FilmFrog Archives: Lecture given at Sonoma State University (1995)


Brief biography of Douglas Sirk (the director)

Melodrama basic characteristics

Sirk's melodrama

Some background for Imitation of Life

Issues portrayed in Sirk's version

Lana Turner

Some quotes about the film

Bending the Material (some things to look for)


Sirk: biographical

















Melodrama: basic characteristics


1. Legibility: everyone can read it

2. Expressiveness: given to exaggeration:

everything brought into the open

3. Simplification of roles: good and evil clearly delineated

4. Strong identification:

emotions alive w/high suffering

5. Devaluation of language:

language less important than mise-en-scene


Melodrama: Sirk








1933: novel by Fannie Hurst: Bea Pullman & Jessie/Delilah & Peola

1934: film directed by John Stahl

both book and film straightforward & unambiguous in attitudes: re:



emotional centers for story

title: refers to Peola: trying to "pass" for white: imitating white life;

Sirk subverts this:




"invisible" storytelling techniques

techniques that call attention to themselves

story of 2 mothers

complementary versions of "good" mom

issue of motherhood just as clouded as that of race:

both black and white mothers exposed:

cliches re:

excessive love/excessive egotism

present mother/absent mother

nurturer/sex object

bald opposition becomes ironic

opening scene: in the home:

Bea caring for Jessie ("quack-quack")

opening scene: in public:

Coney Island:

Lora has lost Susie

Bea's success due to Delilah's recipe:

partnership bet. 2 women

Lora's success due to her beauty:

she's a sexual object: actress

Annie not part of it

man enters Bea's life:

after her success

man enters Lora's life:

in first scene:

he's conscious reminder of her choice:

bet. career and love


Sirk's version deals w/issues of:




Film's finger on pulse of crucial issues: race and emerging feminism

Universal's biggest money-maker till JAWS (1975)

#4 box-office draw of 1959:

responsive chords were struck by film




One other factor: Lana Turner:

IMITATION OF LIFE: as narrativized version of Lana's life:

Sirk: "After I/L, Lana Turner said, 'Douglas, for the first time you have made me feel like an actress. It is not just being beautiful.' --- which, of course, is all she has ever been required to do."




IMITATION OF LIFE (1959): Directed by Douglas Sirk

Some Quotes:


I tried to make it into a picture of social consciousness --- not only of a white social consciousness, but of a Negro one, too. Both white and black are leading imitated lives .... There is a wonderful expression: seeing through a glass darkly. Everything, even life, is inevitably removed from you. You can't reach, or touch, the real. You just see reflections. If you try to grasp happiness itself your fingers only meet glass. It's hopeless.

--- Douglas Sirk


The most important tool of my trade was a mirror. I always had a three-way full-length mirror outside my trailer door so that I could check my appearance before I went on the set.

--- Lana Turner


The mirror is the imitation of life. What is interesting about a mirror is that it does not show yourself as you are, it shows you your own opposite.

--- Douglas Sirk


Every element in a Sirk film is on some level a reflection or mockery only of some other element of that same film. The revelations --- the moments which seem to take on special power --- lead us only to more reflections of these revelations, until we realize that the only real revelation is that everything is a reflection.

--- Fred Camper




IMITATION OF LIFE (1959): Bending the Material


1. unusual camera angles

2. lighting: does it match source?

3. placement of objects within the frame

especially: screens


placement of characters within the frame

4. rooms heavily marked with characters' social situations

5. actors' delivery of lines

6. moving camera

7. color

8. heavy use of medium and long shots

9. backgrounds brought forward: screen has appearance of flat surface

10. choreography: as direct expression of character

11. theme of blindness