ROAD TO PERDITION (2002)

Solid work can be timeless in its reach even be  out of  time.  I admit to getting that feeling that someone could be today when I look at a picture of Louise Brooks who is modern in her style, look and  facial expression especially those  eyes.  Strange  when you see a portrait of Brooks that reaches across time. I like to speculate on what film of today could have been made during  Golden Age of Hollywood.  Tough to believe that this picture was done in 2002 and is sixteen years old yet  Sam Mendes ROAD TO PERDITION could have been made in the past

ROAD TO PERDITION was based upon a graphic novel by crime writer Max Allan Collins which had a version written by David Self at the request of Steven Spielberg.  The  screenplay was then re written by uncredited people to distance itself from  the gratuitous carnage that was in the original source material.  Actor Tom Hanks and  Cinematographer  Conrad Hall requested Mendes limit the violence to necessary acts.  One of the  strengths of this picture is that a good amount of bloodletting occurs off screen which does not take away from the heart of the story.

Tom Hanks playing against type gives a wonderful mixture of cold hearted family man and an enforcer on a rollercoaster ride towards a fate that happens to people when they do the kinds of things that he has done.

The picture has many great scenes between Hanks and Newman one being their relationship set to music with no dialogue.   These two act with their faces, their eyes and let the melody tell the story.

Paul Newman also muses that sons are put on earth to torment their fathers.   One other has a young Daniel Craig getting his comeuppance at a meeting table from Paul Newman who is at the far end.  Newman is seated through the scene; he and Craig play it as a ‘give and take” exercise giving them both moments to shine.  Newman shows an actor brilliantly in touch with his craft and himself to give so much in those moments. James Cagney in John Ford’s 1955 production of MISTER ROBERTS is similar in stance and attack during his rant concerning not taking anything anymore from ‘college boys.’

The picture is filled with characters played by actors who are unafraid to make difficult choices. Jude Law as crusty Harlan Maguire wielding a shotgun, blowing holes in walls in hotel rooms that let sunshine in while trying to dispatch Tom Hanks.   Moody Jennifer Jason Leigh as the wife of Tom Hanks that pays a price for her involvement.

 

The musical score by Thomas Newman is exceptional in this scope and tenderness. Unlike most films set in this time period Newman does not use re- orchestrated songs of the day or obscure pieces instead he uses flowing tones creating soundscapes that images themselves flow over and around.  The music fades out at just the right moment in the climactic scene to let the rain patter down.

 

 

The cinematography by Conrad Hall who passed away during the making of the picture did win the Oscar that year. The film is filled with rain, mist, contrasting bright sunlight, shadows, rich wood tones and an almost sepia tone look.

Sam Mendes creates for us a sad story of a family doomed to consume itself because of its past. Yet it also juxtaposes the entire end on one family unit in a poignant ending.   Seldom today does a picture come together on all areas of story and look: this work still does and is a mere eleven years old.  It truly is a throwback to the great Noir films of the past. Yet it stands on its own with a modern look at themes of family devotion and father and son relationships.

Water images begin and  end the picture either in the cleansing or hiding rain creating shadows. The  desire and  redemption of going to the beach as the  goal at the end of the  film that is not the same because this is Noir and  ‘None of us will ever see  Heaven.”

ROAD TO PERDITION has a break outlook on the world based on its visual content.  The music, the relationships  between family and father  and  son are a corner stone of this  film.   The work stands the test of time yet hard to believe that Tyler Hoechlin who plays Tom Hanks son in the picture can now be seen as  “Superman’ on the  current SUPER GIRL television series.  Paul Newman has passed from us with this being his last on screen appearance.

ROAD TO PERDITION  has that acid tinged look is one of the staples and drawing points of Film Noir itself so it passes with flying gray colors.  The last word goes to Paul Newman from the picture: “I am glad it’s you.”

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THE CHRISTMAS TREE (1969)

 

Holidays are times that people love to watch the staple films of the season.  Every generation has their favorites they put on and quite frankly watch without thinking. The films can become like the poinsettia plant that someone brings you each year for no apparent reason other than they to  do the act.

