Douglas Sirk’s 1959 remake of Imitation of Life makes quite a contrast with the 1934 version. There’s obviously a huge contrast in the visual style – the 1959 version is not just in widescreen and in colour, it’s in amazingly sumptuous colour. It has a completely non-realistic look to it, a look I rather enjoy.
The other major contrast is in the relationship between the two women. In the 1934 version they’re business partners; in the 1959 version the African-American woman is the white woman’s maid. And whereas in 1934 the Claudette Colbert character was a successful businesswoman, the 1959 equivalent (played by Lana Turner) is an actress. So really it could be seen as a major step backward in terms of both race and gender.
Also, Colbert’s boyfriend in the 1934 movie respects her and seems to be attracted to her because she’s intelligent and independent. The same character (played by John Gavin) in the 1959 film treats Lana Turner as a empty-headed bimbo who needs a man to tell her what to do.
That’s not to say that the 1959 film doesn’t have its virtues. I also think you could argue that it’s reflecting a more racist and sexist society rather than promoting such values. I think we’re meant to be appalled by the behaviour of the men in Turner’s life. Lana Turner does a reasonable job in this film.
Susan Kohner as the daughter trying to pass as white is very impressive. Sandra Dee as Lana Turner’s daughter is terrifyingly perky. Perkiness on that scale should come with a government health warning.
The two movies (available together on a double-sided DVD) are fascinating to watch back-to-back. Both are important historically in the way they illustrate Hollywood’s attitudes towards important social issues. Both are very entertaining movies. And the opening credits sequence in the 1959 film is simply wonderful, and sets the tone of lushness very nicely.