Imitation of Life

Imitation_of_Life_1959_poster copyI suffer from a condition common among film buffs: classic movie backlog. Weekend binge watching is often my only defense against my DVR purging important stuff to free up space. When that happens, I’m like a hoarder on a reality show who finds an old VHS tape in a skip in my driveway, after an intervention.


Friday night’s DVR clean out featured Imitation of Life, recorded from Turner Classic Movies back in February. It’s a remake of a 1934 film based on a novel by Fannie Hurst, starring Claudette Colbert. (Full disclosure: I’ve neither seen the original, nor read the book.)

In the 1959 version, Lora Meredith (played by Lana Turner) is a widowed mother who dreams of Broadway stardom. One sunny afternoon at Coney Island, she encounters another single mom – Annie Johnson (played by Juanita Moore), who is African American – and her daughter Sarah Jane.

Sarah Jane has such fair coloring, Lora assumes she’s white and mistakes Annie for her caregiver. Annie isn’t offended. It’s a common assumption, she explains. Sarah Jane’s father was very “light skinned”.

The women commiserate about the challenges of single motherhood, until Annie suggests she and Sarah Jane move in with Lora and her daughter Susie, so that Lora could be free to audition. Lora initially turns her down, because she can’t afford live-in help, then changes her mind when she realizes the two are homeless.

Over the course of the film, Lora’s singular ambition pays off. She becomes the golden girl of Broadway comedy, and later drama. All the while, Annie is her housekeeper, nanny, friend and support system. The women and their daughters upgrade to a beautiful home – where there are no lowly servants’ quarters — and Annie is financially secure for the first time in her life.

Imitation of Life has stuck with me for days. Is it a great film? Probably not, by most measures. Upon its release, a reviewer at the New York Times sniffed, “It is the most shameless tear-jerker in a couple of years.” Still, it got me thinking…

I wondered if the friendship between Lora and Annie was shocking for the time – but a Google search suggests it wasn’t. It would seem that audiences struggled more to relate to single motherhood – uncommon in 1959 — than to interracial friendship.

The aforementioned New York Times reviewer sneered, “There are two mothers in the situation—and no fathers, by the way; no parents of masculine gender to confuse the rich flow of mother love.”

Listen closely and you can almost hear the favorite anti-feminist boo-hoo: “Women think they don’t need men anymore!” (In case you were wondering, David Brooks was NOT the Times film critic in 1959. But that sure sounds like him, doesn’t it?)

An important storyline in Imitation of Life revolves around Sarah Jane’s light complexion, and her relentless determination to “pass”. 

Early in the film, she refuses to play with black dolls – a nod to the Doll Test, conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s to assess the impact of segregation on the self-esteem of black children. Before long, Sarah Jane is passing. Everyone in her new elementary school class assumes she’s white – and she does nothing to correct this misassumption. Annie is devastated. Being black “is who you are”, she reminds Sarah Jane.

For the rest of the film, the young woman (played by Susan Kohner) stares across America’s racial divide, and longs for a different life. She can have it, if she reinvents herself as a white woman. She runs away, and disowns Annie. The consequences are heartbreaking.

The biggest surprise in the film is its treatment of Lora’s professional aspirations. She balances on the bleeding edge of self-aggrandizement and ambition, without coming across as a selfish shrew.

She sometimes neglects her daughter Susie, leaving her in Annie’s care for long periods – but Lora is generally portrayed as a kind employer and loving mother, and her bond with Susie is unambiguously strong.

Early in the film, she flirts with a Broadway agent to get a part, but draws the line at diving onto his casting couch. Later, she embarks on a long romance with a writer/producer who develops plays that turn her into a Broadway comedy star – then unapologetically breaks off their engagement when she sets her sights on more dramatic parts. She isn’t cruel, but she’s unsentimental and doesn’t shed a tear.

She also strings good-guy Steve along throughout the film. Each time they renew their romance, and she agrees to marry him, she receives a telegram – she’s been offered the role of a lifetime! Suddenly it’s, “Steve? Steve who?” In one instance, the engagement and breakup happen on the same afternoon.

I’m glad Imitation of Life narrowly escaped the dreaded DVR purge. I like a movie that surprises me, and challenges my assumptions about America in the decades before I was born. Most of all, I was intrigued by the film’s portrayal of an ambitious woman who enjoys success after success, without an eventual downfall because she chose her career over Mr. Right.

I can’t help but wonder how the New York Times would review the film today?

What’s more, I keep envisioning a 2017 remake, with the race of the characters flipped. What if an ambitious African-American woman befriended a down-on-her-luck single mom who was white?

That’s a movie I’d pay to see.

Living Velveeta Loca

Velveeta Print Ad: Eat Liquid Goal

If you’ve noticed your cupboard is lacking
A popular processed cheese spread
That smothers your nachos
And squirts out of tacos
And melts between slices of bread.

It’s more than a terrible rumor
The facts have been widely reported
From Maine to Topeka
Someone’s moved our Velveeta
We’re facing a national shortage.

Turns out there’s a good explanation
For how things have gone so awry
It’s not just neurosis
Here’s the diagnosis
Demand is exceeding supply.

