Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Lifeby Sam Staggs
In a passionate and witty behind-the-scenes expose, the author of All About "All About Eve" takes on the classic 1959 Douglas Sirk film starring Lana Turner
Few films inspire the devotion of Imitation of Life, one of the most popular films of the '50s--a split personality drama that's both an irresistible women's picture and a dark commentary on/i>/p>/i>
In a passionate and witty behind-the-scenes expose, the author of All About "All About Eve" takes on the classic 1959 Douglas Sirk film starring Lana Turner
Few films inspire the devotion of Imitation of Life, one of the most popular films of the '50s--a split personality drama that's both an irresistible women's picture and a dark commentary on ambition, motherhood, racial identity, and hope lost and found.
Born to be Hurt is the first in-depth account of director Sirk's masterpiece. Lana Turner, on the brink of personal and professional ruin starred as Lora Meredith. African-American actress Juanita Moore played her servant and dearest friend, and Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner their respective daughters, caught up in the heartbreak of the black-passing-for-white daughter in the 1950s. Both Moore and Kohner were Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress.
The author combines vast research, extensive interviews with surviving cast members, and superb storytelling into a masterpiece of film writing. Entertaining, saucy, and incisive, this is irresistible reading for every film fan.
Fifty years after its release, Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life endures, still raising thought-provoking questions about racial injustice, relationships, and gender through its heartrending depiction of two friends-one whose theatrical career overshadows her personal life and the other whose daughter renounces her heritage to pass for white. In this meticulously researched and finely written book, Staggs (When Blanche Met Brando) incisively delves into plot, characters, settings, cinematography, costumes, dialog, mise-en-scène, and musical motifs-at the same time referencing other films, including the original 1934 version. Details and perceptive commentary on the careers, lives, and artistic approaches of the major players-Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, Susan Kohner, Sandra Dee, John Gavin, and Troy Donahue-are deftly interwoven along with the controlling vision of director and input from producer Ross Hunter. Staggs also turns the spotlight on the smaller roles and technical and creative staff. This book is no mere recitation of details and behind-the-scenes anecdotes but rather a comprehensive analysis of the people, concepts, cinematic components, and social issues of a classic film. Essential for film scholars and enthusiasts.
Carol J. Binkowski
“Sam Staggs is one of our liveliest and most likable pop-culture historians. His chronicle of ‘Imitation of Life’, one of the iconic movies of the late 1950s, is beautifully researched and told in his own singular, engaging voice. Thanks to this book, I finally understand the peculiar hold that this movie has had on me for all these years.” Brian Kellow, author of Ethel Merman: A Life and The Bennetts: An Acting Family
“[A]nother beguiling celebration of Old Hollywood for Staggs…Staggs's luxuriously digressive account ranges far beyond the featured attraction…he shows readers how compelling Hollywood's imitation of life can be.”—Publishers Weekly
"Scrupulously scholarly, yet always droll."Huffington Post
"There's something compelling about this approach to film history."Los Angeles Times
"A passionate and witty behind-the-scenes expose."Turner Classic Movies, www.tcm.com
“A bona fide film archaeologist.”—Chicago Tribune
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Born to be Hurt
The Untold Story of Imitation of Life
By Sam Staggs
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Sam Staggs
All rights reserved.
A SMALL GIANT
On July 19, 1956, just over two years before Sirk's cast assembled at Universal to begin filming, an item appeared in The Hollywood Reporter: "Ross Hunter Gets Imitation of Life for Musical Film." The piece stated, "Following lengthy negotiations with novelist Fannie Hurst, U-I producer Ross Hunter has tied up the rights for a musical version of the author's highly successful book, Imitation of Life, which was filmed by Universal back in 1934. Shirley Booth will play the role originated by Claudette Colbert, while Ethel Waters is set for the Louise Beavers role. Rehearsals are slated for early 1958."
Shirley Booth, unlike Ethel Waters, seems a bizarre casting choice until you fill in the blanks. Although Ross Hunter preferred glamorous actresses with box-office pull for his films, he often used the other kind — aging ladies, some recently redundant in Hollywood, whom he could hire on the cheap. Hunter was known for making inexpensive pictures look costly, and one ingredient in his formula was big names from the day before yesterday. He had recently used Jane Wyman twice, in Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955). He had also employed Ann Sheridan and Joan Bennett, neither of whom was besieged by other offers at the time.
Universal had found its perfect producer in Ross Hunter. By tradition a cut-rate studio, its star roster often shone with hand-me-down actors from MGM, Paramount, and the other majors. Yet Universal wished to sparkle in spite of its financial rolling blackouts, and Hunter could power a hundred-watt bulb from a firefly's back end.
