Imitation of Life (1959)

220px-Imitation_of_Life_1959_posterWhen I was watching the film I distinctly remember one instance I threw my head back in the air and just smiled to myself. How I love Douglas Sirk. He gives us something seemingly so superficial and decadent that plays so perfectly into those expectations and simultaneously steamrolls them with a not-so-veiled indictment unfurled on multiple fronts.

This was Douglas Sirk’s final film in his U.S. career. It’s another gorgeously rendered picture. A harsh social satire of the ambitions of an American Dreamer but also the inherent fissures that run through our society to its very roots. These issues have hardly changed with time or if they have changed, it’s simply the same problems given a facelift. The core wounds remain the same.

Imitation of Life is a story that starts in New York, of all places, at the beach. For the first time, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) crosses paths with the kindly, God-fearing Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) who looked after Lora’s daughter when she got lost in the crowd of vacationers.

In less than a comfortable position herself, Lora nevertheless offers her home up to Annie and her fair-skinned daughter Sarah Jane who strikes up a fast friendship with Susie while showing early signs of vehemently despising her African-American identity.

Those are the core aspects of the story as the glamorous single mother follows her aspirations to star on Broadway first with commercials and then small parts that lead her to something more. She finds an agent (Robert Alda) and ultimately earns the respect of a noted playwright (Dan O’Herlihy) who soon writes all her roles. The demands on her time mean that a fledgling romance with a photographer  (John Gavin) falls to the wayside and she hardly sees Susie.

Meanwhile, Annie remains a faithful friend by her side who keeps her house in order and looks after the girls as they slowly begin to mature into womanhood. And as they grow into women their own personal crises come to fruition. Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) continues to try and pass as white while denouncing her mother. It gets so bad that she leaves home and changes her name to perform at dive bars where her mother hopefully won’t follow.

Susie’s (Sandra Dee) problems are of a different nature. She feels so alienated from her mother, the lady so often absent in her life, that she decides to attend college far away in Colorado. When Steve Archer (Gavin) drifts back into Lora’s life things are complicated by Susie’s obvious crush on him.

On both fronts of mother-daughter relationships, the film showcases its many themes playing out in vivid fashion. In fact, Imitation of Life feels all too resonate given the state of affairs in Hollywood and our world right now.

There’s this ongoing temptation to cheapen who you are for the sake of success. In this case, it applies to the theater and the career of Lora Meredith (Turner) but it could be in, let’s say, Hollywood or the corporate sector or any other endeavors. The jobs change but the people do not. Where you are forced to feel awful for not lowering yourself to other people’s level of sleaze and impropriety.

It’s a film about the fame monster and the industry dominated by a patriarchy where you are coaxed into making certain concessions so that people will like you and give you what you want. Just to maintain a career and your ambitions, your familial relationship, in this case, with a daughter is led to the point of deterioration. To this day, money and opulence, nice things and social standing, do not make up for an actual relationship. There’s no contest.

Ironically, only after the good fortune strikes and you have years of success do you begin to realize amidst the rush that the pinnacle has been reached and still something is missing.  That’s Lora’s realization. But just as fervently this can be a film of idealism and dreams. Seeing things the way they are and making them more and more into what you want them to be. Being the change. That’s Annie’s part.

It is also a film about racism — a fixture of society — and a troubling one that is still opening up innumerable wounds in the fabric of our society and they are wounds that must be acknowledged. There is a painful scene that while a girl is being berated and slapped by her alleged boyfriend a playfully jazzy score dances in the background and it’s this disconcerting contradiction — the kind of contradictions that are often easy to pick up on if you’re willing to see them.

People loathe themselves for the color of their skin and the stigma society puts on their personal identity. Someone’s life is driven by shame instead of an unswerving pride in who they were created to be. And whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all part of the problem where being white is seen as being normal or the status quo or what have you.

One of the most striking moments in the film for me is when Annie is recounting the Christmas story to the girls and they ask a very honest question. “Was Jesus White?” or “Was Jesus Black?” Because it seems like a question that devises some way of relating to this historical figure. But it also forces you to see the astronomical error in such ideologies of a  “white savior” or a “white man’s burden.” It simply cannot work. Nor does it work the other way.

