Anthology Film Archives is running a fascinating series, IMITATIONS OF LIFE: STAHL VS. SIRK, which compares the work of two directors, John Stahl (1886-1950) and Douglas Sirk (1900-87), working in the specific category of the “woman’s film,” a once-staunch Hollywood genre – as fully commercial as the Western or gangster flick – which has all but disappeared in a time when the harried, often career-obsessed mother of the family no longer makes the movie-going decisions so much as the 12-year-old son she more often than not drops off at the mall. Sirk happened to film three different remakes in the 1950s of movies originally lensed by Stahl in the 1930s, and it’s as instructive to see the contrasting look and ambiance of the these two eras as it is to experience two differing directorial styles.
Sirk, with his lushly over-the-top visuals framing throbbingly fraught emotionalism – some say “masterly”; others, “pure corn” – is the more familiar name to contemporary audiences, being celebrated by auteurist critics as well as both the late R.W. Fassbinder and Todd Haimes, whose FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002) was a blatant homage to him. Stahl is best remembered today for the luridly Technicolor Gothic campfest, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), for which Martin Scorsese has a permanent hard-on. Ironically, that film is something of an anomaly in Stahl’s career, which began in the silent era, with A BOY AND THE LAW (1914), as its excessiveness is a definite one-off in career mainly devoted to a more studio-engendered craftsmanlike, classically straightforward, non-flashy style of storytelling.
Indeed, Stahl’s unfestooned presentation of the three films in the series, IMITATION OF LIFE (1934), MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1935) and WHEN TOMORROW COMES (1939) are like a simple meal of meat with two veg as opposed to Sirk’s remakes, like the luxe fare you’d find at some overpriced Manhattan foodie haven, mixing a surfeit of rich ingredients with suspicious nutritional value, perhaps resulting in a certain abdominal queasiness.
Irene Dunne stars in Stahl’s MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and WHEN TOMORROW COMES and is his most emblematic actress, although he also worked with such formidable ladies as Margaret Sullavan (in her delicate debut, ONLY YESTERDAY (1933), Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Gene Tierney, Norma Shearer, Eleanor Boardman and Florence Vidor. In 1932, Dunne starred for Stahl in that mother of all weepies, BACK STREET (written by Fannie Hurst, who also penned IMITATION OF LIFE), and so effectively played the forlorn, sequestered mistress of a married man that the film played nonstop for years in that mecca of adultery, Paris. Dunne, although denigrated for a certain archness by eminent critics James Agee and Pauline Kael, has always struck me, even with her admitted affectations, which can be awfully entertaining, as a singularly representative, if idealized, American woman of her time. Perhaps the most versatile of Hollywood Golden Age stars, she was not only adept at drama and comedy but could sing, as well, with a throaty soprano far more pleasing to the ear than shrill Jeanette MacDonald. (She played Magnolia in the road company of the original production of SHOWBOAT and, later in Hollywood, had no less than Jerome Kern writing songs for her like “Lovely to Look At” and “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.”) Along with everything else, she was a great, aristocratic beauty; in 1935 a panel of eminent judges, including the photographer George Hoyningen-Huene almost unanimously judged her nose as the most perfect in Hollywood.
IRENE DUNNE, PHOTOGRAPHED BY EDWARD STEICHEN
WHEN TOMORROW COMES, from a suprisingly durable story by James Cain (it was remade twice, once by Sirk in 1957, with June Allyson and that ’50s all-purpose Continental lover, Rossano Brazzi) is a piquant little romantic ride about a famous concert pianist (Charles Boyer) who falls in love with a waitress (Irene Dunne). They endure a hurricane during which they seek refuge in a church for a night, where she learns that he is married to a madwoman (Barbara O’Neill). He eventually must take his leave of her, Irene of course nobly understands, but he promises to return one day. (And Irene will inevitably be nobly waiting.)
Boyer – the greatest screen lover of them all, and a superb actor – performs with his usual liquid charm and bedroom eyes, in his second effective 1939 pairing with Dunne with whom he made Leo McCarey’s LOVE AFFAIR. The film is also interesting for O’Neill, tall, dark, handsome and usually neurotic, who made something of a career of playing crazy, unwanted wives (as she did in the following year’s ALL THIS AND HEAVEN, TOO, for she was Oscar-nominated), along with Scarlett’s Mama in GONE WITH THE WIND, also released in 1939.
BARBARA O’NEIL (1910-80), EXPERT PLAYER OF UNWANTED WIVES
Claudette Colbert, another exemplar of classic screen femininity, stars in IMITATION OF LIFE, and, like Dunne, projects a refulgent womanliness, elegance and intelligence, albeit in her own inimitable style. These are women to be admired and emulated, from the radiant smarts and warmth they project to the ineffable chic with which they wear their beautifully symmetrical ’30s styles. (Colbert, incidentally, never looked more beautiful than she does in IMITATION OF LIFE and when I met her in 1985, I told her so and asked what made her go so attractively brunette for this film. “Darling, that’s my natural color!” she laughed.)
