The Imitation Of Life: A Classic Tearjerker

The film, which dealt with the subject of independent single mothers and the collateral damage that racism could do to relationships, still strikes a chord
The Imitation Of Life: A Classic Tearjerker

The term melodrama did not see the light of the day until 1950’s. Even magazine articles would rather use terms like, ‘tear-jerking’, to define the emotional atmosphere of films. In conventional terms, melodrama suggests a variety of sub genres that are moving and have loaded sentimentality in the film format. Melodramatic films were made before 1950’s too, even in the 1910’s but the term was not very widely used as compared to centuries later, where it is a separate genre with specific characteristics that make a melodramatic film. 

Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life is not the first film to be made on Fannie Hurst's novel of the same name. A close adaptation of the film was made in 1934 directed by John M. Stahl and starring Claudette Colbert. It too had elements that made it a melodramatic film.

The Imitation Of Life: A Classic Tearjerker
Back to the 2000s: The Best Thriller Films from the 2000s to Stream on OTT

Imitation of Life hit theatres during a period marked by great social awakenening. It was a period when the French New Wave was gaining recognition and the film, which dealt with the subject of independent single mothers and the collateral damage that racism could do to relationships, struck a chord. The exaggerated quality of scenes dripping with excess emotion are abundant in the film.

Imitation of Life has an almost ironic self consciousness. The actors deliver their dialogues in a melodramatic manner. The music is diagetic and changes as soon as the tonality of the scenes movies from seriousness to humour or from excitement to shock , like when Lora Meredith goes to meet a Hollywood agent all dolled up and then realises his true intentions as he starts making inappropriate comments on her physique. Then, the music intensifies, displaying the lead character’s disappointment in discovering the cost she would have to pay to fulfil her dreams.

The Imitation Of Life: A Classic Tearjerker
The 8 Best Films on Loner Characters

The excess that scholars talk about is not only apparent in the delivery of dialogues but also in the choice of music. The birds chirping while Lora Meredith and Steve are strolling in the park justifies the pleasantness of their relationship and could also suggest their continuing admiration and support for each other. The sound effects themselves give away everything about a scene - if there were no dialogues, the audience would still understand the crux of the film. The storytelling triggers in the audience emotions that can be very positive or negative. When Sarah Jane is being beaten up by her boyfriend, Frankie, jazz music is played to suggest that audience can either rejoice in how same moral injustice meted out to Sarah Jane is the same as that she uses against her mother, or to sympathise with a young woman who is being beaten for being Black by the lover she sought to elope with. 

A melodrama constituent is a looming situation that changes the narrative or marks a character growth in a lead actor or sparks a reaction in them. When Lora learns of her daughter Susie’s infatuation for Steve, that leads her to first question Steve, then confront Susie. This confrontation leads to several sub situations - Susie lets her mother know how her emotional absence since childhood has made her feel.

The Imitation Of Life: A Classic Tearjerker
The 10 Best Crime Movies Streaming On Netflix

In introducing a situation in which a daughter is infatuated with her mother’s lover, Sirk foments a sexual repression, gratification and resolution. Even the confrontation scene between Lora and Susie is not scornful or righteous, it is layered more with maternal affection and a daughter’s unmet desire of having a parent who did not have a demanding professional life like Lora did. 

Like most of Sirk’s 1950’s melodramatic films, The Imitation of Life also had lavish furnitures, pink roses and colourful flowers in almost every room in Lora’s mansion. There were several mirrors, big lamps and fireplace. Lora and Susie wore fancy clothes with bow ties, pearl jewellery and fur coats.

Hollywood melodramas often incorporate pathos and sensationalisation to tell a story. Sirk’s melodramas fall somewhere between comedy and tragedy, which are the two major melodrama subgenres. The passing away of Annie after being heartbroken by her daughter’s abandonment is a major tragedy in the three women’s lives. But throughout the film, the situations that the genre has created for the characters have more or less been resolved and their feelings liberated, whether it is Susie leaving for college to Denver on learning her crush is soon to be bethroted to her mother, or Sarah leaving her mother and working in nightclubs under a different name. The only conflict that stays unresolved is racial injustice or racism that the film deals with.

The Imitation Of Life: A Classic Tearjerker
The 40 Best Films Currently On Disney+ Hotstar

Even without the pathos or the emotional excess, can The Imitation of Life, be considered a melodramatic class? I think so, because the narrative itself would have been enough to secure a change or generate a feeling in the audience as they left the theatres. Sarah Jane’s personal tragedy is caused by her polypathic nature - she is torn between the love for her mother, Annie, and her internalised racism. It is this socially imposed dichotomy that a young girl is challenged with - whether she gets the acceptance she has craved since she was a child or she chooses to publicly recognise her mother. The polypathic nature that is often a commonality in characters that are present in melodramatic tragedies can also be attributed to Annie. who has certainly accepted her position in a pre civil rights America and often empathises with her daughter. Instead of informing her about race, she is often seen mouthing lines like, ‘How do I tell her she is born to be hurt?’ while referring to her daughter whose complexion is white, unlike her.

But Sirk’s attempt to play with desire falls prey into the subconscious humanness of the director. The racial dilemma in which the daughter is ashamed of her African American roots and her mother who is dark-skinned unlike her, is solved by the death of the lead who was a woman of colour. 

The movie draws heavily on the wartime practices in which women went to work in the 1940’s when men were at war. But what was considered patriotic in the 1940’s changed as the men returned from war and then women going out to work became competitive. For middle-class women, working was optional, but for single mothers who had to fend for their children, finding work was a necessity.

The Imitation Of Life: A Classic Tearjerker
Films to Watch in Under 100 minutes

In the film, both the mothers are single parents so they must work. Annie, who overidentifies with the system and cares for Lora and her daughter is discarded by her daughter the same way Susie blames her mother for her absence holds her responsible for only giving her love through the telephone, postcards and magazine interviews.

Sirk’s masterpiece attempted to use excess resourcefully only when it came to dealing with race. Most of Lora’s house helps were people of colour. While that could be a very conscious decision to show America’s faulty power dynamics, it could also be Sirk’s own internalised racism if it was an unconscious decision on the part of the director. The inclusion of singer Mahalia Jackson, who has been an active participant in the civil rights demonstation, Sarah rejecting the black doll that Susie gives her, and Sarah being ashamed of her mother’s heritage side with the director’s sensibilities in choosing what subject he wants to express in excess.

Imitation of Life upholds traditions in its melodrama. Both the mothers, irrespective of their efforts to give their children the best possible life are at the receiving end of their scorn and disappointment. The excess present here is the exaggeration of the daughters resentment towards their parents and brutal dismissal of their sacrifices.

 Even in the end, the funeral ia very unrealistic in its execution and conception when Annie describes to Lora how she would like to be cremated. The horses, trumpets, flowers and grandeur of the event could also be indicative of what a Black woman must always be subconsciously craving in a racially bigoted society, which is, respect atleast in death.The film leaves no stone unturned to state everything to the audience. There is not even the slightest possibility to speculate or want for more from the script. 

Related Stories

No stories found.