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Imitation of Life (1954)

Imitation of Life (1954)

What She said:


With Mother’s Day nearly upon us, it seems like as good of a time as any to review a film that talks about the bonds of motherhood.  Specifically, Imitation of Life deals with mother/daughter relationships, while also tackling such deep themes as race relations and the role of women during the mid-20th century.  It’s a highly dramatized film, but also powerfully constructed, and one that stands the test of time. 

This is the second film adaptation of a novel of the same name, and the general plot has been updated slightly to reflect the changing times and also accommodate the cast of the movie.  We are introduced to a widow Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), and her young daughter, Susie.  Lora and Susie are at the beach when Susie becomes lost.  Lora encounters a young photographer, Steve, who helps her search for her daughter.  They find Susie in the care of an African American single mother, Annie Johnson, and her daughter Sarah Jane.  Sarah Jane is only slightly older than Susie, and the two seem to click.  One thing that should be noted about Sarah Jane is that she a very light skinned black girl who can easily pass for white.  We very quickly learn that this is something that, even at a young age, Sarah Jane naturally works to her advantage.

So, the group become friends, and Lora actually agrees to let Annie and Sarah Jane come stay with her temporarily.  Lora is an aspiring actress who is not getting much work, and Annie, likewise, is having trouble finding employment.  While initially meant to be a temporary arrangement, Annie’s housekeeping and childcare skills become an asset to Lora, and she and Sarah Jane end up staying indefinitely.  Lora always treats Annie with respect and as a true friend; however, it’s clear that overall Annie does not receive the same type of opportunities and attention that Lora does as a white woman.  As Susie and Sarah Jane grow into young adults, Sarah Jane also distances herself from her mother.  At various points in her life, she has lied about her race, and has kept her mother a secret from friends.  This becomes a point of contention, as Annie is proud of her heritage and does not understand why her daughter would want to deny her background.

Lora finds herself extremely successful in her career, and yet she is distanced from Susie as her work keeps her too busy to give her daughter much attention.  Susie is extremely patient, but also yearns for more from her mother.  Meanwhile, things come to a head between Annie and Sarah Jane, with Sarah Jane running off and telling her mother not to come find her.  Lora and Susie can only watch as Annie’s heart is broken and eventually she dies lonely and grief-stricken.  Sarah Jane only learns of her mother’s passing after-the-fact and she, too, is left heartbroken, as she realizes that she has squandered the most important relationship in her life.

Imitation of Life (1954)

So yeah, this movie sounds like a complete downer, and it’s laced with lots of drama, but it will also give you an appreciation for the undeniable power of a parental bond.  You may actually find yourself calling your parents after watching this.  It certainly made me wish that I could spend more time with my family.  There are some important lessons here—always value your parents for the sacrifices that they make for you and always remain cognizant of who you truly are and who your ancestors were.  Of course, we aren’t defined by the color of our skin, but we should also be proud of it. 

Annie is a true role model in this film—loving, patient, and strong.  She’s actually kind to a fault, which is how she manages to get taken advantage of.  But it’s at her funeral that we get to see her true legacy, and it’s clear that she was adored by many.  It gives us something to strive for. 

This film is one that is defined by its characters, and each one is richly written and dynamic.  They are also well-acted.  Lana Turner plays Lora, and does so with a domineering spirit.  Annie is played by Juanita Moore, who is incredibly authentic.  The teenaged Susie is brought to life by a young Sandra Dee.  She’s adorably naïve and cute as a button.  And Sarah Jane is acted by Susan Kohner does well to embody a moody young woman who is confused about her identity.

Imitation of Life is a great movie for daughters to watch with their mothers.  Since this is a female-dominated film, I’m not sure how many men would enjoy it.  But it’s a solid movie through-and-through.  I know that when it was released, it was initially met with mixed reviews.  But the film is relevant, even today, and so that makes it even more valuable that it probably otherwise would be.

Thumbs up.