CLAUDETTE COLBERT, 1934, WITH HER NATURAL HAIR COLOR
And now we come to the 1950s. Oy! In Sirk’s MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION we have Jane Wyman, a far less idealized, more gratingly American type of female (with Colbert’s borrowed hairdo) who, like June Allyson in INTERLUDE, substituted an all-purpose, rather humorless girl-next-door perkiness for the womanly grace of Dunne and Colbert. Lana Turner is even less of an actress than those two in IMITATION OF LIFE, but she does possess her own admittedly entertaining, rather garish idea of emoting, garnered from youthful months of Warners/MGM studio schooling, that synthetic melange of posing, pouting and slightly mistimed grand effects which has always, like Eleanor Parker and middle-to-late period Susan Hayward, rather screamed “drag queen” and cannot fail to evoke hilarity among the indulgent. (Just the fact that the middle-aged, slightly dumpy, bleached blonde Turner becomes a top New York model is as risible as an over-the-hill Betty Grable’s similar rise in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE. Only in Old Hollywood could the youth-worshipping fashion world be a welcoming haven for 40-ish stars.)
LANA ACTS! (in “Imitation of Life” where she plays a top NY model turned instantaneously into huge international film star)
Actually, the most fascinating performances in both IMITATIONs are given not by Louise Beavers and Juanita Hall, who play the insanely noble, self-sacrificing black maid and mother, but by the supporting actresses in the role of her daughter, the tragic mulatto who tries to pass for white. Susan Kohner in the Sirk is actually the one responsible for most of that film’s shameless, throat-grabbing emotional effect. Although not black, she was a mixture of Jewish and Mexican (her father was Hollywood superagent Paul Kohner, mother was the actress Lupita Tovar, star of the admired 1931 Spanish language DRACULA) and doubtlessly could relate to this character. With her uncultivated, nasal voice and wholly wrongheaded, determinated trudge to oblivion, she is achingly vulnerable, a Natalie Wood-type who could really act (indeed the two actresses appeared, confusingly, together in ALL THE FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS (1960), which was like the bewildering look-alike pairings of Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl in SLIGHTLY SCARLET, and Anne Baxter and Nina Foch in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS). The famous final scene of her throwing herself on her mother’s coffin, shrieking, “Mama, I’m sorry!” is the one that everyone remembers with anguish, but I find the scene in which she is brutally roughed up by her bigoted boyfriend (Troy Donahue), when he discovers the truth about her, even more upsetting, with Sirk further lipsmackingly adding to her degradation by ending with a shot of her sprawled in the mud in a defiled yellow frock.
SUSAN KOHNER, DEGRADING HERSELF IN A CLUB IN ‘IMITATION OF LIFE’
(Where’s Robert DeNiro when you need him?)
In Stahl’s IMITATION, Fredi Washington played the same role with its original name, Peola Johnson. (In this, her mother was Delilah, but in the Sirk version, although the surname “Johnson” was retained, the daughter and mother were blandly renamed Sarah Jane and Annie.) In a frustrating handful of scenes – unlike the full story arc Kohner was given by Sirk – Washington still emerges as the most compelling character, inbuing Peola with a bitterly resigned otherness, which leaves you wanting much more. That such a beautiful, intelligent and poised woman could be such a self-destructive victim of society is profoundly driven home here by an actress who never once asks for easy sympathy, indeed, almost wrongheadedly prides herself on being misunderstood..
In life, Washington (1903-94) was a fascinating, gorgeous political firebrand who helped found the Negro Actors Guild in 1937 to create better professional opportunities for her race and was also entertainment editor and columnist for “The People’s Voice”, a weekly leftist newspaper for African Americans founded by her brother-in-law Adam Clayton Powell, with a regular column, “Fredi Speaks.” A tireless civil rights advocate, she was administrative secretary for the Joint Actors Equity-Theater League Committee on Hotel Accommodations for Negro Actors throughout the United States.
Issues of color colored Washington’s entire life. She began her career as a stage dancer and, early on, was told that if she changed her name and race and moved to Europe she could become a huge star, an offer she refused outright. When she played opposite Paul Robeson in THE EMPEROR JONES, her skin had to be darkened for fear of public perception that Robeson was making love to a white woman. Her light skin prohibited her from playing typical maid roles and, apart from ONE MILE FROM HEAVEN (1937) with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, IMITATION OF LIFE was the only real chance she got in Hollywood, which she deserted for the New York stage. There she appeared in the legendary production MAMBA’S DAUGHTERS (1938) with the great Ethel Waters. After IMITATION, she found herself typecast and being repeatedly asked to play similar passing roles, which she rejected as degrading. Her outspokenness with studio bosses also didn’t do her any favors when she’d confront them with “If a Negro lady fits the beauty and talent standards of Hollywood, why can’t she be a star?”
In her personal life, she faced discrimination both from whites and from blacks who resented her fair skin and green eyes. Once she was having her hair done in a beauty parlor by a stylist who, unaware of her identity, talked smack about her, saying “Fredi Washington wants to be white. She’s just like Peola!” Fredi took pleasure in identifying herself to the woman and shutting her up quick, reality checks were something she never veered away from and, indeed, when I discussed Washington with a friend of hers a few years ago at the Chelsea Hotel, this woman sighed, “Oh, Fredi, she just had so much anger.”
She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975.
Douglas Sirk: “If I had to stage MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION as a play I wouldn’t have survived. It is a combination of kitsch and craziness and trashiness. But craziness is very important, and it saves trashy stuff like MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. This is the dialectic – there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” Lloyd C. Douglas’ 1929 was a gargantuan international best-seller, the GONE WITH THE WIND of its time, a masterpiece of kitsch spirituality and hokum, and this tale of a dissolute doctor, who accidentally blinds the woman he comes to love above all else and is redeemed by, gave Sirk the opportunity to pour on the schmaltz and velvety Technicolor texture. The film made a star of Rock Hudson just like the 1935 version did for Robert Taylor, another blindingly handsome hunk with limited acting skills.
For further information about this series, go to
1935, 112 minutes, 35mm. With Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor.