Pancake Mix

One of the best films at the 2016 Il Cinema Ritrovato was ONLY YESTERDAY, directed by John M. Stahl. A mental note was made to see more of his stuff, but it must have gotten misfiled because here I am just getting round to it. Fiona immediately got very enthused about seeing Fredi Washington in action: such a fascinating figure.

IMITATION OF LIFE — the original. Very good, and interesting to compare with the Sirk. Our friend Nicky Smith remarked that the original is stronger because it makes it obvious that the white heroine is robbing her “friend” — Claudette Colbert mass-produces Louise Beavers’ family recipe for pancake flour, and gives her 20% of the profits. 20%? I wonder if 1934 audiences were able to convince themselves this was a fair deal.

Beavers, accustomed to playing maid/stooge to Mae West and others, here gets to play at least a version of a human being, though there are still jokes about her character being naive or “dumb,” and she arrives at the door with a portentous track-in on her beaming face which seems to be setting her up as some kind of Magic Negress, a miraculous Mary Poppins sent by Fate to help the white folks out. No needs of her own. But this is not precisely what happens.

Basically, the film parallels three plots — first, the rise and rise of Colbert’s business, which is a straightforward American Dream success story with no twists, reversals or developments of any kind except the irresistible rise of the Pancake Queen. Then there’s Colbert and her daughter both falling for the same man, starving lion Warren William. It’s a Story as old as Time: the love of a Pancake Queen and a debonair ichthyologist. And then there’s the relationship of Beavers with her own daughter, who grows up to be Fredi Washington, who decides to pass as white. As Sirk rightly said, this is the only aspect if Fannie Hurst’s source novel that actually gives you any drama capable of supporting a film.

We won’t deal with the pancake business anymore except to say that the business with Claudette opening her own pancake shop and then franchising reminded me very much of MILDRED PIERCE, which also has mother and daughter fancying the same man. The James M. Cain book and Michael Curtiz movie (enjoyed in its new restoration very much at Il Cinema Ritrovato THIS year) takes the romantic triangle MUCH further, and I wondered if there was a direct influence from Hurst’s 1933 novel onto Cain’s 1941 one. And the fact that Cain had a book (Serenade) adapted by Stahl (as WHEN TOMORROW COMES) in 1939 seems to me to make this likelier. Cain, a master of the technique he called the “love rack”may have sensed that Hurst was letting her triangle fizzle out by shying away from the more awful possibilities, and felt he could get a lot more value out of it…

The race theme is the heart of the picture, and thanks to Beavers and especially Washington, is moving and insightful, even though the story keeps having to contrive ways for dark-skinned mother to embarrass fair-skinned daughter. Both characters’ arguments with regards to accepting the hand dealt you, or using subterfuge to improve it, are compelling, and though the film obviously favours Louise, it doesn’t push its viewpoint too hard.

Beavers on the world’s largest pillow. I mean, that’s a seriously EDWARD SCISSORHANDS size pillow there.

Comparison with the Sirk: the idea of a remake was doubtless only embraced due to the salacious rumours circulating after the death of Lana Turner’s lover, gangster Johnny Stompanato (best gangster name ever? I mean, you don’t need to be called “Dutch” or “Bugsy” or Legs” or “Baby Face” if your surname is already Stompanato. Though J.S. did have a nickname, it wasn’t for himself, just his penis: he called it “the Oscar”). After Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Stompanato to death in the kitchen (or did Lana do it, really?) it was bandied about town that both Lana and Cheryl had been intimate with the Oscar.

(I’ve seen a short extract of Lana’s courtroom testimony. It’s a true Lana Turner performance: camo and artificial and soapy in the best way. The jury must have loved it. It suggests that either Lana is acting for her life, or that she’s sincere and so are all her weird, artificial performances. Strange.)

So producer Ross Hunter was hoping to titillate his audience by casting Lana in the remake. Her casting meant, for some reason, that the whole Pancake Queen thing had to go (and while we’re at it let’s have John Gavin NOT play an ichthyologist) which created some plausibility issues. In this version, widowed mother Lana becomes a star of stage and screen at 38. Hmm, could this be a roman a clef, closely based on the true life story of NO WOMAN EVER? Also, by cutting the pancake mix, Lana’s maid, Juanita Moore, isn’t trousering 20% of the profits from a flour empire, and so her colossal funeral at the end of the film doesn’t really make any naturalistic sense. I saw it with my late lamented friend Lawrie and he was in hysterics at the vast pomp of it all: “But she’s just a cleaning woman! A very good cleaning woman, but…” Not the intended reaction, and the original movie doesn’t have that problem (though it does have the unreal idea of Beavers having no interest in money — in my experience, most poor people would like to be rich).

