Imitation of Life
(John Stahl, 1934. Douglas Sirk, 1959)

Style and the domestic melodrama

by Jeremy B. Butler

from Jump Cut, no. 32, April 1987, pp. 25-28
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1987, 2006

What is love without the giving?
Without love you're only living
An imitation, an imitation of life.
— Title song, IMITATION OF LIFE (1959)

The scene opens on a middle-class, urban classroom filled with elementary school children-all white. The teacher, also white, reads o the children in order to pass the time while a rainstorm rages outside. They select their favorite book, Little Women, and the teacher begins reading,

"Jo was very busy in the garret, for the October days began to grow chilly, and the afternoons were short. For two or three hours the sun lay warmly in the high window…"

A matronly black woman (Louise Beavers) interrupts, appearing at the door. Seeing her, one of the students (Dorothy Howard) visibly stiffens and hides behind her book. The black woman, Delilah, enters and says, in noticeable dialect, "It's raining so hard I brought rubbers and coat to fetch my little girl home." At first it appears there has been some mistake, but then Delilah sights her white-appearing daughter, Peola, half-concealed behind a book: "My poor baby. Teacher, has she been passing?" Delilah's nurturing impulse has quickly become Peola's uncovering. The child runs from the classroom shouting angrily at her mother, "I hate you. I hate you. I hate you!"

For both mother and daughter, emotional restraint has given way. Moreover, if this sequence from IMITATION OF LIFE (John Stahl 1934) succeeds with the viewer, then his/her emotional defenses ought to be crumbling also. Further, this scene typifies one of the few film genres that can stare unblinkingly at emotional upheaval: the U.S. domestic melodrama. We have seen films in which daughters deny mothers, mothers humiliate daughters, women sacrifice quietly for lovers/ husbands/ children, and, more rarely, families smother man. Domestic equilibrium is threatened repeatedly by forces both internal and external — be they World War II (A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE), juvenile delinquency (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE), cortisone (BIGGER THAN LIFE), racial controversy (IMITATION OF LIFE), fatal disease (NO SAD SONGS FOR ME), or the protagonist's repressed desires (PEYTON PLACE). Domestic melodrama's status as emotional hothouse is undeniable; it addresses itself directly and boldly to that arena of internecine emotional combat, the family.

Until quite recently, though, this celebration of pathos has discouraged serious consideration of the genre. The feelings it generates seemed somehow too "easy," somehow "unearned" — bathetic rather than truly pathetic. Or the films were said to be manipulative, just pulling the right strings to get a desired emotional response from the ticket-buyer. Early popular culture critics encouraged this disdain by concentrating on genres which conventionally attract a male audience and deal with "masculine themes. (e.g., Robert Warshow on the gangster and Westerner, and Andre Bazin on 1930s genres).[1][open notes in new window] Even today fewer monographs on the domestic melodrama match the still growing volume of literature on the seemingly moribund Western. At least the melodrama is alive and well — making appearances in movie theatres (e.g., WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY?) and dominating daytime television.

One of the Women's Movements direct effects on film culture has been a heightened interest in how our culture represents romance and the family. This interest has led to an increased understanding of the domestic melodrama's thematic motifs, narrative structure and presentational style — rescuing melodrama from the Woman's Picture ghetto.[2] Still, much work remains to be done. What I am dealing with in this essay is how the genre has evolved over the years, particularly from the 1930s to the 1950s. I can best illustrate this change by analyzing two films that share a common narrative base: Fannie Hurst's Imitation of Life. Universal Studios initially released a film based on this story in 1934, under the direction of melodramatist John M. Stahl, and then remade it in 1959, with Douglas Sirk as director. The scene which begins the present paper will anchor my analysis. As that one scene evolved, I believe, so evolved the domestic melodrama.

As in any genre study, the critic must construct the genre's parameters. For lack of space, I here put aside thorny methodological questions (the "empiricist dilemma — see Andrew Tudor and Edward Buscombe)[3] and rely on an empirically derived, somewhat common-sensical notion of the genre. I have found this definition of melodrama useful, and readers will judge its utility for themselves.