Of course, as Annie sees so clearly, neither of these distinctions matter or any type of distinction because this was not a figure concerned with race or wealth or gender or respectability or any of that, at least in the sense that it holds importance to us. For him, as she sees it, it seems to have no negative effect on the relationship you could have with him. It doesn’t seem to matter and yet simultaneously it does immensely. Because it reflects our unique human identity.

Annie reflects those same types of ideals all throughout the film. You might take aim at her for being subservient or have qualms with something she does but it’s hard to question her sincerity or goodness. She has a prodigal daughter but just like the parable her maternal arms are always open and her daughter is never too far away for her to love Sarah Jane unconditionally even unto death.

I must admit it rubbed me the wrong way because Annie felt like yet another iteration of the mammy stereotype. One of Sarah Jane’s colleague even notes, “You had a mammy,” led to believe that the woman was simply an old housekeeper. But that’s the key. Annie Johnson is actually her mother. Aside from adding a searing undercurrent to the scene, it confirms she is not just a sideshow attraction for some southern charm. She is a parent and a friend and a person. In fact, the best scenes in the entire film belong unequivocally to Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner.

The original story the film is based on came out of a very different time in American history during the 1930s. Here it is updated and aware of the changing mores and difficult roads still to traverse thanks to the likes of Thurgood Marshall and his landmark case Brown v. Board in 1954 and the increased rumblings of the Civil Right Movement with the Bus Boycott and other peaceful initiatives spearheaded by Dr. King.

In the film’s closing moments Mahalia Jackson brings down the Lord’s house with her mournful dirge for Annie. And it is a bitter, heartwrenching moment of agony but that is not the final word. Because Annie was a tremendous person with an extravagant capacity for love.

Like Dr. King once orated in vivid Biblical imagery, “[I have gone] up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” That is the hope. Even in this embittered world of ours there is still something to be longed for.

4.5/5 Stars

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

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The people making the decisions, at least some of them, undoubtedly knew that this title implied some sort of sordid melodrama, a Douglas Sirk picture anyone? And yet I do admit despite the emptiness in the title, there’s some truth to its implications. Hollywood often is this gaudy, outrageous, maniacal monster looking for people and things to gorge itself on.

Except this is no Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Ace in the Hole (1951) for that matter. It’s not quite as biting or even as tragic or twisted as Wilder’s films but that’s what comes with having Vincente Minnelli at the helm. But rather than critique that decision in any way I think someone like Minnelli thinks about such a picture in a way that Wilder never would. That in itself makes for interesting creative deviations.

First, the camera setups feel impeccable, like a Hitchcock or Ophuls, finding the perfect moments to bring attention to a shot and the precise instances to sit back and allow things to unfold. It’s utilizing a bit of a flashy framing device like a Letter to Three Women (1949) or All About Eve (1950) but in this case, it relates the story of one Hollywood producer through the eyes of the people who worked with him.

Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) is a man whose father was one of the most hated men in Hollywood and also one of the most successful. Jonathan buries his father and with hardly a penny to his name looks to rise out of the ashes his dad left behind. He just might make good too. So as such, it’s another exploration of Hollywood top to bottom, starting very much at the bottom.

That’s part of what makes this story compelling as we watch an ambitious man claw his way from poverty row and B pictures using a joint partnership with another up-and-comer (Barry Sullivan) to slide his way into a gig as a big-time producer. It’s at these beginning stages where they succeed in making a name for themselves under producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon).

For Sullivan, he is so closely tied to the business, it’s almost as if he’s wedded to the picture industry.  It’s both his life and obsession every waking hour. So when he’s done with one and waiting for the next he has what can best be termed, “the after picture blues.” He’s still trying to adopt his philosophy for women and apply it to his films — love them and leave them.

In passing, we get an eye into the bit players and the small-timers working behind the scenes just to make a decent day’s wage whether assistants or agents or pretty starlets moonlighting as companions at night. There’s even a very obvious current of sexual politics where women are naturally assumed to be at the beck and call of any higher up to pay them any favors. It’s the grimy, sleazy side of the business that continues to reveal itself in due time with connivers and drunks and suicidal wretches conveniently hidden by bright lights and trick photography.

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Further still, there are screen tests, meetings, rushes, and sound stages, makeup artists, and costume designers each a part of the unwieldy snake that makes up a film production. All the nitty-gritty that we conceive to be part of the movie-making whirly gig churning out pictures each and every year. They say if it’s not broke then don’t fix but what if it is broken and no one is fixing it? I write this right in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s ousting due to a laundry list of accusations against him.

