A few weeks ago, after reading an obituary of underground film legend George Kuchar in the New York Times, I watched Jennifer M. Kroot‘s 2009 documentary It Came from Kuchar, a very enjoyable film in its own right, about the delightfully weird hand-made movies of George and his twin brother Michael. The Kuchars of the Bronx made over-the-top satires with their friends and family on, first, a wind-up action DeJur 8mm camera (the kind I loved making films with as a kid) and then a Bolex 16mm (the kind I always wished I had). Unlike their underground peers Andy Warhol or Kenneth Anger, the Kuchar’s were primarily interested in Hollywood-style narrative (though their movies are far stranger than anything Hollywood could ever dream up) and were heavily influenced in particular by Douglas Sirk, whose melodramas they watched over and over at local movie houses.
From my days of interest in New German cinema, I knew Rainer Werner Fassbinder was also a Sirk fanatic, and I was intrigued by the homages he paid Sirk in films like Lola and Veronika Voss–not the narrative influence so much as the visual influence, the use of primary color light gels and art design components to telegraph emotion. These visuals also clearly appealed to the Kuchars. In It Came from Kuchar, you can see that George was still practicing Sirk-style lighting in his film classes at San Francisco Art Institute. (Sins of the Fleshapoids, which is available in multipart on YouTube, is a good example of an original Kuchar epic employing Sirk-inspired lighting techniques.)
I only knew about Sirk as an auteur worth investigating from my interest in Fassbinder. So far as I know, I had never seen a Sirk until just the other night. It was the Kuchar films that piqued my interest anew, so when I saw Imitation of Life available on Netflix, I queued it up. By coincidence, my own twin brother Erik recommended I see the remake of Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta (directed by Arthur Laven) with Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr just that day, so when Imitation of Life was over, I went right into Anna Lucasta, which is also available for instant streaming on Netflix. They make for an interesting double feature.
Made within a year of each other, both are remakes of earlier films, which in turn were based on originals from other media, Imitation of Life on a novel by Fannie Hurst, Anna Lucasta on Yordan’s play. Both feature African American actors. Oddly enough, though Imitation of Life is explicitly, even boldly about race, only one of its featured actors is black: Juanita Moore, as the saintly domestic Annie Johnson. (Mahalia Jackson is listed among the stars, but she appears only to sing the hymn “Trouble of the World” in the climactic funeral scene.) Anna Lucasta, on the other hand, makes almost no reference to race except to include subtle references to African American culture as, for example, when Georgia Burke as the matron Theresa absent-mindedly sings the spiritual “Wade in the Water” on Anna’s wedding day. The reason for Anna Lucasta‘s off-handedness about race is probably that it was written originally about Polish immigrants (Yordan is Polish), but was adapted for an African American cast when Yordan was unable to sell the play to anyone but the American Negro Theater Company of Harlem, for whom it became a big hit in 1944.
This is the kind of double-bill that I think would make for a lively discussion in a film class. One point to consider is how successful each is in its depiction of African American life.
Imitation, it seems to me, for the most part presents Annie not as a human being but as an ideal: the long-suffering, stoic servant who accepts her place and makes the best of it. And there’s no question for her that her place is beneath that of Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), like her, the single mother of a young girl. The daughters’ instant friendship on the beach at Coney Island brings the mothers together to form a kind of family, but one in which is it’s clear that the white woman, though she may not always know exactly what’s going on in it, is head of household. This structure is a sort of parody of the stereotypical American household of the 1950s, with Annie taking the part of the home-making female and Lora, the ambitious actress, of the bread-winning male.
Of course, the most disturbing thing about the film is the story of Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), a light-skinned girl who burns to pass for white. I’m not sure how 1950s audiences responded to the scenes in which this white actress (and the girl who plays her at 7) complains bitterly, often to Lora and her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee as the teenager), about the limits her mother’s skin color puts on her choices in life as Juanita Moore stood by. I could not help but wonder what Moore must have thought of these scenes. As Annie, she suffers uncomprehendingly. She continues to unwittingly embarrass and endanger Sarah Jane by showing up where the girl has tried to suppress her origins and proclaiming to be her mother. This would seem to indicate that the character of Annie has less concept of the meaning of race in America than her daughter, or that Annie’s concept of race is, as a black woman, to simply accept less from life, and to, therefore, accept less for her daughter than the white people she self-effacingly serves would expect for themselves.
In an interesting essay on the film that appeared in the 1977 special Sirk edition of the journal Bright Lights and which is reprinted online, Stephen Handzo reported that “a surprising” 30 percent of Imitation of Life‘s original audience was African American. This actually doesn’t seem too surprising to me, considering its theme and how rarely it was treated overtly by Hollywood before 1960. But I also can’t help but wonder if black audiences were going, as Handzo asserted, to get emotional release or for some other reason.
There’s no doubt that the end, in which Sarah Jane throws herself at her mother’s coffin begging posthumous forgiveness, does pack an emotional punch. But I think the film, whether intentional or not, asks many more questions–about race and gender and class–than it answers. Why, if Annie is the ultimate mother figure, is she unable to nurture or soothe her own daughter? Is Sarah Jane’s hurt something beyond the powers of any mother to heal? Are we supposed to view Annie’s acceptance of her second-class status as a positive trait–as a sort of noble obedience to the Christian admonition to imitate Christ in life and not expect your reward until after death? Is it not possible in this filmic world to view Annie as the victim of a self-delusion, born in a cultural delusion, that also makes a victim of her daughter?
Anna Lucasta raises a host of questions itself, though none quite as mordant as Imitation‘s litany. Maybe the most central: Is this really a movie about African Americans? Knowing the history of the play (see paragraph 4 above) makes the question more complicated. But in the experience of the film, there’s no question that we’re watching African Americans enacting a comic drama with complete and engrossing believability (to this European-American’s witnessing of it, anyway). In other words, there is nothing in Anna Lucasta that advertises itself as artificially black, beyond the way all drama in some way advertises itself as artificial, of course. The performances are universally excellent and enjoyable, particularly those of Kitt and Davis, both of whom almost preternaturally inhabit their roles (especially considering how iconic their personalities were off screen!). The language is in the African American vernacular, though the subjects spoken about are universally human: family, marriage, gender relations, shame, money, love, sex. The subject is, in fact, almost everything but race.
Frankly, I have no answer as to Anna Lucasta’s authenticity. I can only compare the infectiously relaxed feeling among the company of actors in the film to those in all-black films like Stormy Weather or those that were made primarily to be shown in black neighborhoods. I only know it was unusual for Hollywood in the 1950s to represent African Americans as anything other than saints like Sidney Poitier (and Moore) or buffoons like Amos and Andy. It’s a beautiful thing to behold when Hollywood puts black characters on the screen, as they appear in Anna Lucasta, as wonderfully real and flawed human beings, even more so when there’s no sense of self-congratulation on the part of the production for doing so.