First of all, the domestic melodrama exists basically within the realm of Hollywood classicism, but it differs from most mainstream cinema (1915-1960) in several respects. Most importantly, it features a woman protagonist. The strongest female actresses of the so-called "Golden Era" starred in melodrama — and not as the hero's pet, buddy, antagonist or object of desire. Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne, Margaret Sullivan occupy the emotional center of their domestic melodrama films. Whereas most classical films follow men in their worldly exploits, the domestic melodrama represents the women and families "left behind." For example, rather than watch the decline of a concert pianist, we follow the woman with whom he thoughtlessly flirted and then deserted (LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN). Or, rather than following the soldier's adventures on the battlefield, we learn about the trauma on the homefront (SINCE YOU WENT AWAY). It seems as if the domestic melodrama has chronicled the "lives" of mainstream cinema's supporting cast — providing us with sentiments that were mostly left unspoken in violent genres such as the Western, the gangster film and the war movie. In these latter genres, love merely enters as an inconvenience; in melodrama it remains the central concern.

What we need to specify, then, is melodrama's particular conception of love. The films usually allow women two types of love: (1) romantic love of lover/husband, or (2) domestic love of children. (On rare occasions — e.g., MARKED WOMAN — sisterly affection does arise, but it is the exception that proves the rule.) Romantic love seems the ideal state of happiness and women pursue it obsessively. If achieved, it remains constant (few screen characters fall out of love) and transcends all earthly troubles. In some films romantic love may even transcend death. (At the conclusion of SEVENTH HEAVEN the viewer is not quite certain if Chico — Charles Farrell-has returned from the grave to his lover, or if everyone just thought he was dead.) Romantic love, however, often confronts domestic love. In U.S. cinema, marriage initiates domestic love — and usually signals the end of romance. This may be why most romantic films' characters approach marital union but do not achieve it until literally seconds before the end credits roll.

In contrast, domestic melodrama dwells on daily life after the couple join together. At the altar, life ceases to consist of the couple's adventure in romance and becomes the family's struggle for survival. This brings us to melodrama's principal theme: the glory of self-sacrifice. As Molly Haskell has noted,

"The domestic and the romantic are entwined, one redeeming the other, in the theme of self-sacrifice which is the mainstay and oceanic force, high tide and low ebb, of the woman's film."[4]

The 1934 IMITATION OF LIFE interweaves stories of domestic love with those of romantic love, eventually bringing the two kinds of love into conflict. The film pairs a white woman, Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), and her child, Jessie (as a baby, Baby Jane; as a young woman, Rochelle Hudson), with a black woman and hers (see the above scene). Delilah's nurturing releases Bea from her maternal duties and thus frees her for romantic intrigue with Steve Archer (Warren William). Delilah fits comfortably into the "mammy" type: large framed, self-effacing, religious to the point of superstition, uneducated but "wise" in matters of the heart, and above all else totally committed to nurturing not just her own daughter but Bea's daughter and Bea herself. Donald Bogle would place Delilah within the "aunt jemima" subtype:

"Often aunt jemimas are toms blessed with religion or mammies who wedge themselves into the dominant white culture."[5]

In fact, the film makes Delilah so typical that she becomes reified into an image or symbol of what she is — or rather, of what she is to white culture. In an ideologically blunt sequence, the white mother and now pancake entrepreneur, Bea, coaxes Delilah into an aunt jemima posture to exemplify for the painter what Bea wants for her pancake shop's sign (figure 1). Delilah's image then appears in the shop window (figure 2) and finally develops into an immense neon sign: "32 million packages sold last year," it declares, as a huge "aunt" Delilah maneuvers a flapjack (figure 3).

