played by Juanita Moore), who's got a daughter and is really looking for a job herself. The two eventually agree to live together while Annie works as Lora's maid.

Fast-forward a decade. Lora has finally made the big time, being one of Broadway's biggest stars and living in the lap of luxury. Unfortunately, life at home isn't so great for either her or Annie. Both of them have rebellious teenage daughters. Lora's daughter Susie, played by Sandra Dee, Gidgets her way through the movie being a self-centered you-know-what who doesn't understand the rest of the world, and has a crush on her mother's boyfriend (John Gavin).

Worse, however, is Annie's daughter Sara Jane, played by Susan Kohner. She's very light skinned, presumably of mixed race, although the movie never comes right out and says this. (In fact, Susan Kohner was not black, but the daughter of a Czech father and Mexican mother.) Sara Jane has a huge chip on her shoulder, not wanting to submit to the conventions that American society put upon black people back in the 1950s, and instead wanting to live a free life "passing" as a white woman. This is to the unending dismay of her mother, who simply wants to provide the best for her daughter, even though she continually runs out on her mother and says she doesn't want her around any more.

Eventually, the burden is too much for poor Annie, who dies, leading to one of the great film funerals. Singing at Annie's funeral is gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, a sign that this is supposed to be a serious funeral. However, poor Sara Jane has learned of her mother's death, and returned to show off just how distraught she really is.

Fifty years on, Imitation of Life is a fun, but somewhat campy movie. I can never help but laugh at the funeral, while Sandra Dee is also a hoot. There's also a scene in which Troy Donahue plays Sara Jane's boyfriend -- until he learns the truth about her racial background. Imitation of Life is a remake of a 1934 movie (both were based on an earlier novel), and my personal opinion is that the remake is better, largely because the relationship between the white mother (Claudette Colbert in the earlier version) and her daughter (Rochelle Hudson) is downplayed somewhat. It's much the lesser story, and Colbert doesn't overpower the scenes she's in the way the impossibly glamorous Lana Turner does. On the other hand, widescreen and color, combined with the better production values of the 1950s, serve to make the contrast between white privilege and black servitude much more stark.

Both versions are available on DVD, so you can always watch for yourself and decide which version is the better movie.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Troy Donahue did play the bad guy on Imitation of life, while yet another Troy, Troy Cansler became a real life hero!

Comparing the Two Troys
Troy Donahue and Troy Cansler both born in January.
Both died at age the ends with an odd number.
Both have fathers of the same name (Frederick Merle Johnson and Ambers O'Neal Shewmaker)
Troy Donahue was born on the 27th and Troy Cansler died on the 27th.
Both changed their names to Troy (Frederick Merle Johnson, Jr. became Troy Donahue while Ambers O'Neal Shewmaker became Troy Cansler.)
Both fathers died.
Both married to wives first names began with an A (Alma Sharp and Autumn Glazier)
Troy Donahue gained his wife in 1969, while Troy Cansler lost his father in 1969.
Troy Donahue lost his wife in 1972 due to divorce, Troy Cansler gained his stepfather in 1972.
Troy Donahue made his appearence in Come Spy with Me in January 1967, and Troy Cansler made his debut in January 1967.
Troy Donahue's co-worker, Sandra was born in April, Troy Cansler died in April.

Susan Kohner was crying due to the beating by Troy Donahue, while Krystal Hanrahan was crying due to the death of a hero, Troy Cansler.