THE CHRISTMAS TREE (1969) is a completely different kind of darker holiday fare. Made in France and directed by Terrance Young with William Holden and Virna Lisi in the cast.  A widowed single father of a boy named Pascal, who are involved in tragic event off the coast of Corse.  An aircraft falls into the sea contaminating the water with nuclear radiation.  Nothing is thought of it until blue marks appear on Pascal and the fateful diagnosis of a terminal illness is delivered.  There is nothing for the family to do but to make Pascal comfortable for the next six months.

This picture  certainly a  role change for  William Holden who had just finished the totally different Sam Peckinpah’s  THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and one of my favorite if not slightly skewered war pictures  THE DEVILS BRIGADE (1968).  Holden does show range as he was beginning to grow in ‘Older” roles such as when he was   ‘Bumper Morgan”  in the seldom seen Television film THE BLUE  KNIGHT.

How does this fit into holiday times?  I believe because it is a something real that people face even at holiday times. THE CHRISTMAS TREE handles this very delicate and grim subject matter with grace.  The moments showing Pascal laughing, playing,  going on holidays and Holden and Lisi’s characters try to make the best of a  tragic situation are wonderful. It is unfortunate that people receive this diagnoses in some shape or form even day of the year.  Never once in the film does Director Terrance Young stoop to the fog shrouded, John William’s music, back lit style of Steven Spielberg sentiment.

Brook Fuller as the young stricken son Pascal has a precocious manner to him through the picture. Not deliberately set by the film maker or the  writer making him the equivalent of the “adorable, cute animal” introduced  in one scene only to be killed in the next scene .

There are many memorable sequences in the film, such as Pascal staring into the eyes of a wolf. Bonding with the animals as he knows he is different because of what he has inside. The disease makes you different from the others in spite of outward appearance:  yet animals know.  The bond that happens with outsiders becomes more apparent in the ‘angry horse’ moment as the wolves race to the boy’s rescue.

(Video Spoiler warning)

 

You can do everything for your children when something like this happens but protect them from what is happening inside them. Holden and Lisi are subtle and brilliant in showing the futility of this yet the exclude a warmth that we know will change as the disease takes its terrible course.

THE CHRISTMAS TREE (1969) is a hard film to find as it was made in France  with limited release.  However if you get a chance to see it you will fine top acting, interesting  story very well handled and well done production values

THE CHRISTMAS TREE (1969) is not a sentimental film. The picture shows a different side of a holiday that perhaps somewhere people are going through or someone they know is going through a personal event.  My Father once  said  that ‘Everyone has a story”.  That person giving you that poinsettia plant  or smile is having troubles and it is their wish to try to bring happiness so one should smile back and thank them.  That despite all the other gifts the most important for everyone is that of good health.

 

CENTRAL AIRPORT (1933)

The thirties saw the beginnings of country wide air travel for the chosen few who could afford it including stops for refueling was happening. The romance of air travel, airmail and travel in general with grand hotels built by railway and steamship companies with literally in the air for those that could. Hollywood did their bit with Aircraft pictures of the thirties such as THE DAWN PATROL (1930), HELL’S ANGELS (1930) and a personal favorite and early John Ford 1932 picture AIR MAIL . Enter Richard Barthhelmess and Sally Eilers in CENTRAL AIRPORT from First National.

William Wellman takes the “control stick’ in this photoplay of stunt pilots, love, rivalry and daredevil flying with customary skill and dash. The early 1930’s and you have the skies filled with the stunt planes at carnivals and air shows. Aviator Jim Blaine (Richard Barthelmess) and his younger brother Neil (Tom Brown) rival for the love of lady parachutist Jill Collins (Sally Eilers). Jim Blaine is a disgraced commercial pilot as he is blamed for the crack up while on a flight during a storm that he failed to heed warnings.

The story clips along nicely as Wellman opens up with a strongly staged storm sequence in Amarillo which he concentrates on the storms effect on its airport manager. The sequence is well shot showing the thunder and rain coupled with the worried yet calm expressions, reports of missing flights flash by all giving the scene a look of dire consequence.

The storm clears and we see a lone plane searching is when we first see Jim Blaine’s body around which is strewn wreckage. Blaine wakes up to see the plane yet is to weak to move. He summons his strength in wonderfully over dramatic track shot that follows his desperate crawl over to get a mirror to reflect the sun which he succeeds in doing.

We next see Blaine in the hospital reading a newspaper where he learns his fate of being blamed for not heeding a warning.Out of work as a flyer Blaine returns home by train to his father and mother played Grant Mitchell and Claire McDowell.

