Back in 1947, New Yorker Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) was at the beach when her daughter Susie went missing, and she was frantic in her attempts to find her. A photographer called Steve Archer (John Gavin) helped her out by pointing the widow in the direction of a policeman, and soon Susie was found, playing with another little girl called Sarah Jane who was there with her own widowed mother Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore). They were getting along famously and soon the two parents were as well, striking up a friendship over their shared plight of how tough life was for single mothers, so much so that without further ado they decided to move in with each other, Annie acting as Lora's housekeeper while she tried to get acting work...
Imitation of Life had been made before in 1934, an adaptation of Fannie Hurst's controversial anti-racism bestselling book, but a remake had been on the cards ever since nineteen-fifties superproducer Ross Hunter won the rights. When Lana Turner hit a sensational scandal as her daughter stabbed Lana's gangster boyfriend to death as an extreme method of getting him to stop beating her mother, it seemed as though the star would never recover her previous standing as a popular celebrity, with many rumours going round about the circumstances behind the murder, so what she really needed was a hit, something absolutely certain to both capitalise on this notoriety and make sure Turner still had a career.
She took a pay cut, no longer being a sure thing, but wisely in its stead also accepted a share of the profits: she need not have worried, as the Imitation of Life remake proved a huge hit, partly because the public were even more fascinated by Turner than they had been before, and partly because it was just the sort of sudsy melodrama that they were flocking to see in the fifties. This was perhaps the last major entry in that cycle of the decade, and it was another last for its director too, as Douglas Sirk ended a stellar period in Hollywood churning out this sort of material when the pressure of the production line became too much and he suffered physically for it. For his fans, he assuredly went out on a high, as this was his last masterpiece; that said, not everyone liked what this said about race.
Sirk's approach was to deliver a subtle commentary about the state of the world, and quite often the United States, from an outsider's perspective, and he could be pretty scathing if you became aware of what he was smuggling into what were often dismissed at the time as women's pictures. But if there was one thing women liked to see on the big screen in the fifties, at least in movies aimed at them, it was suffering, and as Sirk regarded that state of being as almost transcendent then you could truly indulge yourself and have a good cry at the plight of the female characters here. In the case of this, it was the fear that no matter how you tried to provide for your offspring and be a good parent, it would never be enough, and they would always end up with a lion's share of problems for both you and them to fret over. As there were two mothers here, they both were awarded an equal amount of fretting as their daughters grew up with issues personal to them.
Frankly, when Susie turned into Sandra Dee and fell for Steve, who all these years had been getting very fond of Lora, it was your basic melodrama and failed to bring the same charge to the plot as the real life Lana's daughter troubles, though it was nevertheless enough. However, while Lora's rise to stardom was sufficiently engrossing, Sirk recognised the real substance of the story was with Annie and Sarah Jane, as the girl grows up to be Natalie Wood-alike Susan Kohner (not black but Jewish-Mexican, unlike the original which cast the genuinely African-American Fredi Washington) who is deeply ashamed of her race and wishes to pass for white, to the extent that it drives her and her stoic mother to distraction. As you imagine was the motivation, this brought up all sorts of questions: had Annie been too complacent in accepting a second class citizen's role (though they are best friends, she's essentially Lora's maid)? Was Sarah Jane overreacting by denying her background for a chance at enjoying the benefits the white population had? Should they have reached a compromise? It was mark of the film's tensions that no one seems able to offer a definitive answer, and while there was certainly camp here, with Kohner a great bad girl with painful psychology, that final scene has been known to make even the hardest hearts melt a little. Music by Frank Skinner.