Sirkian Melodrama and the Mother-Daughter Relationship: a Study of “Imitation of Life”
Monday, April 14, 2008
Author: Bryan Ghingold
While most of Douglas Sirk’s films serve to be socially progressive by challenging societies norms and notions of consumerism, they also tackle issues of the family. One of the major familial issues Sirk makes it a point to address is the relationship between protagonist mothers and their daughters. The mother-daughter relationship in melodrama serves many purposes. The daughter can be a source of textbook knowledge for the audience to relate the mother’s behavior with, as Kay (Gloria Talbot) is in All That Heaven Allows (1955), the daughter can be a jealous instigator, changing the direction of the plot, as Marylee (Dorothy Malone) is in Written on the Wind (1956), or she can be the central antagonist, causing the primary conflict, and ultimately ending her mother’s life, as Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is in Imitation of Life (1959). I will argue that the mother-daughter relationship is necessary for Imitation of Life to be a successful social critique as demonstrated by the relationship between Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and Sarah Jane, the conflict over Steve Archer (John Gavin) between Lora (Lana Turner) and Susie Meredith (Sandra Dee), and the impact both daughters have on their mothers.
Douglas Sirk has always been a progressive filmmaker. Each of his films we have studied in class have in some way been socially progressive. In All That Heaven Allows, he challenged roles of class, gender, and age. In Magnificent Obsession (1954), he challenged (among other societal issues,) materialism. It was only a matter of time before he could or would tackle issues of race, which he did with Imitation of Life, Mary Ann Doane explains that the time had to be right before issues of race could be addressed; “…social inequalities emerge on the sidelines [of the films], in the use of black servants. In this respect, it is significant that there is a ‘30s version of Imitation of Life and a 50’s version, but no ‘40s remake. Racial issues are too central to the film” (Doane 291). Perhaps the biggest conflict in Imitation of Life besides Lora Meredith’s struggle between fame and family is the struggle between her friend and maid, Annie Johnson, and Annie’s fair-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane, having grown up with skin passable as “white” and seeing how her mother and black-skinned people are treated, does everything she can to shun her black identity. When Sarah Jane was a young girl in the film, Susie presented her with a black doll. Sarah Jane protested, and took Susie’s white doll. Susie ran to tell her mother, and Annie intervened, taking the white doll out of her hands, and forcing the black doll into her arms. Sarah Jane replied by whining “I don’t want the black one!” As Annie and Sarah Jane retreated to their small guestroom, Sarah Jane dropped the doll on the floor. Rather than follow Sarah Jane and Annie into their room, the camera tilted down following the abandoned doll, holding on it before fading to black. This is a very telling moment in the film; foreshadowing of the conflict Sarah Jane would cause in her young adulthood by abandoning her black identity.
When Sarah Jane becomes a young adult, she rebels even more, to the point of running away from home and denouncing her mother and her black heritage. She sees color as being more than skin deep, damning and the destroying her opportunities. Shortly before she runs away from her mother and the Meredith household, she sneaks out of the house to go on a date. When she returns from the date with her white boyfriend, she recounts the story to Susie. Susie asks if her boyfriend is colored, which sets Sarah Jane off on her, saying “I want to have a chance in life. I don’t want to have to come through back doors, or feel lower than other people, or apologize for my mother’s color.” She can’t help her color. But I can…” The problems between Sarah Jane and her mother address the very sensitive issue of race, especially pertinent in the 1950s; a decade before the civil rights movement. However, it would not be a Sirk film without a social commentary on class and materialism. This is addressed through the conflict between Susie and Lora Meredith.
Sigmund Freud comes up very frequently in discussion of Film Melodrama. He has been mentioned in numerous readings, and more than one of our class lectures. Specifically, Freud’s view on family psychology is applied to the representation of the family unit in melodrama. In the family dynamic, Freud asserts that the son falls in love with the mother, and the female places her affection on the “wrong” object (Doane 301). Though there is no son, the latter part of this family model is exactly what happens in Imitation of Life. Lora lets her romance with the responsible and often “more-kind-than-he-should-be” Steve Archer fail in order to succeed as an actress. Steve stays in her life, giving his attention to Susie in Lora’s absence. This constant presence coupled with Lora’s misguided goals leads an adolescent Susie to fall in love with him. Doane suggests that this misplacement of a female’s affection is given “extensive representation within the maternal melodramas” (Doane 301). In addition to Imitation of Life, films like Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, and Stella Dallas (1937) support Doane’s assertion.
This conflict between Lora and Susie begins when Susie confesses that she is in love with Steve. She doesn’t confess to her mother, but to Annie, who has become ill and bedridden since her last visit with Sarah Jane. Annie, whose character seems to be a symbolic allusion to Jesus (in her embodiment of true compassion, true love, and martyrdom) tells Susie that her love for Steve is “like a girl,” and that it is only natural that her mother and Steve are in love. As soon as Susie’s “confession” is over, Steve and Lora pull up to the house from their date, as if on cue. Susie watches them from the window smiling at Steve, until he and Lora kiss. Susie’s face drops to a look of betrayal and shock, as the music cue shifts from the fluttery lovebird tone of flutes to a betrayal tone, utilizing the sharp sound of strings. The music shifts back to the lovebird tone when Susie moves away from the window, as though it was no longer playing for her and Steve, but is now playing for her mother and Steve. Susie retreats to her room to a soundtrack that sounds much more defeated than the previous tone. Lora enters Susie’s room to tell her the good news of her proposal of marriage to Steve (a perhaps not-so-subtle cue to the reversal of gender roles present in so many of Sirk’s films). When Susie hears that her mother and Steve are to be married, she dismisses her mother from the room, offering the excuse that she is tired.