In the Blaine home is his younger, sweatered brother Neil (Tom Brown) who now has a job flying and idolizes his older brother. Blaine Sr gets Jim at Bank where he works but of course he craves the excitement. Driving home Jim hears plane and stops to watch it only to find a parachutist hanging from a tree who happens to be Jill Collins (Sally Eilers).

Wonderful interplay between Eilers and Barthelmess in their moments with Sally hanging in a rather form fitting breeches and shirt. Lots of playful if not inuendo goes on between the two including a rather suggestive flip to get out of the tree involving the locking of legs around Barthelmess’s neck. The moment ends with both Sally and Jim friends and a very nice warm laugh from Jim that I never knew Barthelmess had.

Their relationship blossoms to seemingly covert stays in adjoining rooms. Jim and Sally loudly say their different room numbers and collect their keys to go up in the elevator together all wonderfully deadpaned by the hotel desk clerk who knows the real score. This was precode fun as you see Jim open the door of Sally room and slip into her embrace as the door closes fast. Even included is a risque morning shot with Jim Blaine reaching in his bed for Sally only to find her gone.

Years go by and Neil Blaine is a man now complete with very nice suit, proper hat and a pencil mustache like Errol Flynn. He meets Jim in hotel restaurant one morning when he sees Sally for the first time and the sparks fly. Wellman does another strong moment here as Neil and Sally indulge in some farce like rapid movement as he tries to get close to here only to get stopped by the closing the Woman’s washroom door. The rivalry grows between the brothers as does the flying dangers all staged with great thunder and rain. Mistaken motives, Love lost and love found, the loss of an eye all make for a story against the back drop of the flying thirties.

Sally Eilers is wonderful in this as she does her best with tough scenes shot in the rain trying to look not soaked and still smiling.

Eilers never made it as a big star yet she was always solid is supporting roles. CENTRAL AIRPORT put her in the spotlight as a ‘good girl” which she does well. She add some color and energy to Barthelmess who tends to be one dimensional sometimes relying on his ‘Silent film” brooding. This is evident when Eilers shouts her lines as a she reveals that Sally and Neil are victims of a mistaken motive” for being found in each others arms in bed.

Richard Barthlemess is still strong is not being reacted upon by both Tom Brown as his brother Neil and Eilers playing Sally. Make no mistake his is the anchor of the picture which he does well delivering solid lines readings and pathos when needed. He also has the presence on screen to carry out the role of Jim Blaine (maybe Rick Blaine is a distant relative) with authority and conviction that the audience would believe in the tradition of Richard Dix and others like him

Fresh faced Tom Brown gets to be the happy youth that grows up in his brothers shadow only to perhaps eclipse it at films conclusion. Neil ages in a very short time with the aid of wardrobe and facial hair yet still maintains his rather bright voice. Neil’s posture does not change as the film progresses to a rescue sequence of a passenger aircraft this is passable in picture of this nature as not a lot of time spent on aging as these were churned out fast.

Try to find not credited John Wayne as a flyer in a crash in this one? Character actor J Carol Naish swigs a bottle quite well as a passenger who goes overboard. Louise Beavers shows up in a moment as of course: a maid. James Ellison who went onto a big career in B pictures as a cowboy and detective is pilot. Stalwart Irving Bacon who made hundreds of appearances in film and Television is short roles takes a bow as a weatherman. Charles lane who some may remember as Mr Bedlow, “the revenuer” from PETTICOAT JUNCTION and Foster Phinney in THE BEVERLEY HILLBILLIES Television series and many more is the radio operator in the opening storm sequence. Glenda Farrell’s name appears on poster yet she is not listed in credits leads me to believe she may have been a passenger on the crashed aircraft or an office person.

Is CENTRAL AIRPORT (1933) a programmer? Yes it is but its worth one to see if not for the action sequences, the flying stunts which all have the same engine sounds. Great fun as these pictures were intended to be. These pictures like TEST PILOT (1938 )with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy plus Wellman’s own MEN WITH WINGS (1938) were all similar in their aviation references. High risk occupations such as race car driver in pictures like THE CROWD ROARS (1932) also got to be vehicles (no pun) for romance and sometimes treachery. Try to find not credited John Wayne as a flyer in a crash in this one? Fun films all just don’t get caught speeding.

