Douglas Sirk as Auteur (Discussion)

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Equivalent characters in the 1934 and 1959 versions of Imitation of Life

1934 1959
Bea Lora
Delilah Annie
Jessie Susie
Peola Sarah Jane
Steve Steve


"Three-Way Mirror: Imitation of Life"

Lucy Fischer sums the previous approaches to Imitation of Life and then addresses her own concerns about the film:

  1. "The question of women and work"
  2. "The issue of race"
  3. "The matter of star biography"

Discuss these "concerns":

  1. Groups 4, 5, and 6: According to Fischer, what "cliché" is there about women's employment in the decade 1948-58? Why is it untrue? Often, films place women in the position of choosing between work outside the home and staying at home and nurturing children. How does Imitation of Life deal with this conflict—both in terms of Lora and Annie? Does Annie fit a "mammy" stereotype? According to Fischer what factors present domestic labor in a negative manner?
    • And how does the presentation of work vs. motherhood differ in the 1934 and 1959 versions?
  2. Groups 1, 2 and 3: It's not just work and motherhood that are inflected with issues surrounding race. Fischer also sees a connection between race and "performance," between race and imitations (plural) of life. What different forms of performance, of playing a role, are evident in Imitation of Life? Who performs and why? (See Lora's "sacrifice" and the final scene between Sarah Jane and Annie.)
    • How does changing the white mother from the "Pancake Queen" to a performer change the story's meaning?
  3. All Groups: We'll discuss Turner as a star more fully next week, but what themes (or polysemy) does Fischer say were associated both with Turner (embodied in the Johnny Stompanato scandal) and Turner's character in Imitation of Life?

Imitation of Life Video Essay, by Darren Elliott-Smith

Elliott-Smith commentary on Imitation of Life.
  1. Groups 5 and 1: Elliott-Smith contends, "This excessively ironic shot [Sarah Jane attacked by her boyfriend; see screen shot] draws attention to itself. Using reflection, framing and self-reflexivity – this physically distant shot demonstrates: ironic distanciation." What do you think he means by that? Does "ironic distanciation" align with your own experience of that scene?
  2. Groups 6 and 2: How does Elliott-Smith contrast the performances of Lana Turner as Lora and Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane?
  3. Groups 3 and 4: According to Elliott-Smith, what aspects of Imitation of Life have been appropriated by queer culture?

Thinking further about remakes

  1. All Groups: There are many differences between the two versions of Imitation of Life. One subtle change is the endings. How does each film end? (Refer to frame grabs here.) How do the endings signify different resolutions of the black daughter plotline and the white mother-boyfriend-daughter plotline?

Paul Willemen, "Distanciation and Douglas Sirk"

Replaced by Imitation of Life Video Essay, by Darren Elliott-Smith on Vimeo (local copy).

  1. How does Sirk "intensify" elements of the melodrama genre?
  2. Willemen concludes that the "distanciation effect" can be "used to parody the stylistic procedures which traditionally convey an extremely smug, self-righteous and petit bourgeois world view paramount in the American melodrama."
    • Petit bourgeois (pronounced "petty boor-jwah") is a French word meaning, literally, the "small middle-class", but more generally referring to a conservative social class of shop keepers and professionals. Thus, a petit bourgeois worldview is one that is politically and morally conservative.
    • How might Imitation of Life be seen to be an attack on conservative values of the 1950s? Do you think it succeeds at that?

External links


  1. Lucy Fischer, "Three-Way Mirror: Imitation of Life," Imitation of Life: Douglas Sirk, Director ed. Lucy Fischer (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press) 3-28.
  2. Paul Willemen, "Distanciation and Douglas Sirk," Imitation of Life: Douglas Sirk, Director, 268-272.