Imitation of Life: The Same Film Twice





Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959)

Directed by John Stahl/Douglas Sirk

Universal, 111/125 minutes, Not-rated



Hollywood often remakes foreign films for English-speakers. Less often, it updates older films, and rarer still it remakes the same film with  tweaks. Imitation of Life was one of the latter. Both the 1934 John Stahl-directed film and the 1959 version by Douglas Sirk are considered “culturally significant” and included in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Each tackles the theme of an interracial friendship between two adult women, which proves problematic for their respective daughters. There are cosmetic changes between the two but the biggest differences are that Stahl’s film was in black and white, Sirk’s in color, and Stahl’s version was riskier for its time.


Imitation of Life was first a 1933 novel from Fannie Hurst inspired by a trip to Canada with her Black friend, author Zora Neale Hurston. In the 1934 film, Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) is a widowed mother to Jessie. She’s trying to keep the household together by selling maple syrup door to door. That’s quite a challenge, as is keeping track of Jessie. Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) knocks on her door. She wishes to apply for a housekeeping job, but went to the wrong address. Delilah is dark-skinned, but her daughter Peola is so fair she can pass for white–a common denominator in both films. Before you can say “pancakes,” Delilah and Peola move into Bea’s home.


Pancakes save the budget. Everyone loves Delilah’s pancakes, but being Black, she isn’t a good candidate for a business loan in 1934. Bea becomes the front side a venture that gets its startup funds, space, and equipment from Bea’s ability to bluff, fast talk, and make fanciful promises. It works, and their Atlantic City Boardwalk eatery is soon raking in the dough (so to speak). They even borrow an idea from down-on-his-luck Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks) to “box it” and sell it for home use. They hire him! Bea and Delilah are such good friends that the latter doesn’t want any profits, but Bea has a workaround for that.


The crisis comes as the girls grow up. Peola (Fredi Washington) is ready for higher ed, but she wants no part of a Negro college. She leaves home and attempts to pass, but her mother has a distressing habit of finding her, upsetting her romantic plans, and getting her fired from Whites-only jobs. At 18, Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) develops a way-too-obvious crush on Stephan Archer (Warren William), her mother’s boyfriend. Identity issues are settled by a combination of acceptance, disappointment, and tragedy.  


This film almost didn’t win release as the Hays Office disapproved of implied interracial dating. Such a thing could lead to miscegenation, which was illegal in much of the country. Another sticking point was a near-lynching scene. Why to think such a thing was even possible in the United States!


The 1959 film had an easier time gaining release, but was still risqué given the contentiousness of civil rights clashes. Douglas Sirk altered a few things. Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), an aspiring actress, loses daughter Susie at a crowded Coney Island beach. They are reunited with aid from stranger Steve Archer (John Gavin). She is found in the safekeeping of Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her own white-looking daughter Sarah Jane. When Lora learns the Johnsons need a place to stay, she takes them in.


Move ahead 11 years and Lora is an acclaimed Broadway actress, Steve is her boyfriend, and the Johnsons are ensconced on the lower level of her posh New York apartment. Steve and Lora have a brief falling out and she has taken up with her script writer/lover Allen Loomis (Robert Alda). That falls apart and Steve is back in the picture. He agrees to watch Susie (Sandra Dee) when Lora goes to Italy to make a movie. That melodramatic relationship plays out, as does the Peola-as-Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) scenario. Both films have comparable endings.  


Which version is better? In my view, Colbert did comedy better than Turner, but not even Colbert could match Turner for glamor. I found Fredi Washington’s performance in the ‘34 film the most-riveting of all, but the ’59 movie featured a cameo from 50’s pretty boy Troy Donahue and a glorious clip from Mahalia Jackson. The 1934 film is funnier, but the ’59 version holds up better. Watch them both and compare notes.


Rob Weir


Giving Up (For Now?)




I once so obsessed over books that if I started one, I had to finish it. I’m not sure why,  but I can report that I got over whatever mania gripped me. 




Occasionally I give up on something because I’m just not in the mood for what’s on offer. Once or twice, I’ve revisited something I tossed aside and absolutely loved it. One such endeavor was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I ditched it in 2001 when it won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. It’s a wonderful book about the Golden Days of the comic book industry as well as a tale of Jewish life, the immigrant experience, and the American Dream. It’s surely one of the best novels of the 21st century.


Am I equally off base with the three below? If any of you have read one or more of these, feel free to tell me why I’m nuts and why I should try again. 




The Bee Sting was shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize. Paul Murray follows Ireland’s Barnes family from one travail and lousy situation to the next. The very title suggests they were doomed to be dysfunctional. When Dickie and Imelda Barnes were wed, a bee flew up her veil and stung her so badly her face swelled up like a circus balloon. That’s why there are few wedding snaps.


I disliked Murray’s writing. He’s one of those who jumped on the who cares about punctuation bandwagon. That was en vogue when postmodernism was all the rage, but I was never a fan. Murray isn’t even consistent in his avoidance; sometimes he punctuates and sometimes he doesn’t. I can also do without James Joyce-like stream of consciousness prose.


The Bee Sting also appears to suffer from Angela’s Ashes Syndrome, my reference to Frank McCourt’s 1996 memoir. There has been a definite trend among Irish novelists to see who can wear the Most Miserable Childhood crown. I grant that there is a deep streak of fatalism in Celtic cultures, but I think I’ve overdosed on them and I feared that Imelda’s bee was still active and buzzing around my head. One of the reasons I loved the film The Quiet Girl (2022) so much is that it left me with hope. 