CINEMONDO series on Link TV

Link TV, the national independent non-commercial satellite television network, announced today the premiere of a new weekly international film series called CINEMONDO that brings cinema from around the world to foreign movie fans. The new weekly Link TV series will be one of the few destinations for cinephiles to watch quality foreign films that were produced to bridge worldly gaps and promote in viewers a better understanding of the broader world. Promising to
bring audiences great artistic, cultural and political value, CINEMONDO will premiere on Link TV Thurs., Dec. 6 at 9 p.m. ET/PT with each title streaming for seven days following the broadcast at [ http://www.linktv.org/cinemondo ]linktv.org/cinemondo.

An award-winning and internationally acclaimed lineup includes films dating back to 1964 that feature Academy Award®-nominated Directors Federico Fellini and Ziad Doueiri as well as actors Diane Kruger and Gabrielle Byrne. The new Thursday night series will run through 2019 with a common thread of connecting people through film by highlighting portrayals of diverse human experiences around the world. The entire CINEMONDO schedule can be viewed at [ http://www.linktv.org/cinemondo ]linktv.org/cinemondo.

WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933)

The reckless, fast story of WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD made in the delightful precode late period of 1933 by William Wellman is wonderful if not under appreciated example of Warner Brothers (Actually First National) reading “today’s headlines”. This current approach was used even in advertising and publicity lending authenticity.

Director Wellman shot the story much like a pulp adventure novel with speed, finesse and love for the subject matter all within sixty eight minutes although the version i saw was seventy five minutes. The picture also features some wonderful performances from many “B’ level actors particularly Frankie Darro as Eddie and Edwin Phillips as his lifelong friend Tommy.

The picture opens in wise cracking 1930’s fashion with Eddie and Tommy going to a dance actually a frolic with their female friends Grace (Rochelle Hudson who also was in ARE THESE OUR CHILDREN? made in 1931 reviewed earlier) and good time girl Lola (Ann Hovey). The bunch arrive in a clapped out open top car decorated with witty sayings like “Rolls Royce bought and paid for, no brakes” or “Bear hunter mostly teddy bears.” This the picture of carefree youth with snappy clothes yet there is still the chill of not having money. This is mentioned when Tommy reveals that he cant afford the entrance fee as mother has been out of work for months. This is the thirties and as my father once told me you ‘Bid high and sleep in the street.” You put on the show and find a way to do things . Eddie tells him his father could get Tommy job at the Cement factory in spite of the fact he doesn’t think Tommy could lift a heavy bag.

Its made clear these two are young, somewhat sheltered chums for life as they still think their parents can fix anything. The four scheme to get Tommy into the frolic by borrowing a hat and coat (Girls are free to enter) and proceed through the line duping the door people. It is only when Tommy slips off to a side room to change that he is caught by a strange old fellow Mr Cadman (Charlie Grapewin) lurking in the backroom causing all four to be kicked out. This is the first time Eddie steps into the spotlight as a leader when he says that his friend will ‘walk out on his own.” It is first of many encounters that will happen as minor criminal act causes older figure (Mr Cadman) to either harm someone or cause a change in circumstances

The picture turns darker when Eddie returns home to find his father James Smith (Grant Williams) and his Mother (Claire McDowell) sitting up as a desk going over bills. Eddie notices his mother has been crying which she tries to hide from him. Eddie asks his father to help fine Tommy a job when his Dad tells him he has been laid off. It will also not be easy for a man of his age to step into another position so they will have to economize.

Eddie begin cutting back by asking his mother to return a new suit that was ordered that his father insists on getting anyway. Eddie gives his mother a playful wink that he really didn’t like the suit so it is returned along with the huge sliver of pie Eddie took from the fridge. This is the first of many sacrifice that will happen in the story as things begin to change for the worst.

The months progress and still no work for any of the people so Eddie and Tommy hatch a plan to hit the road by rail to find work also not be burden to their families. This is not before Eddie tearfully sells his beloved car to junk man to give the money to his father. The scene in reminiscent of many Andy Hardy series moments between Mickey Rooney and Lewis Stone with hidden tears and hugs.

