Both versions of “Imitation of Life” by John Stahl (1934) and Douglas Sirk (1959) are adapted from the Fannie Hurst’s book of the same name. Despite the fact that the two films were produced two decades apart (25 years to be precise), they exhibit many similarities. For instance, both films explore the concepts of race and class in the American society during this period. However, the films also exhibit some significant differences. These differences range from character representation (the fair black girl in the 1939 version is played by a black actress while the in 1959 version she is played by a woman) to audio differences (absence of music in the 1934 version and presence of it in the 1959 version). However, one prominent difference between the two films is exhibited when it comes to visuals.
Visuals in films general regard camera shots and scenes. When it comes to the two film’s visual style, the Sirk version (1959) constructs a world characterized by dynamic disequilibrium when it is compared to the equilibrium and stasis of the 1934 version. For example, in the Stahl version of 1934, the black girl is captured in a variety of rectangular frames as she leaves the school. This is contrast to the 1939 version, where the camera is placed at an oblique and lower angle and the coats actually form a huge bulk of the foreground to the right. In addition, the 1959 versions, has its background lit in such a strange manner to the point that shadows that are almost expressionist are cast on nondescript fragment of the grade school architecture. Such a composition draws the audience attention into the scene’s background where the fleeing daughter comes into view more prominently. The fleeing daughter also comes more aggressively towards the cameras, as opposed to the 1934 version where it was her receding movement that is observed.
Concisely, un-naturalistic lighting, off-kilter angles, distinct camera and character movement as well as a unique design set that features Sirk’s trademark set item, mirrors, characterize the Sirk’s 1959 version. All these represent the relatively diminished racial and cultural tensions evidenced in the 1950’s. The features are absent in Stahl’s 1934 version.