Imitation of Life (Directors Suite) (1959)
Audio Commentary-by Assoc. Prof. Angela Ndalianis, University of Melbourne
|Year Of Production||1959|
|Running Time||119:31 (Case: 869)|
|RSDL / Flipper||RSDL (58:12)||Cast & Crew|
|Start Up||Ads Then Menu|
|Region Coding||4||Directed By||Douglas Sirk|
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||Unknown||
English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||1.85:1|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||1.85:1||Miscellaneous|
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman; these men are all great directors. Douglas Sirk may not quite have the reputation of these auteurs, but he does have one distinctive feature of his career that is not shared amongst the aforementioned; he finished his career on a high. (Of course, theoretically, Jean-Luc Godard would too, but I can't see his latest films matching his highly influential work from the sixties. Martin Scorsese could share Sirk's distinction if Shutter Island happened to be his last theatrical film released at the time of writing this review.) So how did Sirk manage to top....himself? He went back to the melodramatic formula of most of his Universal-International pictures of the 1950s and made it more socially relevant.
Audiences were deeply moved by Imitation of Life when it was released in 1959. The unique feature that Imitation of Life has in comparison to Sirk's earlier films for Universal is the fact that the love story at its centre is not between a leading man and lady. Instead, it is centred on the relationships between two mothers and their daughters. Lana Turner plays Lora Meredith, a struggling actress who is raising her child Suzie after her husband died. While on an outing at Coney Island she loses Suzie, who is found by unemployed black widow Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane, who is light-skinned enough to be mistaken for white. Douglas Sirk plays this element of the plot perfectly throughout this film. These four characters become an atypical family, with Annie offering her housekeeping services to Lora, so they move in together into a small, New York apartment. The film skips the details of how Lora becomes a successful Broadway actress; twelve years fly by and Lora is successful enough to live in comfort, but this comes at a price.
Both Suzie (played as a 16-year old by Sandra Dee) and Sarah Jane (played as an 18-year old by Susan Kohner) have grown up independent of their mothers. In Suzie's case, Lora's career has caused her to neglect Suzie, whereas Sarah Jane is desperate to break free from the restriction of being labelled as coloured and forge a life for herself as a young white woman (it is presumed in the beginning of the film that her father was 'practically' white, although this is never confirmed because segregation between races was still a hot topic in the United States in the late fifties). These conflicts cause Suzie to fall in love with Lora's suitor and Sarah Jane to reject Annie as her mother so she won't be labelled as 'coloured'.
The end of the film will really pull at your heart-strings. You will be guaranteed to cry. Tag Gallagher, noted film writer, wrote in his article, White Melodrama: Douglas Sirk for Senses of Cinema: "I first saw Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life in 1959 at The Yeadon, a neighbourhood movie house in a white working-class suburb of Philadelphia. I was 16. Imitation of Life was about four women, two of them black. When we came out afterward, most of us were crying. The theatre owner's wife was standing in the lobby with a box of Kleenex. Many people gratefully took a tissue to dry their eyes. This is what Sirk wanted, I believe. The critics had barfed all over the film, hating it as 'a soap opera' for the same reasons Sirk and we loved it. The movie had played us, communally, as its instrument. It had passed like a ritual sacrifice, with fear and pity climaxing with the immolation of the (black) heroine for us whites. This movie experience had had a quality I would call 'sacramental' but which Douglas Sirk, following his beloved Arthur Schopenhauer, preferred to call 'irony' – in the Aristotelian sense: art's ability to clarify and anneal. Sirk thought movies should function for society, as Socrates' dialogues and Euripides's melodramas did in ancient Athens. Imitation of Life seared us. The melodrama played the audience, as though we were its piano. 'Melodrama' means 'music and drama'. Music with the text accentuates emotions, which in cinema enact battles of love and dread, good and evil, light and darkness, in movements choreographed. Movies that move, which have first of all to be emotional experiences, are quintessentially melodramatic – motion and light and music and text. L'Arrivée d'un train ŕ la gare de Ciotât, The Searchers, Star Wars, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Birds, Pierrot le fou, Paisŕ, Snow White, Citizen Kane, Diary of a Country Priest … what good movie is not ultimately good melodrama?"
Douglas Sirk did have a keen sense of irony in all his films and the very title of this film, Imitation of Life, is an overt indication of the juxtaposition between reality and unreality in the lives of Lora, Suzie, Sarah Jane and Annie. Lora believes all along she is a good mother, Suzie craves for attention and when Steve (her mother's fiancé) spends time with her after Lora travels to Italy, she falls in love with him. Sarah Jane imitates Lora's desire for success and Annie seeks to downplay the race issue in her daughter's upbringing until it is too late.
