I still remember the very first Lana Turner movie I watched: The Three Musketeers, in which she starred as the evil but beautiful Lady de Winter. I watched that film mostly for Gene Kelly, one of my favourites; but I remember being struck by Lana Turner. So icily beautiful, but so ruthlessly, coldly calculating and vicious too. She was exactly as I’d imagined Lady de Winter to be when I’d read The Three Musketeers (it’s a different matter that the film diverged considerably from the novel).
Today may be the birth centenary of Lana Turner (the ‘may be’ because some say she was born on February 8, 1920, rather than 1921). Born in Idaho, as Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner, ‘Lana’ came to California with her mother after her father was murdered in 1929. By the time she was 17, Lana had landed her first role in cinema, and by the early 40s, had started becoming an actress to be reckoned with. ‘The Sweater Girl’, as she was known, ended up being projected mostly as little more than a sex symbol by MGM, but proved, over time, that she could act with the best of them. Films like Peyton Place, Imitation of Lifeand The Postman Always Rings Twice gave her a chance to show that her acting talent was everywhere as good as her legendary beauty.
When I reviewed the 1934 version of this film, I’d been under the impression that I’d never heard of either of these films before. But, when I started watching this film, I realized that I had heard of this. As part of the filmography of Douglas Sirk, whose work I’ve seen too little of, and have been meaning to catch up on. So my viewing of the 1959 Imitation of Life served two purposes: watching another Sirk film, and seeing how it compared to an earlier film I’d already watched.
Like the 1934 Imitation of Life, this version too begins with a harried single mother and her young daughter. Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) is a widow with a six year old daughter called Susie (Terry Burnham). When the film opens, Lora is rushing about frantically on a very crowded beachfront, searching for Susie, who’s vanished.
I’d meant to review this film in time for Lana Turner’s birthday on February 8. But other things kept me busy, and what with trying to meet a deadline for my novel and write a short story before I lose the thread of it and watch an irresistible film (The Black Rose) which I’d just gotten hold of… well, better late than never. Belated happy birthday, Ms Turner! And RIP.
I admire producers and directors who gamble on completely stereotyped stars and cast them in roles one normally wouldn’t associate with them. For instance, I would probably not have thought of casting Dean Martin, with his playboy image and his singing star persona, as the drunk and pathetic deputy in Rio Bravo. I may not have considered Doris Day (screwball comedy!) appropriate as the stalked woman in Midnight Lace. And I most certainly wouldn’t have thought of casting ace dancer Gene Kelly as the lead man in this entertaining swashbuckler, which doesn’t have a single dance.