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Imitation of Life 2-Movie Collection

    C.D. Workman
    Senior Member

  • Imitation of Life 2-Movie Collection

    Released by: Universal
    Released on: April 7, 2015
    Director: John M. Stahl/Douglas Sirk
    Cast: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Louise Beavers, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks, Fredi Washington/Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner, Robert Alda, Dan O'Herlihy, Troy Donahue
    Year: 1934/1959
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    The Movies:

    In 1933, Fannie Hurst published her acclaimed novel Imitation of Life, which was—at the time—considered a progressive examination of race relations and identity, class warfare, and gender roles. It concerns a white woman, Bea, who lives with her widower father and the border who helps them pay their bills. She and the border marry, but not long after fathering their child, Jessie, he dies. Bea continues to sell her husband's maple syrup door to door. Finding it difficult to manage her household and work full time, she hires a black woman, Delilah, to take care of her daughter and father. Delilah, too, has a young daughter, Peola, a “light-skinned” girl who can “pass for white.” Despite the girl's European ancestry, she is considered by the government to be black.

    A terrific cook, Delilah uses Bea's maple syrup for the pancakes she prepares for breakfast every morning. Bea strikes upon the idea of starting a restaurant with Delilah as cook and her pancakes the main course. The restaurant is a hit and soon becomes a nationwide and then an international chain. Meanwhile, Jessie and Peola have grown up together. Peola is often mistaken for white, which she prefers because it makes life easier; she grows to hate her racial identity and to detest her mother. She eventually moves away and marries a white man, completely disowning her mother, who then dies of heartbreak. At the same time, Jessie falls in love with her husband's beau. Needless to say, things don't end well.

    Imitation of Life arose out of the author's friendship with African American writer Zora Neale Hurston, a key figure during the Harlem Renaissance. The book proved wildly successful, and after Universal optioned the rights, the studio adapted it to the big screen the following year. The film is a fairly faithful rendition of the book, with Claudette Colbert taking on the role of Bea and Louise Beavers tearing it up as Delilah. It's an engaging if imperfect film, one marred by condescension toward the very groups about which it hopes to enlighten its audience. Delilah is something of an Aunt Jemima type, a mammy stereotype. As such, she's hardworking and sympathetic, and the film goes to great lengths to present her treatment by her “light-skinned” daughter as something selfish and uncalled for. The problem is that it fails to understand why Peola acts the way she does. Because it sees the world in black and white terms, the film's script fails to paint any shades of gray in the motivations of its characters. None of that affects the film's performances any, which are uniformly excellent, and the story is fast-moving despite a fairly lengthy running time and somewhat offensive treatment of its subject.

    As with the book, the film proved to be a hit, so much so that Universal returned to mine the same vein over two decades later, during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. Douglas Sirk was tasked with updating the story, which he transferred to the 1940s. One would think that, given the cinematic progression on issues of race by that time, the 1959 film would be a more honest examination of race and identity, but instead it takes several steps back from the 1930s version. Bea becomes Lora, Delilah becomes Annie, Jessie becomes Susie, and Peola becomes Sarah Jane. But names aren't the only things that are changed. Bea/Lora is now a struggling but glamorous actress. Her manager offers to kick-start her career in exchange for sex, but Lora is unbelievably strong despite the patriarchal society in which she lives. She auditions for a role but refuses to continue because she finds one scene unbelievable; she proceeds to tell the playwright why he's wrong and what she would do differently, and he unbelievably agrees and hires her for the part. She wows Broadway with her very first performance, and the rest, as they say, is history. Meanwhile, she allows Annie and Sarah Jane to live with her, with Annie acting as her black maidservant. As with the book and previous film adaptation, Sarah Jane can “pass” for white. She deserts her mother, who loves her very much, and grows enraged when her mother seeks her out. She finally disappears, and Annie dies from a broken heart. Unbelievably, Sarah Jane then shows up at her mother's funeral, regretful of the way she had treated the woman.