The odyssey is one filled with danger and adventure as Eddie and Tommy meet Sally (Dorothy Coonan) who’s mother is dead and on her way to Chicago to live with a relative. This does not go so well as once again the police intervene caused Eddie , Sally and Tommy to flee out a window carrying their chocolate cake meal. Eddie and Tommy continue to ride the rails meeting others kids in a growing group all looking for work or running away. The constant harassment by the Law at every stop forces violence and fear of capture. One young girl rather than run stays in a freight car with a fire only to be assaulted by a railway brakeman (Ward Bond) to which the gang of boys exact revenge. The stakes have now grown as murder has been committed so society must now be paid.

Desperate times as the adventures grow and the cost in magnitude triggered by still one of the most horrific railway accident on film causing Tommy to lose his limb.

The full force of the Law intervenes later when Eddie become unknowingly involved in a full fledged crime resulting in a speech that could have been done by James Cagney or Pat O’Brien. Interesting sequence is an escape from police between Eddie and the police in a Movie theater complete with audience and James Cagney Picture on screen.

The picture is similar in theme with HEROS FOR SALE made in (1933) also directed by William Wellman with bigger stars Richard Barthelmess, the underappreciated Aline MacMahon and Loretta Young.

WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD features some wonderful individual performances beside the interplay between Frankie Darro , Edwin Phillips and Dorothy Coonan which is the key. Stirling Holloway soaking his feet in pail of milk while waiting for a train. He is harassed by Black children also waiting for a train that he will have pretty feet. Holloway in a poignant moment looks at his distinctive face saying he may have put the “wrong end” in.

Frankie Darro is wonderful at fifteen when he did this role. One can see the physical power he as in the picture with various jumps and slides. Darro may have been a ‘Poor mans James Cagney to some yet he as a distinctive style and movement that did furnish him well in a career Edwin Phillips was played Tommy has a good face and screen presence to continue yet sadly he only made three pictures ending in 1954.

Dorothy Coonan who was a “Ziegfeld Girl” at the time gets to exhibit her skills in tap in brief scene to beg money accompanied by harmonica. You can also catch a small glimpse of Alan Hale Jr (Left side of frame) as one of the train boys long before he became “The Skipper Jonas Grumby” on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.

It is also the thirties so the treatment of some of the types is not always correct such as the black children also on the run are left out the solutions. Most likely put in the picture to show the problem of lack of work was universal to all or that horrid thought of the “White society” being in similar low circumstance. Dorothy Coonan’s character of Sally is dressed as a man thought out the picture even when tap dancing for money. Sally is also seen still inhabiting the “Pink Ghetto” as she is seen sweeping and doing housework in whatever shack they live in. Dorothy also gets to give a cute, turn of the nose smile even at the film conclusion that is mimicked by an authority figure. Sally doesn’t change but both Eddie, Tommy and the other males all do.

WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD packs a lot of story and action in its brief running time. The dialogue moves with pace that was the style of film making back then. Strong choices of locations in rail yards and freight cars that one can almost taste the dust in your throat as you make this journey. Well worth trip even in a box car.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921)

 

Early weekend mornings or very late at night are the perfect time to watch a silent  film. You can treat yourself to images and music without crushing sound levels  calculated to raise awareness levels. One such recent morning I viewed the Swedish  Ghost Story picture  THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921) of which I was most pleasantly surprised.

We all know that it is close to Christmas season for those who celebrate that holiday.   THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE – while not a story concerning Christmas directly – does follow a plot similar to the THE CHRISTMAS CAROL of ghostly visits and a redemption.   The titles are in Swedish with translation; the masterful images deliver on their own.

 

 

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE opens on New Year’s Eve. The dying Salvation Army girl named  Edit has one last wish: to speak with David Holm. David, an alcoholic, is sitting in a graveyard with two drinking buddies, talking about his old friend Georges who told him about Death’s carriage—the legend that the last person to die each year has to work under the “strict master” Death and collect the souls of everybody who dies the following year. Georges himself died on New Year’s Eve last year.

Gustafsson, a friend of  who is looking for David, finds him and tries to convince him to go and see her, but David refuses. When his friends also try to convince him, a fight breaks out where David is accidentally killed just before the clock strikes twelve. The carriage appears, and the driver is revealed as Georges.

As David’s soul steps out of his body, in an interesting bleak double exposure moment,  Georges reminds him of what he once had, how he once lived a happy family life with his wife Anna before ending up in bad company with Georges and others.  David’s life has changed as it is revealed Anna left him after he was jailed for intoxication. He reminds him how David exactly one year ago was taken care of by Edit, and while treating her badly, he gave her his promise to find her the following year so she would find out whether her prayers for him had worked or not.