(Getting distracted by petty realistic details is a vice. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to a friend, who wanted to know, while Bronson’s brother was being hanged from an arch in the desert, “Where’s the ladder?” A foolish question anyway, since it could easily be the other side of the camera.)

The bigger problem in the remake is arguably the casting of Susan Kohner, of Jewish/Mexican decent, playing Moore’s daughter, the Fredi Washington part. We are less convinced by the genetics, and we also KNOW that there was someone out there of the correct racial background who could have played the part just as well. And though Kohner had done a few movies and was probably being built up by Universal, it’s not like the public really knew who she was. It would have made no big difference to the box office if the part had been played by a real pale-skinned African-American actress. And even if you’re willing to forgive the compromise, a bit more effort is require in the way of suspension of disbelief.

In many ways, the commercial cinema of 1959 was less liberated than that of 1934 — discuss.

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19 Responses to “Pancake Mix”

  1. Lana’s daughter Cheryl Crane was (and is) a lesbian. As he notes in her memoir Lana-hubby Lex Barker raped her. She doesn’t say if Johnny Stomp tried. The notion that Lana killed him is pure melodramatic excess. She was a very tiny woman, incapable of doing anything other than throwing herself into sacred Font of Fire as she does in “The Prodigal.” Cheryl did it and the public’s inability to accept that fact has to do with not “knowing” her. Susan Kohner is excellent and the final scene is the most overwhelming in the entire history of the cinema.

  2. La Faustin Says:

    Two major divergences from the Hurst novel in both movies: (1) the love triangle with mother and daughter is resolved in the daughter’s favor. (The star rejected for a supporting player? We can’t have that.) The man in question is the mother’s new young assistant and I don’t believe he ever realizes his boss had any romantic interest in him. (2) Peola, passing, becomes engaged to a young white engineer who is going to move to South America for a long-term project. She tells him she can’t have children, HAS HERSELF STERILIZED to avoid further tragic mulattoes, marries him and disappears. No return for her mother’s funeral. So the book becomes a story of TWO women who sacrifice everything for their ungrateful daughters.

  3. La Faustin Says:

    Also fascinating — the attitude towards women with jobs. Claudette is a brave little woman battling the Depression. Lana is a selfish dreamer. In one of Dawn Powell’s later novels, she has an old screenwriter who adapts her old scripts for television by making the stay-at-home wife in every triangle the heroine instead of the villain.

  4. Wow! There’s a certain balance lacking in both movies and this goes some way to explaining it. I guess Peola would want to avoid having kids not just for eugenic reasons but to avoid the risk of BLOWING HER COVER.

    Are there any other films that centre on “passing” and have anything interesting to say about it? All I remember is a tiny subplot in The Cotton Club with the beautiful Lonette McKee.

  5. “Lost Boundaries”

  6. “It would have made no big difference to the box office if the part had been played by a real pale-skinned African-American actress.”…but even in the late 1950s, if the actress was already passing, what difference would it make to her career?

    Passing is a theme in Showboat, it’s the centre of the British film Sapphire and – of course – there’s the lamentable Pinkie. Going by what a family member who married a passer said, people nearly always knew about it anyway, whether it was mentioned or not. It was the family’s combined acceptance and challenge to anyone who questioned the passer’s identity that ensured their identity was accepted, not their “performance”.

  7. Of course, Showboat — which Fredi ought to have been cast in, for heaven’s sake. Both Sapphire and the Sirk Imitation seem to almost function not as arguments against passing but as dire warnings of the violent consequences!

    There were some actors who passed, that we know of. An interesting one is Boris Karloff, who never acknowledged his Anglo-Indian background, but did not eschew roles as Indian, Egyptian &c characters…

    What you say about family members is fascinating! A similar kind of “open secret” might exist with certain gay people who didn’t really disguise it but couldn’t quite declare it.

