This Day in Film: “Imitation of Life”

Published by Clay Cane on Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 8:30 am.

(Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Exactly 54 years ago today, Imitation of Life, the legendary film about racial identity, was released in theatres nationwide. The film was adapted from Fannie Hurst’s novel and a remake of the 1934 original.

Imitation of Life told the story of Sarah Jane, a light-skinned Black girl (both of her parents were Black), who could pass for White, played by Susan Kohner. She dealt with extreme emotional turmoil, eventually rejecting her mother, played by Juanita Moore. The film also starred Hollywood legends Lana Turner and Sandra Dee.

In the 1934 original Sarah Jane was played by a light-skinned Black actress named Fredi Washington. In 1959, the Sarah Jane character was Susan Kohner, who was Mexican and Jewish. Both actresses in the 1959 version, Kohner and Moore, received Oscar nods for best supporting actress and Kohner won the Golden Globe.

Imitation of Life was a huge success for its time, garnering $6.4 million and being the ninth most successful film in 1959.  The film’s handling of race and the “tragic mulatto” character is a slice of American history for its era.

There have been talks for years about an Imitation of Life remake, but no word on who or when.  In 2010, a behind the scenes book was released on the movie, Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Life by Sam Staggs.

The most memorable scene from the movie was Annie dying and the iconic Mahalia Jackson singing at her funeral. Grab a tissue and check out the clip below!

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