One of those involved in this beast receives a stellar introduction of her own. We meet Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) with her feet hanging down from the eaves of an old mansion that belonged to her deceased father. She like Shields comes from Hollywood royalty and she like him is also looking to get out of her father’s shadow.

Jonathan is derisively called “Genius Boy” and maybe he is but opportunistic might be a more applicable term. Still, when he makes his mind up, he cannot be stopped and when he deems this smalltime actress will be his next star, he makes it so.

The same goes for novelist turned screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) who Jonathan is able to coax out to Hollywood albeit reluctantly and works his magic to get him to stay along with his southern belle of a wife (Gloria Grahame) who is completely mesmerized by this magical land out west. Again, Jonathan turns his new partnership into a lucrative success but not without marginalizing yet another person.

One of the most interesting suggestions made by the film is not how much Jonathan ruined his collaborators — alienated them yes — but he really helped their careers. In some ways, it reflects what happens with great men who are lightning rods and always thinking about the next big thing. They’re obsessed with ideas and connections, finding those relationships that will lead to power, wealth, acclaim, and awards. Any amount of honest-to-goodness friendship goes out the window.

But for all those who felt slighted, there’s almost no need to feel truly sorry for them because they bought into this industry with its promises and they bit into the fruit. Sure, their feathers got ruffled and their egos bruised but it goes with the territory.

For everything we want to make it out to be, it’s a tooth and claw operation and those who get ahead usually are the most ruthless of the bunch. Whether we should feel sorry for them or not is up for debate. But maybe we should because a mausoleum full of Academy Awards means nothing. A life of power will be ripped from you the day you die as will the wealth, elegance, and extravagance. It will all be gone. Then, you’re neither bad nor beautiful. You’re simply forgotten. In that respect, this films has meager glimpses of a Citizen Kane (1941) or even real-life figures like Orson Welles and David O. Selznick.

Except in the sensitive hands of Minnelli, this picture is neither an utter indictment of Hollywood nor does it take a complete nosedive in showing how far the man has fallen. It even reveals itself in the performance of Kirk Douglas who while still brimming with his usual intensity chooses to channel his character more so through the vein of charisma.

So if we cannot love or admire his dealings there’s still a modicum amount of respect we must hold for him. Everyone comes out with a shred of dignity and the film’s end is more lightly comic than we have any right to suppose. But then again, we’re not in the moviemaking business and they are.

4.5/5 Stars

The Three Musketeers (1948)

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The Three Musketeers is a luscious Technicolor swashbuckler done in the fashion of the luxuriant Hollywood costume dramas of the time as we are no doubt accustomed to seeing. Fittingly, they’re also easily subject to classic stereotypes. It’s positively bloated with top-tier talent and whether or not it takes on its source material faithfully is generally beside the point.

Its aims are not those of authenticity and if they were it would be laughable. Maybe it is still laughable but it proves to be made for enjoyment as much as it is made up of cliches. Because in one single package it sums up all that is marvelous and to some, all that is tawdry about such productions of old.

It’s a cinematic “Illustrated Classic” courtesy of George Sidney who provides a film that’s precisely to his proclivities as we might expect even if it’s not so much a musical. It’s meant to be gobbled up voraciously by the children and enjoyed with unbridled enthusiasm by their parents. No more, no less.  And how can you not at least admire its sheer gaudy decadence and the way it chooses to slice a path through the material?

Where there’s no pretense to mask any of the actor’s normal speech patterns or any discernable patois. I think mainly of Van Heflin and Vincent Price sounding like they always have and who nevertheless are both generally enjoyable. We also have the pleasure of a cutthroat Lana Turner, an angelic June Allyson, and a various number of others including royalty played by Frank Morgan and Angela Lansbury and a lovestruck maidservant played by Patricia Medina. Undoubtedly there are still others lost under facial hair and plumage but, again, that hardly matters.

Initially, it also felt like a royal pity that Gene Kelly (playing the lead of D’Artagnan) was not dancing but then being the athletic performer that he is, it soon becomes obvious that his sword fighting utilizes many of the limber movements his dancing has and he really is well suited for such a role. If there was ever a genesis for “The Dueling Cavalier” look no further than right here.