  8. Incredible shot.

  9. bensondonald Says:

    LITERARY SPOILERS

    Found myself thinking of related themes in a Sherlock Holmes story.

    In “The Yellow Face”, a client marries a recently widowed American, come to England to forget. He then suspects she’s having an affair. Holmes concludes the woman’s husband is alive and blackmailing her. Finally it’s revealed that she was happily married to a fine but now-deceased black lawyer, and was afraid to confess to her new husband she had a mixed-race daughter. The client, a good young fellow, promptly accepts his wife’s child as his own. Holmes, who got it totally wrong, asks Watson to whisper “Norbury” — the location of the case — any time the Great Detective gets too full of himself.

    So far as I know this story was never filmed, although the BBC included it in their comprehensive radio series. Don’t know if the racial angle was the problem — there’s a animated (!) “Study in Scarlet” that casually scrubs the Mormon angle entirely, making the American characters generic cowboy types. Maybe it was the matter of Holmes being flat-out wrong, and not even fooled by a cunning foe (the American tries to render her daughter inconspicuous with a yellow face mask).

    Some Sherlockians assert the genetics here wouldn’t yield such a dark-skinned child. Was Dr. Doyle ignorant of this, or just ignoring it, or leaving medically knowledgable readers to guess the mother herself was passing? Doyle was also off-base with “The Creeping Man”, which was predicated on quack male rejuvenation fads as being real (an old professor, preparing to marry a younger woman, acquires the strength and inclinations of a gorilla). There it’s argued that Doyle was willfully ignoring science in favor of a moral.

    “The Yellow Face” hints at enlightened attitudes — Holmes and Watson are pleased and impressed with the client’s embrace of wife and child. But a later story, “The Three Gables”, opens with a stereotypical negro boxer named Steve Dixie storming Baker Street to warn Holmes off a case. Holmes promptly bullies Dixie into being his legman for the case in question.

  10. La Faustin Says:

    “Negro boxer” reminds me of a fantastic and very cinematic Chesterton story, “The God of the Gongs”. Ever read it?

  11. I think so, on your recommendation!

    I never read The Yellow Face but recall being a little shocked by The Three Gables. I had assumed that the Jeremy Brett series filmed EVERYTHING, but apparently his tragic early death left 18 stories unshot.

    And speaking of death, RIP Tobe Hooper.

  12. bensondonald Says:

    I’ve got the complete Father Brown around here somewhere — Is it in there?

    Think the only non-Brown Chesterton I’ve read is “Man Who Was Thursday”. For the first several chapters I was wishing there was a movie somewhere. It was a fun cross of fable and James Bond, with its philosophy police and overly organized anarchists (who nonetheless respond to a potential representative promising to accomplish nothing). Then it falls into repeating the same joke a bit too often, and finally turns into a huge allegorical panto. It’s as if “The Prisoner” turned into “The Little Prince”.

  13. “A similar kind of “open secret” might exist with certain gay people who didn’t really disguise it but couldn’t quite declare it.”

    Who are you thinking of?

  14. Just hypthetical, really. But certainly British showbiz was full of obviously CAMP performers who were accepted by the public as long as they didn’t actually say they were gay. Nobody would say that Kenneth Williams was gay, since he didn’t say it in public himself. He could have sued them! Such performers could be much more open with their fellow actors.

    Straight people always have had an amazing ability to shut our eyes, and some of us clearly resent being asked to open them!

  15. There’s an overlap between campness, manneredness and being upper-class. George Sanders and Dennis Price are examples where the characters they played had an ambiguity to them. Saunders is particularly interesting – he had the build of an action hero – and played one as the Saint and the Falcon – and a voice and manner that suggested decadence and corruption. A different kind of passing, perhaps, but still passing.

  16. La Faustin Says:

    Speaking of passing, I forgot this case (and great post): http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/2010/03/merle-and-sarah-jane.html

  17. La Faustin Says:

    And by sheer coincidence, last night I watched THE DAY OF THE LOCUST (1979), where the female lead’s best friend, a cool, classy call girl, is played by Lelia Goldoni — who, in 1959, was the lead in Cassavetes’s SHADOWS.

  18. Sanders could suggest sexual ambiguity — but is there evidence this was part of his life, rather than just his performance style? interested.

    Yes, Merle is an important instance.

    By coincidence, Fiona is rewatching the Sirk Imitation right now.

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