Imitation of Life was the second remake of a John Stahl 1930s film (of the same name) for Douglas Sirk and it was not a critical hit in 1959; in fact film critics dismissed it as 'soap drama'. Nevertheless, it made $US6.4 million for Universal, that film studio's biggest picture until Airport in 1970. Lana Turner's costume wardrobe cost over $US1 million alone, a record film budget expenditure for costuming at the time. The success of the film, I believe, led Sirk to make up his mind about Hollywood. He had enough of its lifestyle, and Imitation of Life, with it's social and political themes of race equality, was the last thing that Sirk wanted to say. He surely knew about this issue well enough as he had been forced to leave Germany after marrying a Jew in the 1930s. If A Time to Love and a Time to Die was the type of film that Sirk really wanted to make, then Imitation of Life was, in a way, its antithesis. The melodramatic nature of its plot, score and acting was much more emphasised here than in any other Sirk picture before it.
For Imitation of Life, Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty abandoned the widescreen CinemaScope used on The Tarnished Angels and A Time to Love and a Time to Die and shot it in a standard 'academy flat' ratio, the same framing used on Sirk's noted melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. The aspect ratio is therefore 1:85:1, and it is16x9 enhanced for widescreen televisions.
The main feature takes up 7.2 gb of space on a dual-layered DVD with an average bitrate of 8.22 m/b per sec. The bitrate therefore is excellent and there are no compression issues with this transfer. Despite this, the video transfer does have I believe intentional blurring to highlight the difference between 'real' and 'unreal' aspects of the plot; notice how, at times, Lana Turner's hair or eyes sparkle or John Gavin's (who plays Steve, Lora's ineffectual love interest) hair sheens.
The first half of the film, where Lora is struggling to make it as a Broadway actress, sees many instances of grey; later after she finds success in her career we see the image transfer include a wide variety of opulent colours. Despite the superb bitrate on this transfer, there is still film grain evident at times due to the strong contrast used where colours are deliberately exaggerated in line with the theme of the main plot. Film artefacts are few, mainly white (or negative) artefacts that may be dust marks.
Unfortunately, there are no subtitles provided with this release.
The RSDL change occurs at 58:12, right in the middle of a scene, so it is quite noticeable!
Douglas Sirk's films were known for their ornate and lush soundtracks during the 1950s, but this soundtrack, like the cinematography, has been emphasised more for dramatic effect.
Both the main soundtrack and the audio commentary is in Dolby Digital 2.0, encoded at 224 kbps. Dialogue is clear and the audio is synchronised.
Frank Skinner returned to score this film after Sirk made A Time to Love and a Time to Die in Germany with Miklós Rózsa contributing the film score. I was genuinely surprised by the variation and consistent use of classical and jazz music to support the dialogue of the film. Sometimes the music conveyed many different moods in one scene, from hope and elation to sadness and despair. The musical soundtrack is therefore always a feature of almost every scene.
There is no surround channel usage because the main soundtrack is in mono. The subwoofer is not utilised either.
|Surround Channel Use|
This is neither a scene specific commentary or an academic, intellectual commentary. Rather, what we have is a commentary from Angela Ndalianis which is both informative and personal, as this film has had an impact on her life. This fact comes across to the viewer. It’s very refreshing to get this type of commentary because you feel as if, proverbially speaking, your friend, who happens to be a Douglas Sirk expert, is sitting on the couch talking to you about the film while you are watching it.
Ndalianis discusses Sirk's use of irony through his framing through objects, his use of mirrors, the use of grey in Lana Turner's costumes indicating a blur in colour relations (between people) and the political and social motive of Sirk to highlight Annie and Sarah Jane's relationship in the film. She also mentions how this film is a true woman's melodramatic film; the plot does not follow the desires of the leading men as was standard for Hollywood films for the time. Overall, I appreciated Ndalianis’ drawn-out explanations of scenes which explain the main ideas and themes that Sirk was trying to convey. Look out for the final scenes where gospel star Mahalia Jackson sings 'Trouble of the World' and the commentary that goes with it, it's superb!
The original theatrical trailer is shown unrestored in a full-frame transfer within a 1:85:1 cinematic window.
NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.
Imitation of Life has been released on DVD in different Regions, both as a single release and in DVD Collection Box Sets.