The mammy/aunt jemima character type stands first and foremost for nurturing — raising and caring for children and adults. Indeed, in the cinema and other popular culture media, the black matron's nurturing abilities assume superhuman characteristics. Her powers extend beyond that of white women. As Delilah protests when her daughter threatens to leave, "I'm your mammy. I ain't no white mother!" White women, she implies, do not have as strong a bind to their children — a notion supported by IMITATION OF LIFE, where Delilah's grief over her daughter's departure will eventually bring her to death. The mammy fits well within melodrama's bounds, for indeed she is the apotheosis of the film's protagonist, since she is devoted, beyond rational thought, to her children. Within IMITATION OF LIFE, Delilah functions to remind Bea of motherhood's responsibilities — which Delilah exemplifies through martyrdom. Delilah's position within the narrative serves to bring the protagonist's dilemma into sharp relief.

In recent years, since perhaps World War II, the mammy/aunt jemima type has been criticized as offering a negative image of black women. Writers on blacks in white culture have commented on this character-type's exploitative nature. Specifically, a mammy character does not just represent nurturing; she also promotes black women's exploitation as nurturers of white characters who hire and use her. Films present characters like Delilah as satisfied, even pleased, with this inequitable arrangement. When Bea tries to incorporate Delilah into the business, one founded on Delilah's secret recipe, Delilah sees it only as Bea's rejecting her and her mothering abilities. Furthermore, the film ridicules Delilah's inability to grasp financial matters. This scene ends with Bea's business manager, Elmer (Wed Sparks), grumbling about Delilah, "Once a pancake, always a pancake."

Of course, the more significant arena for Delilah's nurturing powers lies in her relationship with her defiant daughter, Peola. Delilah pleads with Peola to stop the girl's rebellious ways and make her accept things as they are - to accept their inferior economic status and seek only an elevated spiritual position. The aunt jemima resigns herself to her earthly oppression, secure in the knowledge of heavenly reward. Religion becomes one of white culture's principal means of pacifying blacks, and characters like Delilah, with her demand for a massive funeral, endorse it. Peola rejects her mother's acquiescence, however - as evidenced by the sequence beginning the present paper. She demands the material, worldly rewards that white men and women enjoy.

She thus exemplifies IMITATION OF LIFE's theme of racial identity. As a black woman who appears white, she may select her race. Will it be black culture (Delilah) or white (the classroom and, later, a job in an all-white restaurant)? Significantly, Delilah's death brings Peola back to "her place" within black culture. As we learn in the film's final scene between Bea and her daughter, after Delilah's martyr's death, Peola has elected to return to the "teacher's" college and supposedly has quieted her desires for first-class citizenship. The film's narrative, therefore, signifies the correctness of Peola's actions and endorses black submission to the white status quo.

In the 1934 IMITATION OF LIFE, the words and actions of a black working class woman, Delilah, validate the rights and values of white middle-class culture. In this way the film exemplifies one of domestic melodrama's main tenets:

"Central to the woman's film is the notion of middle-class-ness, not just as an economic status, but as a stte of mind and a relatively rigid moral code" (Haskell). [6]

This code is illustrated in the domestic melodrama by its representation of the family and work. Sounding remarkably like Frederick Engels, Haskell writes,

"The circumscribed world of the housewife corresponds to the state of woman in general, confronted by a range of options so limited she might as well inhabit a cell. The persistent irony is that she is dependent for her well-being and 'fulfillment' on institutions - marriage, motherhood - that, by translating the word 'woman' into 'wife' and 'mother,' end her independent identity. She then feels bound to adhere to a morality which demands that she stifle her own 'illicit' creative or sexual urges in support of a social code that tolerates considerably more deviation on the part of her husband. She is encouraged to follow the lead of her romantic dreams, but when they expire she is stuck."[8]

