Both of these films done 25 years apart are based on the 1933 best-selling novel by Fannie Hurst. Though they can be looked at as many things (romance, drama, comedy) the most important issue they brought to the screen were the racial issues found within. It has never been easy being a person of colour in the United States (or many other countries in the world, for that matter), but the times described here were especially bleak.
The John M. Stahl (Leave Her to Heaven, The Keys of the Kingdom) version was one of the first films that dealt with race relations being released in 1934. Thus making it a landmark film. At the same time it also featured a couple of female black actresses who are to be considered actresses rather than simply entertainers. There is depth within the roles for the women of colour – a true rarity. It also shows a couple of widowed women – one white and one black – taking charge of their own lives. Also not something that frequently happened in films in the 1930s. A different an important films that used the backdrop of a dramatic film to address vital issues. A significant film to see for historical reasons. Plus you get to see the charismatic Claudette Colbert work her magic.
Douglas Sirk brought his own version of the story to the screens in 1959. Visually it is a stunning film with great cinematography and plenty of beautiful women in it. What Sirk does best is span the ten years of these four women’s lives while seamlessly weaving the stories of their lives together along with focusing on the deeper issues of race, mother-daughter relationships and tragedy. His goal is greatly aided by the strong largely female cast especially Oscar nominated performances by Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore.
1934 Version: After the death of her husband Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert – It Happened One Night, Drums Along the Mohawk) is trying her hardest to make ends meet selling maple syrup door to door. It is tough in these times for a woman to make a go of it on her own as well as having to try and support her young daughter, Jessie (Juanita Quigley – National Velvet, Porky’s II: The Next Day). One morning her luck changes as she struggles to get Jessie ready for day care the phone rings with a customer on the other end. Then there is a knock on the door. It is a woman of colour named Delilah (Louise Beavers – The Jackie Robinson Story, Holiday Inn) who is responding to an ad in the paper looking for a cook and housekeeper.
Delilah has come to the wrong address, but it becomes a fortunate error for all involved when she shows her skills at cooking and taking care of things. On top of that she does not want much of a salary just room and board for her and her young daughter, Peola (Sebie Hendricks – only film). Delilah becomes a godsend for Bea and Jessie and they become very close over the years.
So close that when Bea discovers that Delilah makes the best pancakes she decides to open a diner on the boardwalk selling them and the maple syrup. A strange and broke man walks into the diner one rainy evening and gives Bea an idea about boxing the pancake mix making Bea a wealthy woman.
As the years go by the four women get closer and closer. However, as the two daughters are on the precipice of adulthood their relationships with their mothers become strained.
1959 Version: Lora Meredith (Lana Turner – The Postman Always Rings Twice – 1946, Peyton Place) is a struggling young actress who is a widow and trying to support her 6-year-old daughter, Susie (Terry Burnham). On a trip to Coney Island she runs into a homeless black woman named Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore – The Kid, Two Moon Junction) and her 8-year-old daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker). Soon the two women set up house together in a cramped apartment.
Each of the mothers begins to have trouble with their daughters. Now 16, Susie (Sandra Dee – Gidget, Take Her, She’s Mine) suffers due to neglect as Lora is almost completely focused on her career as a Broadway actress. Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is now 18 and she is a light skinned girl who has always been able to pass for white. She now completely rejects the fact that she is black and her own mother. This causes plenty of shame for Annie.
-Lasting Legacy – An Imitation of Life