Title: Gone With the Wind
Release Date: December 15, 1939
Director: Victor Fleming
Production Company: Selznick International Pictures | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
I’m not really sure what I can say about Gone With the Wind that hasn’t been said before. For good or for ill, this film is steeped in our culture. When I was a kid in the 70s & 80s, the annual broadcast of Gone With the Wind was a major event spread over multiple nights like a big new miniseries (and delightfully parodied on The Carol Burnett Show). My mom and sister loved watching the movie, but I avoided it until I was a teenager and found that it was actually better than I imagined.
Still, even if my great-grandfather hadn’t served in the Civil War defending his home state of Pennsylvania, I would find it hard to love a movie whose opening text declares the slaveholder aristocracy to be a great, lost civilization and their insurrection to be a noble cause. I decided that this movie really actually works as a satire of the South, since all the characters are universally awful in their narcissism, pettiness, duplicity, and greed. Well, except Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) who seems to have found a happy place divorced from reality.
I can’t deny that this is a technically brilliant and beautifully shot film that was innovative for its time and still holds up (although it says something about our nation that so many of the American film industry’s milestone films – from The Birth of a Nation to The Jazz Singer to Song of the South – are deeply racist). I also can’t deny that Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable are terrific in their roles. I quibble with the idea that the story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler really deserved the epic treatment and nearly four hours of run time, but it did hold my attention.
I guess I did have a few things to say about Gone With the Wind. I don’t think it really deserves the revered position it holds, but it is worth giving it a watch if you haven’t seen it yourself. I don’t think I’ll watch it again.
Title: Imitation of Life
Release Date: March 17, 1959
Director: Douglas Sirk
Production Company: Universal-International[
For a Hollywood movie from 1959, Imitation of Life is surprisingly open about dealing with real issues of race and gender, and unsurprisingly a bit awkward in how it handles those issues.* The story focuses on two women, one white and one Black, who develop a close relationship over a dozen years in New York City, as well their relationships with their respective daughters. When we first be Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), she’s an aspiring actor and single mother raising her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham) in a single mother. Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) is also a single mother who appears to be homeless at the start of the film, and offers to be Lora’s maid/cook in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker). Sarah Jane is light-skinned and can pass for white which makes her struggle with her identity.
Lora is a is a surprising-for-1959 confident and assertive woman who achieves her dream of acting on her terms. She stands up to the men in her life including the lecherous agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda) and paternalistic love interest Steve Archer (John Gavin). The second half of the film fast forwards a decade to a point where Lora is a prosperous Broadway star and living in a suburban mansion with Annie still working and living in her house with their now teenage daughters Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) and Susie (Sandra Dee).
There are a lot of plotlines going on in Imitation of Life, which I get, because life is messy, but it feels that the prioritization of stories is off-kilter. Whenever the movie spent too much time delving into Lora’s acting career or Susie’s crush on Steve, I lost interest. Of course, the most interesting storyline about Sarah Jane and her problems with racial identity is the one most poorly handled. I feel the direction of the film made her into a rebellious teen who breaks her mother’s heart when they could’ve gone with a more nuanced approach. **
Of course, Imitation of Life is an extremely melodramatic film, although I think that works to its advantage for the most part. I expected this movie to be a lot more cringy than it was and am overall impressed with the effort at dealing with issues of race and gender in a popular film of the 1950s.
* As surprising as it is that this movie was made in 1959, it is actually based on a book from 1933 and was originally made into a movie in 1934!
** Just an observation, it doesn’t appear that Susan Kohner had any African American heritage. The 1934 film actually did cast a light-skinned African American actor, Fredi Washington, in the role.