Haskell's comments clearly describe plot developments in IMITATION OF LIFE. As Delilah's labor releases Bea from mothering duties, Bea can begin a social life. We know Bea had married her first husband for economic reasons, but he died, leaving her the child and little financial support. Now established as the "Pancake Queen," Bea has the freedom to pursue a man for the mere pleasure of it. However, anyone familiar with the genre's conventions knows that such hedonism can't last long. In short order, Delilah dies of a broken heart and Bea's daughter, Jessie, falls in love with the man Bea herself had planned to marry. 1930s films seldom tolerate a single, older woman's independence, especially not domestic melodrama. Delilah's death seems to teach Bea a lesson. Soon after, she sends her lover on a sea voyage (he's an ichthyologist) so that her daughter won't be disturbed by their marriage. Domestic love of daughter has triumphed over romantic love of fiancé. The film ends as it begins, with mother and daughter alone together. Bea speaks of the film's first scene in which Jessie called out for her rubber duck. "I want my quack-quack," quotes Bea teasingly as the music rises, "I want my quack-quack." Fade to black.

Marxist feminists argue that woman's consignment to limited wife and mother roles serves the interests of the bourgeoisie and its (dominant) ideology. Women are charged with the wifely duty of maintaining the worker (providing food and sex, maintaining the home as a site of re-creation and recreation, washing, repairing clothes, and so on) and the motherly duty of producing, nurturing, and socializing new workers (children). Deviations from these roles - such as the independent, sexually active, but not reproductive, woman - disrupt this scheme. It is not surprising, therefore, that a major ideological apparatus such as the cinema does not condone sexually active, single, female characters. This can be seen easily in a broad range of films from all over the world: the perils of Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) in WAY DOWN EAST (1920), Marguerite's (Camilla Horn) burning at the stake in F.W. Murnau's silent FAUST (1926), Mildred Pierce's (Joan Crawford) murderous daughter in the film of the same name (1945), the murder of Nana (Anna Karina) in VIVRE SA VIE (1962), Bree Daniels' (Jane Fonda) persecution in KLUTE (1971), and the butchering of countless sexually active teenage women in today's horror films (e.g., HALLOWEEN, 1979). True, some of these films do present the victimized woman sympathetically, but female viewers easily get the central message: express your sexuality outside of marriage and you will be punished. (Instances of film misogyny of this sort may possibly correlate with the times that the greatest male fear of women exists in the workplace: e.g., the post-World War II years and the current recession.) Although Bea does not suffer as intense punishment as the above women, she becomes restricted to her reproductive role and forced to repress her non-reproductive desires.

The 1934 IMITATION OF LIFE's representation of work is somewhat less conventional than the way it inhibits the independent woman. Unlike the legions of films that coerce women into choosing between career and marriage (as recently as GIRLFRIENDS, 1978), IMITATION OF LIFE elides the difference between the two by basing Bea's career on Delilah's nurturing, i.e., the latter's pancake recipe. Further, even though Bea works, she remains close to her daughter. The real threat to this happy bourgeois structure becomes Steve, the object of Bea's sexual desire. Bea does not have to choose between family and business, but between lover and family/business. Thus, through a strange, unconventional twist, Bea's return to daughter Jessie also signifies a return to her business, Aunt Delilah's Pancakes. Nowhere does the film present work as exploitative or alienating; indeed, the film valorizes Bea's rise from proletariat to bourgeoisie - a Horatio Alger for women. The book jacket for the paperback edition of Imitation of Life sums up the novel as a "penetrating portrait of a woman who dreamed of success, achieved it, and then had to ask herself the question, 'Is success enough?'" I think Bea would answer that question: "No. It is not enough, but it will do for economically depressed 1934."

The rigidity of the socioeconomic code governing IMITATION OF LIFE finds metaphoric expression in its visual style. Stahl's filming of the novel relies heavily on static, rectangular compositions. One may see this illustrated in the classroom sequence which I began with. Frames-within-the-frame structure many of the shots (see figures 4,5, and 6).

Additionally, the interior shots of the classroom (see figure 6) seem dominated by rectangular shapes: the classroom windows and the blackboard and map. These compositions create a conventional stasis or equilibrium. One may posit an equivalence between the static, calcified compositions of Stahl's visual style and the rigid moral structures of white society that limit black people's options. Just as Peola becomes entrapped within a culture that categorizes her as a second-class citizen, so too the image of Peola gets caught in a web of strongly drawn horizontal and vertical lines (see figure 5). Delilah also remains snared within constrictive societal rules, and her figure's soft rounded bulk contrasts with the classroom's hard angles.

