Remakes & Reboots

Remake Rewind: Imitation of Life

Remakes have become a very hot topic recently. Everyone has an opinion about what shouldn’t be redone and why they hate remakes. We cannot forget that remakes are not new and some of our favorite films are not based on original ideas. I’d like to highlight some of the most popular remakes by looking at memorable quotes, scenes and the cultural impact of the films. The first rewind is Imitation of Life.

How Is It Different from the Original?

Imitation of Life is a 1933 bestselling novel by Fannie Hurst. Adaptations of the book were released in 1934 and again in 1959. The two films are very different with the remake being furthest from the source material. The original featured a black woman named Delilah along with her daughter, Peola, who moved in to work as a housekeeper for a white woman named Bea. Bea starts a pancake empire using Delilah’s likeness and recipe. In the remake, the pancake business is removed and character names are changed. African-American Annie and her daughter Sarah Jane move in with Lora and her daughter, Susie. Annie works as a housekeeper for free room and board. Both women are struggling financially until Lora hits it big on Broadway. As the years pass, Lora becomes a huge star and everyone’s lives change. 

The 1959 version shows a relationship between whites and blacks that had not been shown on screen before. By the end of the film, Lora and Annie are great friends. It made a difference for audiences to see a strong black woman carry herself with dignity and pride and whites not be threatened by her strength. This is different from the original where Delilah is so subservient that it feels like Bea is taking advantage of her.

Cultural Impact

According to Turner Classic Movies, “The studio’s unprecedented decision to release it simultaneously to both white and black theatres in the South” amplified the film’s success. The article highlights that this was so significant because “Hollywood didn’t release films to black theatres until they had played out in other markets.”

For her role as Annie Johnson, Juanita Moore tied with Dorothy Dandridge as the first black woman nominated for a Golden Globe. She was also the fifth black woman nominated for an Academy Award.

This film has been used in college courses for years as a study on the harsh realities of racism and classism. Annie asks Lora early on in the story, “How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?” Her mere existence means some people will hate her. Sarah Jane struggles with that especially as she grows up side by side with Susie, the blonde haired, blue eyed daughter of Lora who has it easy by comparison. 

Most Memorable Quote

“I’m sorry, Mama. Mama, I did love you… Miss Lora, I killed my mother.” 

This is the quote I always remember. It represents Sarah Jane’s realization that her mother only wanted the best for her. Everything Annie did was for Sarah Jane. Throughout the film, she denies her mother and rejects her race. It is a powerful moment because she finally claims her mother but it is too late. Sarah Jane can now live her life without Annie telling everyone that she is her daughter but she will have to do it filled with regret. The dialogue combined with the beautiful funeral featuring a horse-drawn carriage and streets filled with white and black people who loved and respected Annie makes this quote even more memorable.

Most Iconic Scene

Anyone who has seen Imitation of Life cannot forget the beating scene. When Sarah Jane sneaks out to meet up with boyfriend, Frankie, and he confronts her about rumors he’s been hearing. As trumpets blare in the background, Frankie asks Sarah Jane if what he heard is true. “All the kids talking behind my back! Is it true? Are you black?” When she denies it, he beats her and leaves her lying on the wet ground like the trash he believes she is. Sarah Jane thinks she has found happiness with Frankie until that night in the alley. She presumes that she can make a life with him and he will never know the truth. She’d rather live a lie than accept that she is a black woman and deal with the limitations that puts on her. It is a compelling look at segregation and the lengths that people would go to live a life without discrimination. Sarah Jane pretended she was white because she could but this scene shows that you can’t hide forever.

What I Would Change

While I love the script, the acting and the bravery of the cast and crew to make such a powerful statement about race in the 1950s. I would not have cast Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane. For such an important film, it seems like they took the easy way out by having a white woman play the character. I do understand that the character needed to look like she could pass but I’m sure there were multiracial or fair-skinned black women that auditioned for the role. Even in the 1934 version, a biracial actress played Peola. In today’s society we know the importance of accurately casting whether it be race, nationality or gender. Susan Kohner did an amazing job in the film, even earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress alongside her on-screen mother, Juanita Moore but looking back it would be nice to see a person of color playing that character.

So what did you think? What’s your favorite scene from Imitation of Life? What film should I feature on the next Remake Rewind? Let me know in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Remake Rewind: Imitation of Life

  1. I have never seen Imitation of Life in either of it;s incarnations. I will say that I would agree though, the casting should have been more authentic to the characters’ origins. I also find it interesting that they changed the story away from the Delilah and Bea story as I think that might have made for an even better movie plot point. I will definitely need to see them both ASAP!

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