It is an interesting start to a picture dealing with moral consequences of poor choices that films dealt with at that time.  It can be said that films are products of their time so you have THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE produced a mere six years before METROPOLIS (1927).  These pictures has common theme of the ordinary people in everyday life or “the Poor” facing a crisis of faith of spiritual or moral ideas. Choices are made to rebel in both films with consequences. That may paint the themes in broad strokes for these pictures yet in spite of geographical difference of the respective countries (THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is from Sweden. METROPOLIS is from pre- war 1927 Germany.) both have an insight into the current state of life and thought.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE, while it may seem a simplistic tale, has influenced many film makers both Horror and otherwise.   Ingmar Bergman’s picture THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) contains a figure of Death that plays chess with a Knight having a crisis of faith. Bergman’s central themes were the approach of death and age in some form and its effects.  Stanley Kubrick  in THE SHINING (1980) paid homage to THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE with the sequence of Jack Nicholson’s character chopping his way through the bathroom door.

The appearances of the carriage and the driver may seem dated today with double exposures yet they are effective due to the stark loneliness of the streets and graveyards.  The effects of fog; an almost ‘Noir’ quality shadows blend with a musical score to make for an interesting excursion without dialogue.

This picture was remade in 1939 Directed by Frenchman Julian Duvivier. Judging from the stills and marketing campaign there is a physical resemblance to  Boris Karloff by one actor likely capitalizing on his popularity. The  images of the poster suggest REBECCA (1940)  or Karloff/ Lugosi film THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)

 

 

Mr Duviver made such diverse pictures as FLESH AND FANTASY with Edward  G. Robinson and Charles Boyer and Barbara Stanwyck to  TALES OF MANHATTAN (1942) before returning to his native country.  His ambitious French film: the if not too dark PANIQUE 1946) chronicling the lowest of human instincts was not well received by critics or the public.   He  is  continue to work in France with occasional  trips back to America till 1950.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is a tale of lies, violence, resulting in a price exacted for living a less then moral life contrasted by the values of the righteous. Its characters deal with real problems of poverty, lack of prospects and desperate things that people do against a fantasy background.  Good triumphs over Evil which is usually what happens in these films. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE would make an interesting addition to a holiday film list.  Silent films are a kiss for the imagination that changed with the coming of sound.  Throw another log on the fire and enjoy it.

 

 

NO CHEAP IMITATION OF LIFE

Film making of this style requires that something new be added to a story, not just in terms of CGI, but material not previously used from a source. Better yet, bring a story forward to today’s audience without sacrificing its integrity. The 1934 version of IMITATION OF LIFE with Claudette Colbert and the 1959 version with Lana Turner to be a shining example of how to do a remake.

The John Stahl directed 1934 version seems to be neglected these days; yet I found it to be grittier of the two perhaps because it was in black and white.

Claudette Colbert in a different role for her played widowed single mother Bea Pullman who gets by maintaining her late husband’s business selling syrup to shops.  One morning while getting her daughter ready for the day and juggling many tasks, she hears a knock at the door. It is Delilah Johnson, who has come in reply to an ad for a housekeeper – except she has come to the wrong address. Deliah is played by the vastly underappreciated actress Louise Beavers, who helped with Hattie McDaniel to set a pattern for Black actors in Hollywood.

Delilah has no money for ‘car fare,’ as Bea refers her to the fact of the difference between streets and avenues in the city. Through some wonderful dialogue a friendship begins as Delilah offers her services as maid and housekeeper for free in exchange for room and board for herself and her daughter Peola, because it looks like Bea could use the help. In a touching moment Delilah says that she will not ‘eat much’ in spite of her size.  Peola is found to be ‘light skinned’ as her father was white when she is called to come to the door as she is waiting outside.  This is a brilliant simple short scene that establishes relationships between the people plus the audience as it sets up the identity crisis for Peola of her” Black heritage” and  the growing friendship between Bea and Delilah.

In director Douglas Sirk’s 1959 version with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore, the meeting is handled quite differently.  Lana Turner plays aspiring out of work single actress/model Lora Meredith who meets homeless Annie Johnson (Moore) and her child on a sunny beach at Coney Island.