My interpretation is supported by similar rectangular compositions occurring throughout the course of the film - in particular, the aforementioned scene involving Delilah, Bea and Elmer, the business manager, in which they attempt to incorporate Delilah (figure 7). Just as Delilah does not understand the financial papers and the benefits they may accrue her, and just as she remains symbolically "other" from the world of economics (representing, as she does, the spiritual world and extreme domestic love), so she persists as an anomaly in the tidily constructed home of the white mother. Furthermore, white culture exploits not only her physical labor but also her appearance (see figures 1, 2, 3). Her image becomes reified into a corporate trademark - without her ever comprehending the financial world. Similarly, the white mother, Bea, also remains constrained within this economic and moral structure, but the film offers her an avenue for escape: Steve Archer. Even the film's mise-en-scene marks Steve as a man outside of conventional society's influence; he has most significant scenes in the garden rather than the house that pancakes built (see figures 8 and 9). Thus metaphoric meanings can be constructed from the film's visual style: closed, rectangular compositions suggest socioeconomic entrapment; open compositions suggest potential liberation.

Having discussed some of the domestic melodrama conventions operating in IMITATION OF LIFE (1934), we may now summarize a working definition of the genre:

  • A woman protagonist - or a man in a woman's conventional position (see THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW).
  • A middle-class economic and moral code governing work and the family: labor as ennobling, woman as wife or mother.
    • Romantic love as the ideal state, transcending material needs.
    • Domestic love as the overriding concern of women with children - often leading to the mother's superhuman sacrifices. Prevails over romantic love in most cases.
  • A basically daytime mise-en-scene (cf. 1930s Westerns): balanced, closed compositions; "three-point" lighting; aesthetically "conservative."

IMITATION OF LIFE (1934) well represents each of these tenets and illustrates how a topical theme (racial inequality) becomes shaped to fit the genre's demands: Peola's mother becomes the target of her anger as the anger remains displaced from its true target, white societal structures. Melodrama is equipped to deal with mother/ daughter strife, but not with racial inequality. Consequently, the latter remains repressed, "unspoken," a "structuring absence."

Armed with this tentative definition of 1930s melodrama, we may now proceed to the next step - to understand how the genre has changed over the years. I can best illustrate this by looking closely at the 1959 film version of Hurst's novel, produced by Universal once again and directed by Douglas Sirk. Indeed, most contemporary criticism of melodrama has focused on the 1950s and the ways in which stylists such as Sirk, Vincente Minelli, Nicholas Ray, and others have changed the genre. I do not wish to turn the present genre study into yet another auteur analysis (see Jim Kitses on the Western and Colin McArthur on the gangster film),[10] however, and shall confine myself to ways in which IMITATION OF LIFE (1959) exemplifies general principles of 1950s melodrama.

The later IMITATION OF LIFE calls into question many of the values the earlier version affirmed. Bourgeois life no longer seems as comfortably attractive as it did in 1934 - or so films of that time tell us. Much of 1950s cinema satirizes or openly attacks the various ideological apparatuses of the capitalist, middle-class state (see WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, NO DOWN PAYMENT, and SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS - all from 1957). Sirk's IMITATION OF LIFE has as its theme not the importance of success and the validity of maternal sacrifice, but the corrupting influence of ambition and the incompatibility of romance and prosperity.

This later film version considerably alters Hurst's novel. First, all but one of the names have been changed: Bea becomes Lora Meredith (Lana Turner); the white daughter, Jessie, becomes Susie (as a child, Terry Burnham; as a young woman, Sandra Dee); Delilah becomes Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore); the black daughter, Peola, becomes Sara Jane (as a child, Karen Dicker; as a young woman, Susan Kohner); and Steve Archer remains the same (John Gavin). Second, the avenue the white mother chooses to pursue success becomes shifted to show business - represented by the decadent agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda). He lectures Lora, "Me, I'm a man of very few principles and they're all open to revision."