Shirley Booth, who won an Oscar in 1952 for Come Back, Little Sheba, seems a bad fit for Imitation of Life if you think of her playing the glittery Lana Turner role. But that isn't what Ross Hunter had in mind. In 1956, he seems to have wanted an earthy heroine to contrast with Claudette Colbert's slick unreality in the original film from 1934.
There is some confusion as to whether he intended the property for Broadway or the screen. Oddly, in a letter to Hurst dated August 3, 1956, a couple of weeks after the Hollywood Reporter item, Hunter referred to an announcement of the "musical stage version," which he claimed "came as a complete surprise to me — naturally I would love to do it — and I have discussed the project with Shirley Booth ... I have such good ideas for a stage version — but must wait for the right time." Although scant documentation remains to trace the evolution of Hunter's plan, it's likely that he intended to retain the plot and characters of Fannie Hurst's soggy 1933 novel in his musical version of it.
In the same letter, he refers to a recent luncheon with Hurst in New York, at which they presumably discussed a musical version of her novel and perhaps a subsequent film remake. He ends the letter by telling her, "I hope that we will — some day — be able to do a stage version of your wonderful book — in fact, I've already discussed its possibilities in the not too distant future with my agents, the William Morris Agency."
In Fannie Hurst's novel, the two main female characters are Bea Pullman, a widowed housewife who eventually makes a fortune through her nationwide chain of waffle restaurants, and Delilah, the black woman who supplies the secret recipe. Each woman has a daughter, and both girls bring their mothers grief. The white girl falls in love with her mother's lover, while the black girl denies her race by passing for white. John M. Stahl's 1934 film version adhered to the novel, which explains why his picture moves with a limp.
In due course, we will revisit Fannie Hurst, John M. Stahl, Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, and other parties of the first part. Meanwhile, however, let's assume that Ross Hunter realized the necessity of making significant changes in the remake of a picture over two decades old. His first impulse was to make it sing.
Extrapolating from two graceless musicals that Hunter later produced, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and Lost Horizon (1973), one can imagine his original concept for the Imitation of Life remake: Let 'em warble about waffle batter and the loneliness of successful women without men. Throw in a new spiritual about Negroes, white folks, and a non-denominational God for Ethel Waters, give Shirley Booth a wistful ballad and later a knee-slapping "We're-Rolling-in-Dough-and-I-Don't-Mean-Waffles" number, bring back Ethel for some torchy jazz, and hand over the package to a journeyman director.
By the time Fannie Hurst's novel was finally turned into a musical, Ross Hunter had retired. It's unlikely that he saw the show, for it ran only a few weeks at the Norma Terris Theatre in Connecticut, in the summer of 1985. Nor was it recorded. Recently, I visited the composer, Howard Marren, in New York. At my urging, he sat down at the piano and played and sang half-a-dozen songs from the show. When I told him of Ross Hunter's original plans, he said, "In our version, Shirley Booth would have been a good choice."
Joe Masteroff, best known as writer of the book for Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, wrote book and lyrics for Georgia Avenue. (The title refers to Bea Pullman's address in Atlantic City before she becomes the waffle queen.) Masteroff said, "I thought it was a beautiful name for a musical." Having seen the 1934 film, he always preferred it to Sirk's remake. Although rights to the material were obtained from the estate of Fannie Hurst and not from Universal, Georgia Avenue is considerably simplified, like the original movie.
Marren's other musicals include Portrait of Jennie and Paramour, based on Anouilh's play The Waltz of the Toreadors. He describes Georgia Avenue as "though composed and largely sung through, more in the lyric theatre vein than a Tin Pan Alley show."
Based on my slight acquaintance with the show — Howard Marren at the piano, and the tape I made of his impromptu samples — I would place it musically somewhere between early Sondheim and the verismo of Jason Robert Brown's Parade, which ran on Broadway in 1998–99. "There are no take-home tunes," noted Variety's theatre critic. Other reviewers mentioned members of the audience in tears at the show's funeral finale, "Take Her, Lord."
Was Sirk a contender from the start? Possibly, since he and Ross Hunter had already made half-a-dozen pictures together. Then, too, Sirk was not unfamiliar with musicals, having directed Hunter's small production of Take Me to Town in 1953 and, before that, several musical romances in Germany in the 1930s. Hunter no doubt sensed that Sirk would both lighten such material and also give it heft and balance. In line with the story, Shirley Booth, a Hollywood plain Jane, looks the part of a hausfrau who stumbles on a million-dollar recipe. Though not a great singer, she could carry a tune. Indeed, she had done so in several Broadway musicals, including A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1951 and By the Beautiful Sea in 1954.