A handsome fellow, Steve Archer, played by John Gavin is also on hand as he is taking pictures of people and trying to sell them. The Archer role is different from the 1934 version played by personal favorite, neglected today Warren William whose occupation is a ‘Doctor of Fish’.

William comes in much later in the 1934 version and is at his devastating best as he as well as Colbert are both shown in a different light.  Colbert was more inclined to appear in comedies while William would grow in fame as an evil scheming gad in such pictures as EMPLOYEES ENTRANCE  (1933) and THE MATCH KING  (1932).

Annie’s daughter is Sarah Jane, who immediately hits it off with Lora’s child, Susie as the two run off to play for the entire day.  Annie and her child end up coming home to live with Lora as in the previous film.

This is the point where the versions deviate for no other reason that I can think of other than box office.  Lana Turner’s Lora Meredith gets bigger roles and becomes a huge star of the stage and screen.

Robert Alda as Allan Loomis plays a sleazy producer type that tries to turn himself in to Lora’s romantic interest yet at the same time sending her to after-hours parties for his male clients.  It was the time of ‘the casting couch’ (Has it ever or will it ever go away?) so this is not surprising which is curious as this role is a ‘nod’ to the “love ‘em and leave ‘em” style of Warren William.

Steve Archer comes back in as the love interest for Lora who is shown to have ruthless ambition to get to the top of her profession.

The 1934 Colbert/Beavers version features Bea Pullman going into the pancake business on the boardwalk when she discovers one morning that Delilah has a secret handed down  hotcake recipe that people cannot resist coupled with the already available maple syrup business lays the path to fame and fortune.

Both versions feature some wonderful supporting characters such as in the 1934 version you find a slightly serious yet comical Allan Hale as a furniture salesman who lets himself get talked out of money by Bea Pullman as she is setting up her first restaurant.  Guelph, Ontario born Ned Sparks appears as the cigar chomping, sarcastic Elmer Smith who simply tells Bea to ‘box’ her pancake mix to sell to more people and make millions.

Lora’s daughter, Susie played by Sandra Dee, falls in love with her mother’s older man Steve Archer.

Jessie Pullman (Rochelle Hudson) in the 1934 version grows to womanhood at boarding school and also falls in love with Warren William’s character of the same name.  Interesting that both characters would do this in different versions showing a link between what was thought to be an older father figure treating a young girl as a woman and showing her the world.   The Steve Archer roles were both suitors for Bea and Lora suggesting it is a mini identity schism of its own. Lora had given herself to her career and Bea had given herself to the business each neglecting their children.  Susie and Jessie both don’t know if they are child or woman yet both seek independence.

The spine of both versions is the denial of Delilah’s child Peola and Lora’s child Sarah Jane to acknowledge that they come from Black mother and a white father. At that time, they were considered to be Black children; which each grows to resent.  Each runs away, each wants the mother to not speak to them, not to come around them as they are ashamed of their heritage. The result of this schism is heartbreaking in both versions that in spite of the money and fame achieved it is nothing.

Delilah brings Peola’s raincoat to her school during a storm because she had forgotten it only to be told that she must be mistaken as there are no ‘colored’ children in the class.  Peola visibly shrinks in her seat and hides behind a book only to be pointed out by her mother as her ‘baby”.

Peola later works as a cashier at a lunch counter only to have Delilah find her causing her to lose her job due to her apparent Black heritage.  Sarah Jane ends up singing is at a dive bar only to lose her job as well.  Troy Donahue appears as Sarah Jane’s boyfriend Frankie in a pivotal moment in an alley as he literally beats the truth out her.

IMITATION OF LIFE (1934) is a sensitive film that was ahead of its time in handling the subject of race.  The Lana Turner 1959 version is a remake not a reboot that does bring the story closer to the time of the early 60’s and growing civil rights movement.  This version features a young Mahalia Jackson as a choir soloist who sings a stunning spiritual at the end of the film as only she could.

Could these pictures be made today? The answer to that is not important other than that they were made in the first place.  Each version has its merits as you get to see actors in roles different from their normal studio output. Those that know IMITATION OF LIFE will see it again in either version.  The 1959 version was featured at the 2014 TCM film festival that I attended yet I missed it. It would have been something to seem a glorious Technicolor print on screen but that will be for another time. Both versions have been called full box hankie movies. Enjoy them if you get the chance for their own merits.