Beginning with the opening duel with Richelieu’s men that sees the formation of the famed partnership as we know it, the picture proves to be ripe with thoroughly gripping and lightly comic fight sequences. They prove to be the highlight of the film on a spectrum of entertainment.

The best part is that they keep on coming at us with rip-roaring wreckless abandon, sabers at the ready, though it begins to fizzle out, in the end, overcome by a plodding narrative that seems no fault of Dumas but rather the adaptation itself. If I were to choose favorites I for one would single out Richard Lester’s adaptation but then again, maybe even that film is not for all.

3/5 Stars

Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Lana_Turner_in_The_Postman_Always_Rings_TwiceThe first time I saw this gripping noir, my least favorite part of the film probably was the title, and it still is. That’s saying a lot, and the film is adapted from the James M. Cain crime novel anyways, with the title included free of charge. Otherwise, Postman is a wonderful example of the film noir canon, and yet it lacks the elements of your more typical private eye mystery.

It trades dark streets of crime for a small roadside burger joint owned by a shrewd man and his noticeably younger wife. Bring a drifter searching for a quick buck and you have everything set for the deadliest of love triangles. At the tips are John Garfield as the rambling man Frank who initially couldn’t care less for his boss’s pretty wife. Then there’s Cora, the alluring girl who seems out of place in her life. Then you have the money-grubbing Nick (Cecil Kellaway) who seems naively oblivious to the whole situation.

At first, nothing seems to be afoot, and Cora is adamant about not getting involved with the new hand. However, ultimately things evolve. That’s not necessarily the exciting part. We expect the rapid and lurid love affair that soon besets Frank and Cora.  We expect, more likely than not, that Nick will either catch them or they will knock him off first. They choose the latter and its far from preferable. Soon the district attorney is down their throats with his own suspicions about the forbidden couple. He’s pretty smart too.

Sackett plays Frank and Cora off of each other. They’re both scared. Neither one wants jail or worst the gas chamber. Nora ends up being the only one prosecuted, but her sly lawyer (Hume Cronyn) is able to call his opponents bluff and get Cora off with hardly a hitch. The only problem is that Frank and Cora hate each other guts now. They are positively poisoned to each other.

The story could end there and it would be ironic enough, but it doesn’t. It has yet another act where Frank and Cora make up following the illness of her mother, the flourishing of her establishment after the trial, and a bout with blackmail. All seems to be better than it ever was, but fate can have a cruel sense of humor.

On one out of the ordinary car ride, Frank crashes and in the aftermath, Cora is left dead with Frank on the fast track to the gas chamber. And that’s where the title comes in. The Postman Always Rings Twice. In other words, if you don’t pay for your crimes the first time around, you always end paying up one way or another. Cora was killed and Frank faced execution. Neither one got off in the end.

Putting aside the Hay’s Codes need for justice to be dealt, this is a wonderfully sardonic tale and ultimately sensual noir for the 1940s. Lana Turner was never better dancing with relative ease between amorous sweetness and acidic intentions. And the moment she first shows up on the screen is one of the most eye-catching entrances by a femme fatale period. Although not the greatest of leading men, John Garfield is surprisingly credible opposite, Turner. He plays the hard-working everyman incredibly well. Hume Cronyn, for his part, plays his wily prosecutor wonderfully with a sly smile all the while. I cannot quite put a finger on it, but I like him.

4.5/5 Stars

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – Film-Noir

Starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, the film begins with a drifter taking a job at a roadside diner for a jolly older man with a beautiful young wife (Turner). After initial conflict, Frank and Cora fall passionately in love. They try one disastrous attempt to take the husband’s life, and in desperation they try again, this time succeeding in getting rid of him. Soon they are in court fighting the murder rap. Miraculously the two of them get out of it but ironically by the time the trial is over they hate each others guts. They live in constant loathing of each other but after thwarting a blackmail scheme their wild love is rekindled. In an equally cruel twist of fate, they both end up paying for their actions the second time around. With the voice-over, femme fatale, cinematography, and twisting plot, this is a quintessential film-noir that I really enjoyed. I would consider it the landmark performance for Lana Turner and maybe John Garfield as well. They learn the hard way that the postman does always ring twice and there is nothing you can do about it.

4.5/5 Stars