Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

21 May 2009

Imitation of Life

I rented the original film of Imitation of Life from 1934 by John M. Stahl because I am currently reading Lauren Berlant's book The Female Complaint: the Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Chapter four of the book is all about the supertext of Imitation of Life. She discusses Fannie Hurst's original novel, naturally, but also the two film adaptations. Anyway, I had seen Douglas Sirk's 1959 version years ago, but never the original. So I figured now was as good a time as any to do so.

Both of the films are quite centrally about passing. I guess I didn't realize this. I only thought that the Sirk version concerned itself with the light-skinned daughter of the black protagonist who does not want to be black. As it turns out, both movies cover this ground—and both do so fairly interestingly. This narrative is, in fact, the chief narrative of both movies—this is the narrative which contains the film's melodrama and almost the entirety of the film's act two conflict. There is a conflict with Colbert/Turner's daughter, as well, but it is always only a childish one and therefore a much more minor (and sudsy) storyline.

I think the reason I had such confusion about this is that both films purport to be the story of the white protagonist. The 1959 film advertises itself by making all of its print copy about Lana Turner. And the 1934 film does the same with Claudette Colbert. If you look at the poster to the left you will see that it makes the film look as though it is centrally about a love story between this woman and the man who appears to be haunting her (he is, in any case, a very odd choice for a leading man: rather a nerd, actually, and not dreamy like so many matinee idols of the day.) But the movie is not a love story, at least not one between a man and a woman. It is much more a story about the two women's track to success and their dependence on one another for survival. And, quite importantly—by which I mean it would be absolutely impossible to change this plot point—the other woman is a black woman. Yet there is no black woman on the poster.

I realize I am singing an old song right now; I just can't help it because it is so blatant.

While Lauren Berlant's chapter on Imitation of Life is very cool, and she advocates (very interestingly) in favor of what both films accomplish and (it seemed to me) against the novel's project, the film itself left me feeling a little bit sick to my stomach. And not because of all the pancakes Aunt Jemima Delilah makes in the movie. Hollywood's treatment of black characters is so ambivalent, and almost perverse. Even when a director is ostensibly trying not to be racist, the paternalism and primitivism his film displays cannot help but make a sensitive viewer uncomfortable.

One other thing I really don't understand is the book/film's title. Who is imitating life or what is this imitaton of life?