By 1956, when The Hollywood Reporter announced a set-to-music Imitation of Life, Ross Hunter had so many films in production or on the boards that he lacked time enough to think them all through. In January and February of 1955, he and Sirk had made All That Heaven Allows, a hit when released later that year. Immediately following that, the two filmed There's Always Tomorrow with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Joan Bennett. Sirk then directed Written on the Wind with Al Zugsmith rather than Ross Hunter as producer, though Hunter and Sirk reunited for Battle Hymn (filmed March to May of 1956, released March of 1957) with Rock Hudson and Martha Hyer. Ross next produced Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), starring Debbie Reynolds and directed by Joseph Pevney. Then Hunter, Sirk, June Allyson, Rossano Brazzi, Jane Wyatt, and the rest of the cast and crew flew to Europe to film Interlude in Germany and Austria.
By this point, the careers of Hunter and Sirk resemble a square dance, as Ross sashays right to produce My Man Godfrey (1957) with David Niven and June Allyson, directed by Henry Koster, while Sirk promenades left with The Tarnished Angels (1957) and his erstwhile producer Al Zugsmith. Do-si-do, and Ross changes partners twice for his next three movies: Blake Edwards directs This Happy Feeling (1958), Helmut Käutner The Restless Years (1958) and A Stranger in My Arms (1959).
Circle again, allemande right, and Sirk directs his penultimate Hollywood film, A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), produced by Robert Arthur and starring John Gavin, who will work once more with Sirk, and with Hunter again and again. Then, in a great and spectacular finale that ends their dance, Ross Hunter produces, and Sirk directs, Imitation of Life.
Ross Hunter left behind no archive. After his death, in 1996, and the death of his partner, Jacque [sic] Mapes, in 2002, their personal and professional papers and other possessions were scattered. This loss reverberates throughout film history of the last sixty years, for Hunter worked with half of Hollywood. He was a small giant. (I intend that term as a compliment, contrasting him with so many presumed giants who turn out, in reality, to stand knee-high to a pygmy.)
Because the record is so sketchy, it's impossible to ascertain the complete genesis of Imitation of Life, including how long and how seriously Hunter considered yoking Shirley Booth and Ethel Waters. Nor is it easy to establish a chronology, although it seems that after Hunter acquired rights to the novel in 1956, he laid the project aside until spring of 1958, when Lana Turner materialized for the lead. By that time, also, he had the new script in hand, which transformed Hurst's waffle queen, Bea Pullman, into Broadway star Lora Meredith. (In the 1934 film, Bea's famous waffles were flattened into pancakes.)
On paper, at least, Ethel Waters makes sense as the black woman. A few years earlier, in Pinky (1949), she played humble and pious Aunt Dicey. It's unclear why Waters was replaced. Hunter's next candidate, however, would have attacked the part with a brassy clang. In an oral history recorded in 1984, Hunter said, "We wanted Pearl Bailey for the role, but Pearl was going to do Porgy and Bess for Sam Goldwyn. He would not let her go."
Then Hunter had two new ideas, each one a bit odd. After pondering Marian Anderson for the role of Annie Johnson, he picked Mahalia Jackson, who commanded the devotion of millions for her gospel singing. (He also thought fleetingly of Anderson as the soloist in the funeral sequence.) Mahalia had never acted, nor did she have any interest in taking it up. Ross Hunter persuaded her at least to listen to his pitch, and she auditioned for the role. We don't know how that audition came off, but according to Juanita Moore, a friend of Mahalia's, it was the singer herself who declined. "Child," she said to Ross Hunter, shaking her great head, "I'm a singer, not an actress. But let me tell you somebody who is. Honey, I want you to go call her up right now. My friend Juanita Moore."
The process may or may not have played out so directly. According to a studio press release in 1958, "After interviewing several hundred aspirants, producer Hunter and director Sirk settled on Juanita Moore." Were there really hundreds of suitable African-American actresses in Hollywood at that time? I recently put the question to actor Robert Hooks, who arrived in town from the New York stage not long after. He said, "For that particular role, Juanita Moore's role in Imitation of Life, I doubt it. But there were a lot of African-American actors in Hollywood, most of them out of work. So I could understand that for certain roles there might be a call for a hundred fifty to two hundred actors."