Unlike Stahl's film version where Bea sets up a business as a family venture, based on Delilah's pancake formula, Sirk's narrative equates Lora's profession with ugly, cheap sexuality. Lora claims she'll make it "her way," but to do that she endures a seemingly loveless romance with her playwright, David Edwards (Dan O'Herlihy). She herself admits at one point, "Funny, isn't it? When you make it, then you find it doesn't seem worth it. Something's missing." What is missing is her daughter, Susie, and her lover, Steve. Her pursuit of a career and denial of both Susie and Steve (who proposes, saying, "I want to give you a home") signify her rejection of love, both romantic and domestic - a rejection, however, the film cannot endorse.

The crisis point arrives when Lora tells Susie of her plans to wed Steve, whom, at this point, Susie also loves. The film's unspoken tensions finally become articulated when Susie charges, "Annie's always been more like a real mother to me." Recognizing that her theatrical career has distracted her from her responsibilities as a nurturer, Lora vows to return to Susie. This is complicated, however, by the two women's competition for one man, Steve. The 1930s solution to this problem is mother gives up lover. That solution is rooted in the ideology of the suffering woman and it's outdated. It no longer satisfies the fissured social structures of the late 1950s. In 1959 the mother may actually choose the lover over the daughter, but she cannot do so without first exorcising her guilt by offering to reject him. In any event, IMITATION OF LIFE (1959) does not resolve this problem. It remains an enigma because Annie's death halts all development of the narrative and there is no post-funeral sequence, as in the 1934 film. The fact that Susie denies her mother's offer of self-sacrifice ("Stop actinq. Please don't play the martyr!") indicates that Bea's sacrifice would be a parody, only a "role," in 1959. So it is that the film, in the final analysis, makes the choice for Lora - and that choice does not entail surrendering the lover.

By 1959 the cinema's attitude toward blacks had shifted considerably, but Annie is still recognizable as a mammy/ aunt jemima figure. She is much less conventionally "black" than Delilah (gone is the dialect, for example), but she has essentially the same function in the narrative as did her earlier counterpart. She remains the woman who must sell her special nurturing talents in order to survive. However, much of Sirk's version becomes eaten from within by irony. Even though the black mother as mammy continues, her figure provokes tension within the fictional world.

Once again the key to understanding the film's theme resides in the black daughter's actions. Following the farewell scene between Annie and Sara Jane in Sara Jane's hotel room (the last time the young woman will see her mother alive), a dancer friend of hers remarks facetiously, "So honeychil', you had a mammy!" Sara Jane responds, "Yes, all my life." The dancer's snide use of the term indicates its fall from favor since the 1930s. Sara Jane disregards the intended irony, however, in her reply. The viewer also disregards the dancer's tongue-in-cheek attitude when he/she accepts Annie as the true mammy; just as in 1934, she cannot bear to "unborn (Delilah's term) her own child. Sara Jane's repentance at the end ratifies the sacrifice of the mammy figure ("Momma [still not 'mammy'], I did love you," she screams), but all the tensions are not ameliorated as in the 1934 rendition. Peola (1934) has been forgiven her rebellious travesties and, we are told, will return to her white-culture delimited role. The adult Sara Jane (1959), although grief-stricken at the funeral, may give up her show business career (as a white dancer), or she may just as plausibly continue it. The funeral concludes the 1959 film, and thus some doubt remains as to Sara Jane's future activities - just as doubt remains about the resolution of the Lora/Steve/Susie dilemma.