Speaking of unrelenting despair, Kerry Howley takes a look at the contemporary life in Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State. This non-fiction biography meets investigative reporting work tells us that privacy is dead, whistle blowers should beware, it’s not a good idea to carry off classified documents, and don’t speak to officials who claim they can help you. It follows Reality Winner, a disaffected Black intelligence officer.


That’s as far as I got before I gave up, though the New York Times called it an important book that’s often “darkly funny.” It’s hard for me to imagine what’s “funny” about a five-year jail sentence or that Big Brother really is watching. I know the Deep State is scary and that privacy is more myth than reality. Howley might be right when she insists that we are little more than “data about data.”


I tossed it aside because: (1) I don’t believe Edward Snowden or Julian Assange are free speech crusaders, (2) because some, like Daniel Ellsberg, are cut from very different cloth, and (3) I don’t know what to do with what Howley is telling us. We could chortle at the absurdity of our times–and there were some world-class stupid things going on in the book–but ultimately, the Deep State is no laughing matter. Or maybe it is. I didn’t make it to the punchline.  




Perhaps I have a thing about prize winners. In 2003, Edward P. Jones won a Pulitzer for The Known World. It’s about Henry Townshend, an ex-slave who becomes a landowner who lords over his own Black slaves. That’s a real thing, though The Known World is a novel.


I’m not sure why I couldn’t get through a book that many have proclaimed a masterpiece. Theories: (1) I’ve known about Black enslavers since my undergraduate days. (2) I’ve thought about how slavery negatively impacts everyone associated with the "peculiar institution” since I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin forever ago. (3) I have found other novels about the horrors of slavery more interesting.


Of the three books mentioned, The Known World is the one I’m most inclined to put back in the queue. What say all of you?


Rob Weir



Poor Things: A Debatable Film



A rare shot of Emma Stone clothed!

Poor Things (2023/24)

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Searchlight, 142 minutes, R (graphic nudity and sex, language, gore)



Poor Things is a hard film to review. It has been hailed as a masterpiece, hysterical, and an instant classic. It has also been excoriated as pornographic, appalling, and garbage. It’s never boring, yet each assessment has merit. The only thing I’ll say for certain is that it takes intellectual gymnastics to argue the title makes sense for either Alasdair Gray’s book or the movie.


At heart it’s an inversion of Frankenstein. What if Mary Shelley’s monster survived and like his creator, became a celebrated surgeon who privately conducts macabre experiments? In Poor Things, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) looks the part of the monster minus the electrodes. He is square-jawed with a face scarred as if a drunkard tried to carve mosaics into it. Baxter has fame, a well-appointed estate, and a meek but enthusiastic assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Yousesef). In his spare time, Baxter has fashioned a potential companion, Bella (Emma Stone).


Bella’s story begins when she throws herself off a bridge into the Thames. Her body is brought to Godwin’s lab, the first of many times we see Stone’s naked body. She is dead, but is with child. Godwin removes her brain and replaces it with that of the still-viable fetus in the belief that his hybrid creation will rapidly mature. You can imagine how some might feel about an infant in Emma Stone’s body. Godwin places her under Max’s tutelage and presses him to consider her a future bride when she gains coordination and an adult mind. Yet Godwin–whom Bella calls “God” for more than a shorthand reason–admits his own yearning for her. If only he weren’t a eunuch–because why would such a creature as he need male tackle?  


The opening of the film is in black and white, but it goes to color about the time Bella discovers the pleasures of masturbation. She is developing fast, but there is no jumpstarting the fact that Bella has no experience with social graces. Not that the lecherous Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) notices; he sees only her surface beauty.  Bella likes to touch herself, but she really likes “jumping:” coitus. She is easily persuaded to run away with Duncan so she can have lots of it. Their journey takes them to Lisbon, Alexandria, Marseilles, and Paris before Duncan is a broken man. At each step, Bella’s mind and awareness advance as Godwin anticipated, but she remains id-driven.


When Bella needs money to return to London, she has no problem turning to prostitution in a house run by the head-to-toe tattooed Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter). She also forms several (ahem!) attachments to Toinette (Suzy Bemba). Through it all Max remains ready to wed Bella. If only General Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott), her husband from her pre-bridge-leaping days hadn’t showed up. Can any of these jumpings be saved? 


Poor Things is like Fifty Shades of Gray crossed with Gothic surrealism. It is visually gorgeous. Director Yorgos Lanthimos–he of the equally weird The Lobster–presents London as steampunk Victorianism. He enhances off-kilter themes via liberal use of fisheye lenses and gauzy shots that mirror its moral ambiguity. Beauty and ugliness are similarly up for grabs: Stone’s body and relative innocence are juxtaposed with the simian-like Swiney and the cynicism of fellow ship passenger Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael). Not to mention potentially off-putting things such as bloody operations, discussion of genital mutilation, and revenge served strangely.  


Stone won a Best Actress Oscar for a role that was physically demanding on many levels, not just spending most of the film unclothed. It’s an open and debatable question, though, whether she should have been honored for a film so many found offensive. I actually found Dafoe’s performance more affecting in advancing contemplation of what constitutes a monster. It is a well-acted film across the board except for Mark Ruffalo whose appeal eludes me. He was supposed to be outrageous but, as usual, he goes over the top.


My rating is the coward’s path. I adored the visual impact of Poor Things, admired the new take on Frankenstein, and found it very funny in places. Yet it is indeed a male gaze film–though there’s plenty of male nudity as well–and is often degrading and stomach-churning. As a sex comedy, it’s not in the same galaxy as Doris Day. Or even Meg Ryan.


Rob Weir