You can’t find a block of it anywhere
Not a sliver, a chunk or a slice
We won’t go organic
We’ve started to panic
So desperate, we’ll pay any price.

If you’re hosting a Super Bowl party
And the lack of Velveeta displeases
Just blame it on Kraft
And pour lots of drafts
To distract from the crackers and Cheez Whiz.

Mel Ramos poster of Velvetta package
Artist: Mel Ramos, American (1935 – )

Buy the Book

A manual typewriter in the window display of Coastal Books in Half Moon Bay, CaliforniaI recently wrote about an alumnae event for my University where I was goosed by Father Time, when a much-younger attendee GASPED when I disclosed my graduation year. No two ways about it: I felt old.

Today, while strolling around Half Moon Bay with some friends, I was again reminded of my advancing years. We stopped at an excellent independent bookstore, Coastal Books on Main Street.  My friends’ daughter Sydney, who is in the third grade, pointed at the manual typewriter in the window display and asked, “Mom, what is that thing?”

It’s true, she had never seen a typewriter – the thing I used to type college applications and construct countless resume cover letters when I first launched myself into the working world. (I take some comfort in knowing that at least my typewriter was electric.) Everyone within earshot over the age of 35 cracked up.

Inside the store, there was more nostalgia, including something called a Personal Library Kit – another relic Haley (aged 6) and Sydney (aged 8) had never seen before. Each kit includes adhesive pockets for the front of books, checkout cards, a date stamp and ink pad, and one of those tiny pencils you can only find at the golf course, or in a little basket beside a public library card catalog.

A Personal Library KitThe kit is advertised as a means of keeping track of books loaned to friends, but I think it’s actually intended to tug at the sentimental heartstrings of those of us of a certain age. In fact, the product description reads, “The Personal Library Kit revives the old-fashioned library techniques for book retention.”

Old-fashioned? I beg your pardon? How could it be old-fashioned, since those items existed when I was at school, which was only… well, never mind how long ago that was. But they were part of an experience that is imprinted on my brain, thanks to years of repetition: choosing my books for the week, handing them to the librarian and hearing the thumps as she pressed the date stamp first onto the ink pad, then onto the checkout card in a crisp, efficient motion.

I can also vividly recall the sound of the plastic sleeve crinkling as the librarian opened and closed each book’s front cover. I even remember the excitement of getting my first library card.  It was made of paper — not plastic — and had my signature on it, not a bar code.

As is my custom when I visit an independent bookstore I like, today I bought a paperback from Coastal Books (The Englishman’s Boy by Guy Vanderhaeghe), even though I own a Kindle. I do this in the hope that someday, when Haley and Sydney are grown, their children won’t ask them, “Mom, what’s a bookstore?”

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud technology and progress. I shed no tears for the obsolete telephone cord, whiteout correction fluid, or Betamax tapes.  I vastly prefer my laptop to my old Smith Corona, and I love the convenience and immediacy of ordering eBooks — but nothing beats meandering through the stacks in a library or bookstore, thumbing through the “staff picks” (which is how I chose today’s book), and walking away with something that invariably feels like a little gift for me, from myself.

So, what’s your typewriter, or bookstore?  Are there any vestiges of bygone days you have a soft spot for?

Fair Weather

The Great Geauga County Fair, September 2013.  Ohio's oldest continuous county fair.Today was my first full day back in the Buckeye State, where I grew up.  It was very hot, and humid.  I had forgotten that late summer days could feel like this.

Plaque for the Great Geauga Count Fair, oldest continuous county fair in Ohio.My parents and I went to the Great Geauga County Fair.  First held in 1823, it is Ohio’s oldest continuous county fair – uninterrupted during the Civil War, Spanish American War, two World Wars and the Great Depression – and is one of the oldest existing agricultural fairs in the nation.

"Beef:  It's what's for dinner."  Sign posted outside a livestock barn at the Great Geauga County Fair, Ohio's oldest continuous county fair.  September 2013.
Sign posted outside a livestock barn

Students who participate in 4-H and whose livestock compete in the Fair are always excused from school on the Friday before, and pretty much stay on site for the entire Labor Day weekend.  Aside from feeding the animals and cleaning out their stalls, they sleep in barns on top of hay bales, shower on site, and eat concession food for four days straight. Then they sell their animals, and proudly post the price-per-pound above their stalls.

I am not sure I could sell a cow I’d raised from a calf – they have those big brown eyes, and long eyelashes — knowing it would end up at the butcher shop.  Then again I didn’t grow up on a farm.  Those 4-H kids are incredibly dedicated.

After spending four hours with cows, I’m sticking with salad for dinner.

When I was young, my family always attended the Fair on Sunday after church, when we were guaranteed to bump into friends.  I haven’t been back to the fairgrounds in nearly 20 years, but even today we encountered several folks we knew.

The day was cut a little short by sudden, heavy rain, but I still managed to squeeze in deep-fried local Swiss cheese on a stick, roasted corn on the cob, and a funnel cake – more carbs than I probably consumed all summer.

Despite the precipitous sugar crash I experienced when we got home (nap!), I have no regrets!

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