In both films the black mother equals "mammy" and stands in contrast to the white mother. Their contrast generates the theme of domestic love and its impediments. At the denouement, the film endorses Delilah/Annie's ultimate sacrifice and implicitly challenges Bea/Lora to match it. Bea does; Lora may or may not. Thematically, these events suggest that a certain amount of the 1934 moral code's stability has been disturbed by 1959. Women are now, as Brandon French has observed, "on the verge of revolt."[11] Haskell characterizes a major ideological shift between 1934 and 1959; she discusses the unresolved discord in 1950s U.S. society (as represented in the cinema) which results in

"the paradox - the energy, the vulgarity, the poverty of values, the gleaming surfaces and soulless lives, the sickness of delusion, the occasional healthy burst of desire - of America, of the fifties, of the cinema itself."[12]

As I have posited a metaphoric meaning for the style of the 1930s IMITATION OF LIFE, so can one interpret melodrama's 1950s style by looking at the sequence from 1959 that compares with the one beginning the present paper. In work conducted elsewhere,[13] I perform a detailed, shot-by-shot comparison of these two sequences. Space does not permit but a summarized account of that analysis here.

The most obvious differences between 1934 and 1959 are visual ones - though significant audio changes might also be mentioned (e.g., the use of music in 1959 and its absence in 1934). In terms of visual style, then, the 1959 version constructs a world of dynamic disequilibrium, when compared to 1934's equilibrium and stasis. To choose one example among many: In 1934 the black daughter is framed by many rectangles within the frame as she exists the school (figure 5). In 1959 the camera is placed at a lower, oblique angle, with the coats forming a large bulk in the right foreground. The background is lit so that strange, almost expressionist shadows are cast on a peculiarly nondescript segment of grade-school architecture (figure 10). This composition draws one's eye into the background where it will meet with the fleeing daughter. Significantly, she comes aggressively toward the camera, in contrast to the daughter's receding movement in the earlier version.

Metaphorically, we may interpret the later film's visual style as expressing Haskell's paradox. The 1959 version's off-kilter angles, unnaturalistic lighting, character (and camera) movement and dynamic set design (featuring Sirk's trademark, the mirror) provide visual equivalents of the repressed cultural tensions of the 1950s. Just as social values are no longer concrete, so is he narrative action "threatened" by style.[14] Further, just as the black daughter provides the most disruptive thematic and narrative element, so she becomes represented in the most violently dynamic compositions over the course of the entire film. See figures 11, 12, and 13.

Thematically, the most interesting of these is the already mentioned sequence in which Sara Jane denounces Annie just before the mother dies. Sara Jane has ostensibly left her mother in order to enjoy the advantages of white culture, but this scene illustrates just how illusory white bourgeois values are. The connotation strongly indicts the disrepute of her places of employment (e.g., Harry's Club, figure 12). Style echoes this sense of the illusory in the unconventional shot of Sara Jane and Annie in the hotel room (figure 13). Sara Jane's image becomes doubled as if to signal her duplicity (looks white though actually black) and the superficiality of white values. After all, if the film incarnates white-culture success in the ultra-white characters Lora and Susie (figure 14), themselves living an "imitation of life," the viewer can only wonder about the worth of such success. Thus the 1959 version of IMITATION OF LIFE may be read as a critical, disrupted vision of a world that 1930s Hollywood usually took for granted. Just as conventional thematics have come slightly untethered in the film, so have conventional stylistics.

One may properly wonder, however, if this stylistic evolution characterizes the genre or comes as the result of an inspired-genius auteur's reaction against generic conventions of the time. Several writers on Sirk have been drawn to him specifically because of the ideological rupture they see embodied in his mise-en-scene. David Grosz typifies this approach:

"The films of Douglas Sirk, some of the most sublime and deeply felt in American cinema, are rooted in a self-analytic visual style. This must be at the center of any discussion of Sirk's work."[15]

Further, Paul Willemen invokes the Cahiers du cinéma editorial delineating a taxonomy of film and ideology. He asserts that Sirk's films fit into the category of films which initially appear to be fully and unquestionably within bourgeois ideology but which, upon closer examination, reveal cracks and fissures within it.[16] Willemen expands,

"As Roland Barthes pointed out, a rhetoric functions as the signifier of an ideology; and by altering the rhetoric of the bourgeois melodrama, through stylisation and parody, Sirk's films distanciate themselves from the bourgeois ideology."[17]