Universal Pictures has released the film onto DVD twice in Region 1 in the United States. The first time was with only the theatrical trailer as an extra. The second release was a special edition which included an audio commentary by film historian Avery Clayton, the 1934 version of the film by John Stahl on a separate DVD, and a retrospective documentary with Juanita Moore: Lasting Legacy - An Imitation of Life.
The Region 2 United Kingdom version contains no extras. It is also available in the 7-disc Directed By Douglas Sirk Box Set which includes Has Anyone Seen My Gal?, All I Desire, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written On The Wind, The Tarnished Angels and Imitation Of Life.
The Region 2 French Carlotta release comes as a 2-disc standalone version or as part of a Box Set. The transfer is 7.2 gb in size with an average bitrate of 7.68 m/b per sec. The 2-disc standalone release includes the 1934 John Stahl version of Imitation of Life, a 20-minute feature by Jean-Loup Bourget entitled Shards of Melodrama (in French), a 15-minute reflection by Christophe Honore on the film (again in French) and a 45-minute featurette - Born to be Hurt: Sam Staggs on Douglas Sirk's 'Imitation of Life' (in English). The excellent 8-disc Douglas Sirk Collection, Vol. 1 Box Set including the four films Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, A Time to Love and a Time to Die and Imitation of Life. This Box Set includes the original John Stahl versions of Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, interviews with Jean-Loup Bourget and Philippe le Guay on Magnificent Obsession, reflections on Imitation of Life by Christophe Honore and Sam Staggs, an analytical discussion on the melodrama of Sirk and Stahl by Jean-Loup Bourget, discussions on All That Heaven Allows by Todd Haynes, William Reynolds and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (in textual form) and an audio commentary by François Ozon, a documentary on Imitation of Life, an interview with Wesley Strick and voiceover analysis of Imitation of Life from Douglas Sirk and Jean-Luc Godard.
The Region 4 Madman Directors Suite release is available as a 3-disc standalone version or in the 9-disc Douglas Sirk King of Hollywood Melodrama Box Set. Both releases use the same 1:85:1 transfer with an average bitrate of 8.22 m/b per sec. The 3-disc release includes the 1934 version of the film on the second disc, a featurette on Lana Turner and the same Sam Staggs extra that appears on the French Region 2 Carlotta release, Born to be Hurt: Sam Staggs on Douglas Sirk's 'Imitation of Life' . The 9-disc Box Set includes the films No Room for the Groom, All I Desire, Magnificent Obsession, Taza, Son of Cochise, All That Heaven Allows, There's Always Tomorrow, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, The Tarnished Angels and Imitation of Life. This includes an interview with Tony Curtis on No Room for the Groom, a 60-minute documentary featuring interviews with Douglas Sirk from 1982 entitled Days of Sirk, an interview with actors Pat Crowley and Gigi Perreau and an interview with director Allison Anders on There's Always Tomorrow, a discussion with Wesley Strick on A Time to Love and a Time to Die and audio commentaries by Therese Davies on All I Desire, Mark Nicholls on Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, John Flaus and Adrian Martin on There's Always Tomorrow, Ross Gibson on A Time to Love and a Time to Die, Adrian Martin on Tarnished Angels and Angela Ndalianis on Imitation of Life.
The Region 2 Carlotta and Region 4 Madman Box Sets are wonderful releases, with the Region 4 the pick for English-speaking fans of Sirk's work. The Region 4 Madman Directors Suite release of Imitation of Life is the best standalone DVD release currently available in English.
This is a fabulous swansong for Douglas Sirk and a wonderful closure to the Douglas Sirk King of Hollywood Melodrama Box Set by Madman's Directors Suite label.
The version of the film on the Box Set release is the first disc of the previous 3-disc version of Imitation of Life (including the audio commentary), released in April, 2008 which included a profile on Lana Turner, a featurette by Sam Staggs and the 1934 version by John Stahl of Imitation of Life.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about Douglas Sirk's contribution to Hollywood Cinema and the reviews of the Box Set of nine of Sirk's films for Universal during the 1950s.
|DVD||Sony BDP-S550 (Firmware updated Version 020), using HDMI output|
|Display||Samsung LA46A650 46 Inch LCD TV Series 6 FullHD 1080P 100Hz. Calibrated with THX Optimizer. This display device is 16x9 capable.|
|Audio Decoder||Sony STR-K1000P. Calibrated with THX Optimizer.|
|Speakers||Sony 6.2 Surround (Left, Front, Right, Surround Left, Surround Back, Surround Right, 2 subwoofers)|