Anthology Film Archives is performing a public service by showing three John M. Stahl films with their Douglas Sirk remakes; add on Film Forum's upcoming revival of Leave Her to Heaven and it's practically a Stahl mini-season. I saw two Stahls and one Sirk in the run-up; if you need to be told to see Sirk's Imitation Of Life, you're a lost cause. Stahl, however, requires more advocacy; before considering the dual Imitations, then, let me spend a few moments proselytizing for 1939's When Tomorrow Comes.
Tomorrow is a remarkably hard film to see—mostly because of complicated issues involving the estate of James M. Cain—but its must-see status isn't just a function of rarity. For me, it was one of those occasional mind-blowing experiences, when a movie pulls off something not just that I thought was impossible, but which I've never even seen before. Tomorrow scans superficially as a prototypical late-30s weepie: this is one of three romantic melodramas Irene Dunne made in 1939, and her second that year with Charles Boyer (they'd been paired earlier in Love Affair). Dunne is waitress Helen Lawrence, and Boyer the suavely continental (natch) concert pianist Philip Chagal. Between them, they have a mere 72 hours of happiness before he must depart back to Europe. Will she come with?
The romance develops almost as a back-story to the film's three major movements, none of which would seem to belong in the same film. Part one: Dunne successfully encourages her sister waitresses to go on strike. This includes a scene-setting opening at the restaurant, a meeting in a hall, and a stock but rousingly-delivered speech by Dunne; the remarkable thing about all this is that the film takes it seriously, rather than mocking the women or the idea of labor strikes in general. While Philip courts Helen, she feels a constant sense of guilt, knowing her energies should be exclusively devoted to the cause, and you don't feel she's being unnecessarily defensive. All this becomes irrelevant in the god's-hand second act; while insisting (rather stupidly) Philip drive her home right before a hurricane makes that impossible, they become trapped in a church. Dunne and Boyer sustain the film single-handedly for much of this movement, sitting in the organ loft of the church, trying to ignore the rising waters. When they wake up, Long Island is flooded and Helen has to get back to New York to picket. As if all this spectacle wasn't enough: enter Philip's wife, the madwoman in the figurative attic.
That Stahl keeps all this under control is remarkable. The only film I can think of for comparison is Borzage's History Is Made At Night, another Charles Boyer melodrama from two years earlier. There, the violent juxtaposition of elements—starry-eyed romantic scenes abutting whole ships sinking, crazed husbands walking into what was just a moment ago social comedy—is too much for me to take, never resolving into synthesis. When Tomorrow Comes instead synthesizes its differing parts seamlessly: a five-minute stroll between Boyer and Dunne down to the pier includes the usual (loathsome) kid actors, boisterous dockhouse roughhousing among older and less saccharine children, a depressed middle-aged type trading despairing banter with Boyer and someone's offhand Daffy Duck impersonation; all this alchemizes into a moment of undeniable romantic tug, rather than simply placing romantic breakthroughs against comic relief. If you can see the pristine print, do it; lost classics like this don't come along every day.
The twin Imitation of Lifes are about as different as can be; Sirk only keeps two of the original's scenes and stagings, otherwise updating everything for the times. Stahl's is the more upsetting, Sirk's the most satisfying; together, they're a handy guide to changing societal mores. Stahl works directly, Sirk (famously) through subversion. A traditional argument for the films proposes that the A plot (a white mother and daughter's romantic conflict) exists to smuggle in a B movie (a black mother and daughter's far more complex struggles) white audiences would otherwise not accept, but Sirk's film is undeniably about race. Stahl's spends more time with the A-team, but the B-story's also more pungent. Both can still make you very, very uncomfortable, which is a sad tribute to their continuing relevance.
Stahl's 1934 version begins with a shot so spare and rigorous I bolted up in my seat: a rubber duck floating on water in tight close-up. You can hear everything you need to for dramatic information (bratty kid, frustratedly cheerful mother: the bathtime from hell), but the shot wouldn't be out of place in the contemporary arthouse. The texture of Stahl's movie is basically Dickensian though, a rags-to-riches saga with eccentric supporting players to spare. There's Steve Archer (Warren William), cheerfully drunk socialite icthyologist who announces his profession with the wonderful formulation "I study fishes for those who are interested in the life in the fish," and his acerbic friend Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks), professional pancake-eater; it's a Universal movie, but it strains towards the crowded, bit-players-for-laughs ethos of a pre-code WB movie. This is the world Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her daughter (Rochelle Hudson) inherit; maid Delilah (Louise Beavers) and her daughter Peola (Fredi Washington) get the short end of the stick. Delilah's willing to do pretty much whatever it takes to get the money to raise Peola without having to be apart from her. Beatrice loves Delilah's pancakes and has the bright idea of opening up a store to sell them; she doesn't ask for permission, just drags her briskly along, and Delilah never betrays the slightest hint of emotion either way. The most disturbing bit comes when Beatrice is planning out the awning: "Smile, Delilah," she commands, and gets her to smile until she's way beyond Aunt Jemima territory. Perfect, Beatrice decides, and tells the painter to imitate that. It takes her half a minute to figure out that Delilah is uncomplainingly locked in the same grotesque pose and has to manually command her to knock it off.
