Archive for Imitation of Life

Pancake Mix

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2017 by dcairns

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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Abby Normal (A Woman Under the Influence)

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2012 by dcairns

ABBY should of course have been called THE BLAXORCIST, but the difference between this and William “King Dick” Marshall’s other horror franchise is that BLACULA derives from a 19th century novel, safely out of copyright (with only the cape borrowed from Bela Lugosi) whereas ABBY derives from a major Warners release. Warners sued and ABBY was taken out of cinemas — though DVDs now circulate, they’re derived from a badly “pinked” 16mm print — nobody knows where the original negative and release prints may be…

William Girdler, writer-director, also made the ridiculous but fun THE MANITOU, memorable for Tony Curtis’s voluminous man-boobs pressing through his see-through shirt. ABBY offers no comparably disturbing images, but does share the fascination with tribal religions. Blatty’s EXORCIST cheekily suggests that Mesopotamian deity Pazuzu is moonlighting as a biblical demon, implying that perhaps ALL the gods and prophets of mankind’s faiths are really just demons in a Catholic universe (Buddha’s not laughing with you, he’s laughing AT you), ABBY centres on Eshu, a god from the Yoruba religion who is allowed his own phenomenological reality. And although the mischievous (to put it mildly) Eshu is ultimately vanquished by a priest, he’s not exorcised by the Catholic ceremony designed for that purpose, but by methods appropriate to the Yoruba religion. So in that sense, ABBY is less conservative than the bigger film.

Girdler tends to exaggerate the effects of the Friedkin film, though, so he has more “subliminal” flashes of weird faces (Dick Smith make-up tests in the original film, exaggerated versions of Carol Speed’s make-up in this one), while paring away ambiguities — the “Why Iraq?” stuff in the first film is replaced by more or less clearly motivated Nigerian scenes in this one. He also makes his victim of possession an adult, which removes some problems (could you legally make Friedkin’s film today?) and creates others.

Subliminal image alert!

On the one hand, having a preacher’s wife possessed by a sex demon could open avenues for grotesque satire (Milo Manara’s porno comic Click! filmed by Jean-Louis Richard [who married Jeanne Moreau, who also married… William Friedkin] gestures vaguely in that direction, with its free hand), but the film is very respectful towards religion, so sex has to be viewed as a horror. Eruptions of untamed libido must be stopped. Admittedly, Speed’s aggressive lust when she’s under Eshu’s influence, she’s pretty unladylike. But the conservatism that’s so unexpectedly prominent in the supernatural blaxploitation genre comes to the fore here.

But so does something else. Friedkin’s cleverest move was perhaps his casting of Mercedes McCambridge as the Voice — years of cigarettes and whisky and being Mercedes McCambridge had given her a throaty, rasping, gargly sound with only a trace of the female. Girdler simply gets a man to do it, and so Abby becomes a hairy-browed sexual predator with a man’s voice. Why do all William Marshall movies end up in a homoerotic Hades of pushmepullyou conflicted response?

ABBY has very committed performances from its ensemble, though Juanita Moore (not only of IMITATION OF LIFE, but Marshall’s co-star in LYDIA BAILEY) doesn’t get enough to do. Her one big moment is an outraged frenzy that anybody should suggest that her vicious nymphomaniac daughter might benefit from the attentions of a psychiatrist. Apparently she’s “good” and “God-fearing” and so she couldn’t possibly be mentally ill. That’s a pretty interesting (ie wrongheaded and dangerous) line of thought, though the movie is perhaps using it simply to avoid a bunch of boring analyst scenes. Instead we get colossal steel slabs of Chrysler maneuvering around Louisville at night.

Marshall is somewhat constrained by playing a man of the cloth, but his wry humour does come out, especially during the climax when he taunts Eshu, using some of his old Blacula condescension — I wasn’t sure whether he’s saying the demon is NOT Eshu in order to annoy it, or because he’s genuinely figured that out. But apparently this is stuff that Marshall added to the script himself, and it’s the best writing in the movie.

The whole climax takes place, in a departure from the source material, in a ghastly orange nightclub, made even more oppressive by the pinkness of the print. This is what the seventies WAS, people. We had brown and orange and that was it. The rest of the spectrum was embargoed until Prince came along. This colourless, windowless, airless, low-ceilinged lounge space is unquestionably the most frightening element of ABBY, and it’s worth watching to get there. Interestingly, since THE HUNGER, vampires have been associated with nightclubs — usually crap movie ones that are years out of date. They’re never frightening, even though a night club is my real-life idea of Hell. But ABBY’s tangerine leisure spaceship is genuinely a horrible, horrible place, where you can feel your soles sticking to the carpet from all the spilled drinks. Don’t watch alone.

Hot Voodoo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 22, 2012 by dcairns

Now, if that title isn’t an open invitation for David Ehrenstein to post a clip from BLONDE VENUS in the comments section, I don’t know what is.

The scene is the West Indies. OUANGA, or THE LOVE WANGA is a 1936 “race film” — a lot more sophisticated, filmically and philosophically, than SON OF INGAGI. My ex-VHS copy of it is so bad it’s hard to tell how good some scenes may be, lost as they are amid hissing murk, but some moments are very good indeed. Long stretches obviously aren’t, though.

The main attraction is the remarkable Fredi Washington, star of the original IMITATION OF LIFE, which is less progressive than the Sirk in many ways, but they did cast a genuine light-skinned black woman, not a Mexican/Jewish girl. Washington was so pale-skinned she would sometimes be “blacked up” for the cameras, but she declined to “pass” and play white roles, thereby limiting her career but preserving her integrity.

She’s alluring and domineering as mixed-race plantation owner Klili Gordon, ex-lover of a white guy from the neighbouring plant. When he ditches her for an insipid blonde, Klili turns to voodoo for vengeance, casting hexes and raising a couple of zombie abductors, whom she commands with a whip. (The idea of zombies as the next stage down the racial-social ladder, the slave class of the slave class, is intriguing.)

On the one hand, this is a horror film about miscegenation in which miscegenation IS the horror. One the other hand, the story is structured so that Klili knows more about what’s going on than anyone else — she becomes the audience’s eyes and ears and therefore our substitute. It’s impossible not to root for her evil schemes to succeed, especially as nobody else in the film is particularly intelligent, attractive or interesting. The closest is the (supposedly) mixed-race guy who loves Klili and sets out to thwart her plans…

This is the only talkie made by George Terwilliger, whose career began in 1912, and seems to include some other racially-themed tales. He hadn’t directed in ten years, gets pretty bad work out of his actors, but delivers consistently interesting visuals. (Washington is very watchable, but in IMITATION OF LIFE you see how good and honest she can be, compared to her hoaky melodrama here. Still, she’s the bright spot.) Melting mists of multi-layered lap dissolves, expressionistic floor-level lighting, striking graphic compositions, and yet the dialogue scenes  are left to lie where they’ve fallen.

I guess Terwilliger packed it all in to pursue his dream of building a very long piano.

Some striking shots — acres of darkness, with night scenes apparently played against black cloth — comedy relief negritude that’s slightly less disturbing than usual, but only slightly — at it’s best, though, this evokes the stilted, oneiric crackle of WHITE ZOMBIE. We just need a better copy of it to be sure.