Whether or not that many actually read for the part, the studio's statement suggests unease about the role and about the picture. A "safe" actress was essential, someone palatable to the conservative — and, yes, racist — American public. Such corporate nervousness was not misplaced in 1958. Here was a picture trying to "pass" as a Lana Turner vehicle, replete with fashions and jewels and shiny interior decor, but which, in reality, addressed one of that era's hot-button topics: race. No one at Universal failed to grasp the implications of a story about discrimination, passing, and that oblique glance at interracial love, however camouflaged.
In the oral history cited above, Ross Hunter recalls how he met Juanita Moore. "I found Juanita sitting on a bench, and I went up to her and said, 'Are you an actress?' And she said, 'Well, I am an actress, but you know there are not that many parts for black people.' And I said, 'Well, I'm Ross Hunter.' And she said, 'Oh, sure you are.' She didn't believe me. I said, 'Would you come to my office tomorrow at eleven to test for a movie? There's something about your face that was like a magnet. I've been watching you sitting here waiting for the bus.'"
What a pretty story! Why, it almost resembles a meet-cute scene from a Ross Hunter picture. And not at all true, according to Juanita Moore. "No!" she chortled. "I wasn't waiting for a bus. After Mahalia turned down the part, Joel Fluellen took me to see Ross Hunter." Fluellen, who plays Annie Johnson's minister near the end of Imitation of Life, was a close friend of Juanita's and a veteran in the struggle for nonsterotypical African-American visibility in films. "Joel prepared me for my audition and my screen test. He made me up, fixed my hair, he did everything for me," she declared. (More on Joel Fluellen later. For now, however, the focus is Juanita Moore, who, along with Susan Kohner, turned Imitation of Life into a masterpiece.)
If Hunter had indeed spotted Juanita waiting for a bus, surely Universal's publicity department would have pumped up the story for a press release. How nicely it would have rhymed with Lana Turner's "discovery" at Schwab's. But they didn't. It is true, however, that once Hunter spoke with Juanita Moore, he would consider no one else to play Annie Johnson. According to Juanita, when she tested for the role, she lacked the necessary Southern accent and mannerisms that the studio bosses wanted and that Mahalia Jackson had (Juanita was born in Mississippi but moved with her family to Los Angeles soon after). Mahalia also had name recognition, especially among black audiences. So did Pearl Bailey. Juanita didn't, but Ross Hunter stuck by her until he overcame studio misgivings. He also put her in the hot seat. "Juanita," he said, "I'm going to stick my neck out for you. If you're no good, I'm finished at Universal."CHAPTER 2
THE GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT
The studio lavished more on Lana Turner's wardrobe ($23,645) than it paid Juanita Moore in salary ($5,550) for Imitation of Life. After all, Juanita was playing the role that blacks had always been hired for in Hollywood pictures. If someone had asked her at the time how she felt about the stereotypical part, she might well have echoed Hattie McDaniel's practical comment on her career: "I'd rather play a maid than be one."
But fortune sometimes boomerangs in the picture business, and Juanita Moore won an Oscar nomination for the role of Annie Johnson, that good and faithful servant.* Her luck didn't hold, however, and so for the next forty years she played again and again the same role she had played from the start: This great actress was cast as the maid.
Ultimately, though, she claimed a huge surplus victory, for today, among legions who have watched Imitation of Life and wept, Juanita Moore ranks as a celluloid saint. And a martyr of sorts, not only because of Hollywood's long neglect and humiliation, but more strikingly because, in the film, her daughter commits an unpardonable sin: She renounces and reviles her mother. Desperate to pass for white, the daughter voices her mother's death sentence: "If, by accident, we should ever pass on the street, please don't recognize me." Imitation of Life made Juanita Moore a star, although a funny kind of star after all. A half century later, everyone remembers the tears they shed for her as she suffered and died. Yet many recall no more than that, making her a household emotion, though not a household name.
A terrible racist stereotype, common at the time Imitation of Life was filmed, depicted black maids as pilferers from their employers. The irony here is both devastating and hilarious: This time, the maid stole the picture. And how could she not, since Douglas Sirk made a career of turning out some of the most subtly ironic films ever shot in Hollywood. Of his irony-laced movies, Imitation of Life is the most heavily saturated, like a beautiful sugary cake that, underneath the icing, smacks of bitter herbs.
Excerpted from Born to be Hurt by Sam Staggs. Copyright © 2009 Sam Staggs. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
SAM STAGGS is the author of four books, including three previous biographies of movies: All About All About Eve, Close-Up On Sunset Boulevard, and When Blanche Met Brando. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
SAM STAGGS is the author of five books, including four biographies of movies: All About All About Eve, Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard, When Blanche Met Brando, and Born to be Hurt. He has written for publications including Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
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