The mise-en-scene of the final shot of that scene summarizes the mother-daughter conflict in perfect form. Like Sirk has proven with his other films, every element of the mise-en-scene is deliberate, and serves a purpose. The scene begins with a tight two shot of Susie and Lora. The focus is on Susie, as Lora is entirely consumed in shadows, and positioned so far to the right that she is cut by the frame, where as Susie’s framing adheres to the rule of thirds, making her more pleasing to our eye. Upon hearing of the engagement, Susie defiantly states, “I hope you’ll be very happy.” Being inept as a mother due to years of emotional (and physical) absence, Lora ignorantly replies, “Oh, we’ll be- all of us!” Susie gets upset and moves away from her mother, toward a bureau with a vanity mirror. At this point, Susie is in a long shot looking in her mirror, a device Mercer and Shingler assert is common in Sirk films used to show removal and self-delusion (Mercer & Shingler 54). Her posture is hunched, and she is out of focus, telling us that she is defeated. Her reflection has become a character of its own, and is an important element in the mise-en-scene. The reflection is Susie, trapped in a world where she cannot have her mother and she cannot have Steve. Her monochromatic light grey outfit allows her to blend in with her bedroom. Lora on the other hand is very close to the frame, and in focus. She too is wearing grey, but hers is much darker, drawing our eyes to her over Susie. She is framed from the bust up, filling the entire height of the frame. After she says goodnight to Susie, she turns toward the audience, stepping out of an all-consuming shadow to be lit from the side with deep shadows on the left side of her face. Her expression indicates that she knows something is wrong, but she hasn’t been in Susie’s life adequately to know exactly what is bothering her. It appears as though she looks toward the camera, asking the audience in her moment of maternal failure for some assistance. She raises her eyebrows and lowers her head as if to say, “Oh well… I tried my best,” and walks off frame.
The problem between Lora and Susie comes to a head a few scenes later. After Lora finds out from Annie that Susie is in love with Steve, she confronts Susie to find her filling out a college application to Denver, 1,600 miles away. Lora tells her she is being foolish, because she feels she has provided more than adequately for Susie, saying, “you’ve had the best of everything and that’s a solid achievement that any mother can be proud of.” Susie responds by letting her mother know she has done an inadequate job by saying, “and how about a mother’s love?” Demonstrating the short-sightedness of Lora’s character, she defends herself by insisting, “Love!? But you’ve always had that!” For the first time in the film, Susie behaves like an adult, and challenges her mother’s skewed notion of family. “Yes; by telephone, by postcard, by magazine interviews, you’ve given me everything but yourself!”
The conflicts between mother and daughter in Imitation of Life both have resonating affects on the rest of the characters’ lives. The relationship between Susie and Lora might have been ruined, if not for the death of Annie, which brings them together. Annie’s death is brought about by Sarah Jane’s rejection, and she literally dies of a broken heart. In death however, Sarah Jane repents and accepts her mother, rejoining the family. During Annie’s funeral procession, Sarah Jane bursts through the crowd, separate from the Meredith family, who follow in a car behind the hearse. She is stopped by a policeman, and by a member of Annie’s church, whom she plows past, tearing open the doors to the hearse, and collapsing on her mother’s casket, crying out “Mama, I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it! Do you hear me? I’m sorry Mama! I did love you!” Her last words in the film are “I killed my mother! I killed her! …I wanted to come home, you’ll never know how much I wanted it!” Only then at Annie’s funeral are every conflict resolved; the conflict between Sarah Jane and her mother, Sarah Jane and her identity, Susie and her mother, Steve and Susie, and Steve and Lora. Annie’s death serves as a deus ex machina. While unfitting in most genres and sometimes laughable in its absurdity, the use of this device is perfect for Imitation of Life, because Annie was intentionally represented as a Jesus character. In her death, everything became right in the world, or at least the world of the Meredith family. Thomas Schatz recounted that Sirk considered this as close as he would come to providing a “happy ending.” Schatz feels the deus ex machina in Imitation of Life are ambiguous, leaving the audience to decide for themselves if the film ended happily or unhappily (Schatz 166).
Considering the progressive nature of Douglas Sirk, I am surprised it took him so long to offer a commentary on race, as he does in Imitation of Life. Part of this can be attributed to the social climate of the 1950s, which is something Sirk seems to have dedicated his career to criticizing. Though race was a new addition to his repertoire of critique, Imitation of Life still executes his social commentary with expert style. With its focus on the family dynamic, social status, the worth of wealth, and the role of race in terms of societal value, Imitation of Life secures a place as one of Sirk’s most socially relevant films. In this paper, I have proved that the mother-daughter relationship in Imitation of Life is necessary for this film to be as effective as it was at social critique as demonstrated by the relationship between Annie Johnson and Sarah Jane, the conflict over Steve Archer between Lora and Susie, and the impact both daughters have on their mothers.
1.Doane, Mary Ann. “The Moving Image: Pathos and the Maternal.” The Desire to
Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (1987). Rpt. in Imitations of Life. Ed. Marcia Landy. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. 283-306.
2.Imitation of Life. Dir. Douglas Sirk. Perfs. Lana Turner, John Gavin. DVD.
Universal International Pictures, 1959.
3.Mercer, John and Martin Shingler. Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility. London:
Wallflower Press, 2004.
4.Schatz, Thomas. “The Family Melodrama.” Hollywood Genres: Formulas,
Filmmaking, and the Studio System. (1981). Rpt. in Imitations of Life. Ed. Marcia Landy. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. 148-167.
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