The main issue in both films in the black story is the light-skinned daughter's desire to pass for white. It leads to tragedy in both cases (the mother up and dies out of grief), but the implications are decidedly different. Delilah's willingness to be whatever her mistress wants her to be is an understandable affront to her daughter; the only reasons she offers against passing are that it's wrong and God must have had a reason for making them black. She's an advocate of righteous suffering. Stahl's Imitation never even so much as hints at the possibility of racially motivated violence; instead, there's a sense of Peola longing to escape the dreary confines of her supporting story into the glamorous social melodrama Beatrice and her daughter unthinkingly inhabit. The corrective's at the end, with Delilah's lavish, long-planned funeral: for once, the white folks shut up and fade into the background of a majestic parade, with understandably furious-looking extras parading on their own terms through the screen. (The romance gets the last scenes though.)
All this is effectively devastating, if rushed; Sirk's film is an entirely different creature from the start. Stahl's film never explains its title; Sirk lets it all hang out in the opening credits song. Without love, "without the giving," Earl Grant wails, "it's just an imitation of life." The great thing about watching Sirk's most-acclaimed melodramas is that, even when it seems like they're about to drown in their own 50s gloss, you know a nasty sarcastic sting is just around the corner somewhere. In Sirk's telling, businesswoman Beatrice has become aspiring actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), and her live-in maid rechristened Annie (Juanita Moore); the daughters are now the ultra-white Susie (Sandra Dee, Gidget herself) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). Sirk retains two scenes: when Delilah/Annie comes to school to give her daughter her rainclothes—thereby accidentally outing her and kicking off the mother's many attempts to make the daughter accept her fixed racial identity—and the ending funeral.
What Sirk's getting at is a much more polite but perhaps even more deadly racial dynamic. If Stahl's version skips the racial violence, it's also very clear on why Peola wants to pass: no one ever questions her motivation, they just want her to stop it. But if there's an argument to be made that Delilah's wrong to want her daughter to stay within her proscribed role, in this film it's the daughter who's wrong. Sirk's version includes a scene where Sarah Jane gets beaten up by her boyfriend after he finds out she's not actually white. It's a lurid scene, complete with blaring saxes, the whole thing curdling into hysteria. More important is a scene a bit later, where Sarah Jane sulks in her room, dancing furiously to the same song she was beaten up to. Forget the whole diegetic/non-diegetic distinction: what's really crucial here is Sarah Jane internalizing violence against her and spitting it back out as a furiously sexual dance, handily outdoing wholesome putative teen icon Gidget. She's doing it for the wrong reasons though.
Annie is a far less groveling person here: in the original film, she pretty much overtly begs to be let to stay in the house. Her insinuation into Lora's life here is far sneakier and far more overtly polite: they meet on terms of perceived equality on the beach in the 1940s, with Lora trying to figure out where her daughter has disappeared to. Annie's looking after her and her own daughter, and—through a combination of dire insinuations and the most overt emotional manipulation, brandishing her on-the-bum suitcase as a bathetic weapon—worms her way into Lora's life. When Sarah Jane starts freaking out, she does a horrific "yes massa" imitation for Lora's guests. "Has anyone here ever treated you differently?" Lora chides her. No, Sarah Jane admits, but that's evading the point: Lora, a good New York liberal (one who at one point does a play which addresses the "racial question"; no surprise, it's a hit, and you can sense Sirk's sneer at all those self-congratulating Stanley Kramer affairs), is of course going to treat everyone with bright, brittle equality. Outside, however, the world isn't like that at all: it's a place of boiling-point racial violence. Imitation is implicitly aware of civil rights; when Annie wants Sarah Jane to own up to being black and live with it, it's at least in part a recognition that within a decade, racial power politics will be very different, and passing will no longer be the smart move Sarah Jane thinks it is.
Sirk gives way more time to the B story this time around, but he takes some time out to mock his vapid leads relentlessly. Best of all is Turner's moment on a staircase, running defiantly and melodramatically away from Steve Archer (John Gavin this time). He sees through her and demands she stop acting. "I'm not acting!" she insists—and promptly steps into one of Sirk's carefully place stairwell lights to better deliver the next part of her speech in the spotlight. Imitation doesn't seem to be quite as well-regarded as All That Heaven Allows (not as overtly pugilistic in its set-up) or Written On The Wind (less ostentatiously lurid), but its brutal moments are as righteously nasty as anything he ever did.