Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Imitation of a Back Street Madame

These early postings of mine are bound to cry out as having been written by a mother-dominated ninny! It's not necessarily so, it's just that I was raised by a single mom and we wound up spending a great deal of time together one-on-one, frequently at the movies or plunked down before the TV set watching them. Thus, the bulk of my early movie memories include her in some way.

In the early '70s, local channels would fill-in their broadcast day with old movies, probably using prints we'd rather forget about now in the high-definition age. I can remember lying on the floor while my mother tuned in to those good old fashioned "women's pictures" and noticing her stifling a tear towards the end of them (so designed were they to wring sobs out of anyone watching!)

My favorites were always the Universal-International ones, in vivid color, lavishly produced (often by Ross Hunter, whose name on a project usually guarantees that I'm going to enjoy myself, even if the movie is no good!) and typically featuring a once-mighty star who now was seeking a career boost.

Imitation of Life (1959), a remake of a 1934 Claudette Colbert film and based on a Fannie Hurst novel, became Universal's biggest grossing picture ever up to that point and made its star, Lana Turner, very rich thanks to her contractual arrangement for profit-sharing. Helmed by the masterful director Douglas Sirk, the film is amazing to behold, visually, especially when Lana hits it big and starts prancing around in jewels and eye-popping Jean Louis gowns. She plays a single mom who pairs up with another single (and black) mom in order to pursue an acting career. The story may be rather unbelievable at times (and by now pretty far removed from the source novel!), but it matters little thanks to the compelling theatrics, the creative direction and the cathartic charge it provides, especially on repeated viewings. And no one's eyes ever held tears more beautifully than Miss Lana's.

Back Street (1961), also made previously a couple of times and also based on a Fannie Hurst novel, is even more adrift from the source material. However, it serves up glitz and gloss in spades, having turned its adulterous heroine into a successful dress designer. Susan Hayward seems, at times, to be co-starring with a series of telephones, so often is she filmed with one, but she acts diligently with them as well as with her hunkalicious leading man John Gavin (who was also the male lead in Imitation of Life.) John was never known for his riveting acting prowess, but he was a strong-jawed, soft-spoken GOD in the looks department, providing amiable presence in many '50s and '60s films. Sadly for Susan, the real scene-stealer here is the often-earnest Vera Miles who, this time out, pulls out every stop to enact the shrewiest, nastiest, most jealous, drunken bitch she could come up with as she portrays John Gavin's wife! She's fantastic. The highlight of the film is when she makes a sudden appearance at Susan's charity fashion auction and introduces herself in an inimitable way.

My all time favorite film of this kind is Madame X (1966.) This one had been made previously quite a few times, but, like the films mentioned above, it got the glamour treatment this time out. Lana Turner plays a "girl" from a less than prestigious background who marries into a wealthy, almost Kennedy-esque family and soon draws the ire of her picky, ambitious and controlling mother-in-law Constance Bennett. Connie will do anything to ensure success for her son John Forsythe including shipping Lana across the sea, presumed dead. But that's only the beginning of the story! This one is almost a litmus test for me. Yes, the entire enterprise is far-fetched and overdone, but I don't think I could truly be friends with anyone who didn't get at least a little bit choked up at the climax of this film.
Imitation and Madame have been released (along with several other gems such as Portrait in Black, Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows) on DVD, but Back Street has not (nor have Where Love Has Gone or the highly-sought-after Love Has Many Faces!) VHS has provided the plasma to get myself and others over the hump until they come out.


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