Of all the major dramatic genres, domestic melodrama is the most corrupt and corrupting. It encourages mindless empathic responses to situations contrived purely to excite our sense of rectitude. Worse, because it usually occurs in everyday settings, it gives the false impression that life can (should?) be experienced as a similar lurch from crisis to crisis, thus encouraging an equally irrational view of the world. (No wonder melodrama is a staple of journalism.)
It would nonetheless be dishonest to deny melodrama’s effectiveness as entertainment, particularly when handled by a master like director Douglas Sirk. Known for his rich visual style, several of Sirk’s films are also beloved by feminists for what they perceive as his “subversive” view of patriarchy. Imitation of Life, one of the director’s most famous and commercially successful films, does indeed have a mildly critical edge, but the social commentary, such as it is, clearly exists as the excuse for a no holds barred emotional onslaught that turns impersonal social matters into personal, individual problems. The question then becomes whether weighty issues like race relations and chauvinism are best handled in coolly objective terms, or as overheated mush?
That Imitation is meant as voluptuous emotional pornography is not controversial. This is, after all, a film that begins with rhinestones falling in slow motion against a black background, while a crooner swoons that life without love is an “imitation” of the genuine article. Pointing out the gaudy vulgarity of this kind of thing is as nonsensical as complaining that a box of chocolates is fattening. The only answer can be “Don’t like it? Don’t eat it.”
The situation certainly inspires plenty of outrage. For example, when aspiring actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) is told by slimy agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda) success will require presenting herself as a peach ripe for the picking, he certainly comes off as a cad. When light-skinned Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) daughter of Lora’s saintly maid and friend Annie (Juanita Moore) is viciously beaten by her boyfriend when he finds out she is black, it’s horrifying. And when Sarah Jane screams and sobs uncontrollably at Annie’s funeral, you’d have to be pretty heartless not to be moved.
The orchestra whoops and swooshes with over-ripe abandon as one lush image tumbles over another. Never mind that Turner looks a little long in the tooth to be a bright young star, or that Annie is too good for this world. Emotional intoxication smothers all implausibilities. The deluxe treatment of serious issues may raise the film above the level of cheap fiction, but it also seems like a master mortician’s lavish embalming of a corpse. Indeed, some of us will have to be forgiven for thinking the ludicrously over-produced funeral that ends Imitation of Life is the perfect metaphor for the film itself.