Jon Halliday's comments on IMITATION OF LIFE support the same position, but without Willemen's ideological perspective:

"Sirk has used his command over 'style' to transform the awful story [IMITATION OF LIFE] more by light, composition, camerawork, and music than anything else."[18]

André Bazin's admonitions against a "cult of personality" ring in my ears when reading Grosz, Willemen, Halliday and others.[19] Was Sirk really alone in his critique of both bourgeois ideology and the conventions of 1930s melodrama? It's my belief that the elements of Sirk's visual style which these writers extoll are more a function of the genre than of the solitary genius. Thomas Elsaesser has traced similar ideological strategies in "tales of sound and fury" by Vincent Minelli and Nicholas Ray, as well as Sirk.[20] Intriguing claims have been made for these films' style, but the claims remain clouded by auteurist notions and obscured by a lack of system. Moreover, even work by non-auteurs such as David Miller (BACK STREET, 1961), Michael Gordon (PORTRAIT IN BLACK, 1960), and David Lowell Rich (MADAME X, 1966) evidence the genre's stylistic disequilibrium so valorized by Sirkophiles. Here I cannot go much further than posing such questions, however, for we still sorely need a systematic analysis of the domestic melodrama's stylistic evolution.


1. Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, with an introduction by Lionel Trilling (New York: Atheneum, 1974); André Bazin, What is Cinema?, ed. and trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California, 1967), pp. 28-29.

2. Molly Haskell, "The Woman's Film," in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, pp. 153-188 (New York: Penguin, 1974); Laura Mulvey, "Notes on Sirk and Melodrama," Movie, 25, pp. 53-57; and Griselda Pollock, "Report on the Weekend School," Screen, Summer 1977, pp. 105-119.

3. Andrew Tudor, Theories of Film (New York: Viking, 1973), pp. 135-144. Or, as Edward Buscombe, after Wellek and Warren, describes it: "… if we want to know what a Western is we must look at certain kinds of films. But how do we know which films to look at until we know what a Western is?" Edward Buscombe, "The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema," Screen, March/April 1970, p. 35.

4. Haskell, p. 157.

5. Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 9.

6. Haskell, p. 159.

7. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, with an introduction by Evelyn Reed (New York: Pathfinder, 1972).

8. Haskell, pp. 159-160.

9. Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life (New York: Permabooks, 1959).

10. Jim Kitses, Horizons West: Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah: Studies of Authorship Within the Western (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1969); Cohn McArthur, Underworld U.S.A. (New York: Viking, 1972).

11. Brandon French, On the Verge of Revolt: Women in American Films of the Fifties (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978).

12. Haskell, pp. 171-172.

13. Jeremy G. Butler, "Toward a Theory of Cinematic Style: The Remake" (Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 1982).

14. Some of these instances approach Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's concept of "conversion hysteria" in melodrama. See Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, "Minelli and Melodrama," Screen, Summer 1977, pp. 117-118.

15. Dave Grosz, "THE FIRST LEGION: Vision and Perception in Sirk," Screen, Summer 1971, p. 99. This issue of Screen is devoted entirely to Douglas Sirk. Several articles from it have been reprinted in Laura Mulvey and Jon Halliday, eds., Douglas Sirk (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Film Festival, 1972).

16. Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, "Cinema/ Ideology/ Criticism," trans. Susan Bennett, Screen, Spring 1971, pp. 27-36. It originally appeared in Cahiers du cinéma, No. 216 (October/November 1969), p. 217. This translation has been reprinted in several places, including Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods: An Anthology (Berkeley: University of California, 1976), pp. 22-30.

17. Paul Willemen, "Distanciation and Douglas Sirk," Screen, Summer 1971, p. 67. Reprinted in Mulvey and Halliday, pp. 23-30.

18. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk: Interviews with Jon Halliday (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 10.

19. André Bazin, "La Politique des Auteurs," In Peter Graham, ed., The New Wave (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), pp. 137-155.

20. Thomas Elsaesser, "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama," Monogram, No. 4 (1972), pp. 2-15.