Sunday, June 24, 2018

Imitation of Life (1934)

Imitation of Life (1934) with Warren William (Stephen Archer), Louise Beavers (Delilah Johnson) and Claudette Colbert (Beatrice Pullman).

Uhrattua elämää / Livets offer / Lo specchio della vita.
    Director: John M. Stahl. Year: 1934. Country: USA.
    Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo di Fannie Hurst. Scen.: William Hurlbut. F.: Merritt Gerstad. M.: Philip Cahn, Maurice Wright. Scgf.: Charles D. Hall. Mus.: Heinz Roemheld. Int.: Claudette Colbert (Beatrice Pullman), Warren William (Stephen Archer), Rochelle Hudson (Jessie Pullman), Ned Sparks (Elmer Smith), Louise Beavers (Delilah Johnson), Fredi Washington (Peola Johnson), Baby Jane (Jessie Pullman bambina), Alan Hale (Martin), Henry Armetta (il pittore), Wyndham Standing (il maggiordomo). Prod.: Carl Laemmle Jr. per Universal Pictures. 35 mm. D.: 111’. Bn.
    Spirituals included in the score: "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen", "Old Man River", "Lord Have Mercy on Her Soul".
    Print from Universal. A Comcast company.
    Introducono Ehsan Khoshbakht and Jay Weissberg.
    Viewed with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato (Immortal Imitations: The Cinema of John M. Stahl),  Sunday 24/06/2018

Jonathan Rosenbaum (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "Americans know that Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” means “Make America white again” – a nostalgic longing for the repressive 50s, when Eisenhower spent as much time golfing as Trump does today, and when black men were caddies rather than players if they were visible at all. This is the America that warmly greeted Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life in 1959, and when I saw it in a whites-only Alabama theatre, this was with sobbing white matrons responding to the film’s deeply conservative message about knowing your place. Consequently, when I was informed by armchair Marxists in the 70s that the film was a work of Brechtian subterfuge, I recalled that the film was released during the Civil Rights movement, when Sirk’s bitter ironies were far too subtle to affect the status quo. As Sirk noted himself, “Imitation of Life is a picture about the situation of the blacks before the time of the slogan ‘black is beautiful’”. In Alabama, this isn’t called Brechtian, it’s called scaredy-cat."

"Twenty-five year earlier, John Stahl’s original adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s then-current (1933) novel was also conservative, but because the Depression was a far more progressive period than the conformist 1950s, it comes across today as considerably more enlightened. The black cook who moves in with the white heroine – Delilah (Louise Beavers) in the original, Annie (Juanita Moore) in the remake – is not really an equal, but at least she’s a business partner, and the film’s title is perhaps best illustrated by her manufactured smile, delivered on request to create an advertising logo for her pancakes. Her light-skinned daughter who passes for white is significantly played by a black actress (Fredi Washington) instead of a white one (Susan Kohner in the Sirk), and her mother is noticeably blacker, making the existential terms of the debate far more stark and honest. And thanks partly to the skill of Claudette Colbert, the humour of Stahl’s version is much warmer and less cynical, expressing the more inclusive humanism of the 30s, when, as critic Manny Farber once noted, “all shapes were legitimate”." Jonathan Rosenbaum

AA: It was an interesting emphasis of Universal Pictures in the 1930s that they produced high profile films with racial issues such as Show Boat and Imitation of Life.

I have seen John M. Stahl's Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession before but my first impression of them had been that they are fine melodrama subjects whose full potential was realized only by Douglas Sirk.

Seeing Stahl's Back Street for the first time a couple of years ago in Bologna I realized that I may have missed something about Stahl. His Back Street is generally considered the best adaptation of the subject.

In Imitation of Life, Stahl's approach is more laid back and more matter-of-fact then Sirk's. The performances of Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, and Rochelle Hudson are moving and engaging. Ned Sparks is an embodiment of lateral thinking. Of Warren William it is hard to say how intentionally dubious his character is meant to be understood.

The story of racial discrimination is all too relevant today. In Imitation of Life we see it at the school and at the cigar store. It is the story of a daughter who disowns her mother because of the colour of her skin. The heartbreak is too much for the mother to bear.

A very good 35 mm print from Universal.

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