(On Cable TV, September 2019) Being familiar with the 1954 remake of Imitation of Life, I went back to the original film not quite knowing what to expect—considering the ebb and flow of Hollywood racial sensitivity, would the black theme be presented with greater or lesser fidelity? As it turns out, the 1930s version of Imitation of Life has a lot of qualities of its own. It may not be as slick or well-directed as the Douglas Sirk film, but it does have earnestness, and the courage to tackle racial issues just as the Hays Code was cracking down on anything too daring. (One wonders if the film would have been made even a year or two later.) Compared to its successor, this early version feels gentler, but make no mistake—the question of passing is central to Imitation of Life and explored in as much detail at the 1930s could tolerate. Of course, other aspects of the film remain problematic—the whole business of, well, a white person profiting handsomely from a black person’s invention is not remarked upon, and the Delilah character is not only presented as a maid but remains as such even after considerable financial success. (On the other hand, she’s an absolutely central character with her own agenda, mitigating some of the clichés.) Claudette Colbert is fine in the lead role, but whatever happens to her seems like padding for her black friend’s story that forms the backbone of the film—a modern take on the same story would wisely relegate her in a supporting role to someone else’s story and that’s how we assess the limits of this version. Still, grading the film on a historical curve, Imitation of Life doesn’t seem too bad for the time.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There’s nothing new under the sun and that’s even truer when it comes to Hollywood movies, but it’s still a shock to see in It Happened One Night a template for the entire subgenre of romantic comedies as they’ve been made for the past eight decades. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert star as (respectively) a rich spoiler heiress and a suave roguish newspaperman stuck together on a bus ride from Florida to New York. Their initial animosity eventually become something else, which complicates an upcoming high-society wedding. We’ve all seen what happens because the basic structure of the film has been reused time and time again. Frank Capra’s direction is as sure-footed as anything else he’s done (and still rivals many modern directors), while the film’s pre-Code status makes it just a bit franker and just a bit more alluring than the following three decades of movies. It has aged remarkably well—Gable and Colbert have good chemistry, and the script is strong on dialogue and single moments. (Ah, that hitchhiking scene…) I’m not so fond of the third-act shift away from the bus, but it does lead the film to its climactic finale. As I’m discovering more and more older movies, the nineteen-thirties are earning a special place in my own version of Hollywood history—a decade where the basics of cinema had been mastered to a level still recognizable as competent today, and (for a brief period before the Hays code) increasingly willing to push the envelope of what was permissible on-screen. It Happened One Night still feels fresh and fun—I can see it being a hit with wide audiences even today.