    If there's any word that readers should take from the above synopsis, it's “unbelievable.” The film is made up of a series of ridiculous moments, from its impossibly beautiful heroine refusing her manager but finding success anyway to its ridiculously stereotyped black servant acting as mammy to her patron's child. As with the previous film, it fails to understand the underlying racial disharmonies in society that would lead a child such as Sarah Jane to reject her heritage for a life of ease and comfort without hassle and discrimination. Far worse, however, is the change in Delilah/Annie. At least in the original version, one gets the impression that she is part and parcel to Bea's success, and while she rejects wealth, she is shown as having worked hard for it. When she dies, it's her money that pays for her elaborate funeral. In the remake, however, she never achieves anything more than being a servant. When her massive funeral is finally paid for, it's obviously with money from her patronizing white master. How the story's message could become so perverted over the years is anyone's guess. To make matters worse, Sirk cast a white woman (Susan Kohner, daughter of Hispanic actress Lupita Tovar and Caucasian actor Paul Kohner) in the role of Sarah Jane. Both she and Juanita Moore were nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award and Golden Globe, but it was the white girl passing as a black girl passing as a white girl who won the latter. (Neither won the Oscar.)

    Not all is lost, however. Despite its backward views on race and gender, Imitation of Life is a handsome film on a visual level, thanks to Sirk's usually reliable direction and gorgeous color schemes. And the end is heart-wrenching, though less effective than the original.


    Universal has placed the 1934 adaptation of Imitation of Life on Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p. The image has an aspect ratio of 1.35:1, slightly cropped from its original 1.37:1 ratio. The picture quality is good but not great; there's an adequate amount of detail but nothing too sharp, with a prevalent grain structure that is sometimes obtrusive. In some ways, the film looks only marginally better than Universal's previous DVD release and isn't indicative of what one expects from the Blu-ray format. Black levels are good, with only minor crush at times, and contrast is nice. That said, nowhere does the film have the kind of transfer that Universal has given its classic monster films, released on BD in October 2012.

    The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Despite the 2.0 designation, Universal has utilized the film's original mono track, with the right and left channels both featuring identical sound. There are no issues to report. Hiss has been sufficiently lessened, and dialogue is nice, clean, and crisp. The score is minimalist per the style of the early 1930s but well served by the track.

    The 1959 adaptation features an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p, though the aspect ratio is an incorrect 2.00:1, off from the film's original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. As with the Final Cut of Hammer's The Phantom of the Opera (1962) on Region B Blu-ray, this version of Imitation of Life is problematic. There are moments when the image is sharp, detailed, and colorful, but there are many more that are soft, extremely grainy, and sometimes blown out. Color sometimes degenerates to the point of near washout and, at times, bleeds. Flesh tones wax and wane, black levels are weak, and shadows frequently degenerate into crush. In short, very little about the image suggests that it comes from a hi-def transfer, and the previous DVD is a more consistent, pleasing experience.

    As with the previous film's presentation, Universal has opted to place the sound in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, taken from a mono source. The result is that identical sound issues from both right and left channels. Again, there are no issues to report, and it does well not only by the dialogue but also by the rich and emphatic score.

    Extras are sparse for both films. The original is accompanied by a trailer aimed at black audiences and which runs a little over a minute, while the remake is accompanied by a theatrical trailer that lasts a little over two minutes. Both are in standard definition. Each film also contains an audio commentary. The first features commentary by African American scholar Avery Clayton. He sees the film as a baby step in the right direction in its presentation of African Americans on the big screen. He certainly proves that he's adept at discussing a number of subjects, including the actors involved, other films, and other societal issues. There are quite a few spots in which Clayton doesn't speak, and when this happens, the film's original soundtrack is raised to fill the void. Too bad, given how interesting Clayton is. Film historian Foster Hirsch is much harder to take on the commentary for the second film. The trouble begins at the outset, when Hirsch declares that Imitation of Life is the greatest melodrama ever made! That kind of effusive praise never abates, making the entire thing a tough pill to swallow for anyone who sees the film in more realistic, less biased terms. That said, Hirsch certainly knows his subject, and the background information he provides is never less than interesting.

    Both films are placed on a single 50GB disc. The visual issues appear to be inherent in the film sources and the original transfers and are not the result of compression.

    The Final Word:

    Neither version of Imitation of Life is as good as its reputation suggests, but, of the two, the original is the better film. In part, it presents a slightly less racist and stereotypical view of its black characters. The performances are also more naturalistic as opposed to melodramatic and unbelievable in the remake. Universal's Blu-ray is surprisingly weak, given that both films have been remastered in hi-def relatively recently, the latter allegedly given a 4K restoration. The first film is consistent but not particularly sharp, while the latter film varies wildly between gorgeous and ugly. Thankfully, there are no problems with the sound. Extras are sparse but interesting nonetheless.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

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