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MOVIE MEMORIES: Taking a look at two thought-provoking films from the 1950s

Hello again fans of the silver screen, my latest ‘Movie Memories’ article for Lanarkshire Live is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Martha Queen Williamson nee Hackett, and two unforgettable childhood friends, Ann Purchase and Violet Jarvie.

“Sarah Jane has to learn that the Lord must have had his reasons for making some of us white and some of us black. How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt?” – Annie Johnson in ‘Imitation of Life’.

One of the most beloved and talked about movies ever produced by Hollywood, the Universal International Pictures 1959 production of ‘Imitation of Life’ was directed by German-born Douglas Sirk and photographed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Russell Metty.

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During a collaborative effort in the fifties, the pair elevated the soap opera-melodrama into an art form, producing glossy Technicolor dramas that established heartthrob Rock Hudson as an international star, playing the romantic hero in ‘Magnificent Obsession’ (1954), ‘All That Heaven Allows’ (1955) and ‘Written on the Wind’ (1956).

Although these classics were mega box office hits in the history of the studio, they were generally regarded by movie critics as unimportant. However, today, they are recognised as cinematic masterpieces and ironic commentaries on American life and society.

‘Imitation of Life’ was Douglas Sirk’s final Hollywood picture and is a film about race in the late fifties in an America that has loudly articulated, but certainly not resolved, civil rights.

The principal roles were played by Lana Turner (Lora Meredith), Juanita Moore (Annie Johnson), John Gavin (Steve Archer), Sandra Dee (Suzie) and Susan Kohner (Sarah Jane).

The story begins in post-war 1947 at a crowded New York beach, where widowed Lora Meredith loses track of her little daughter Suzie. She finds her being cared for by Annie Johnson, a homeless, kind-hearted African-American with a white daughter, Sarah Jane.

Lora offers them temporary accommodation and Annie persuades Lora to let her stay to look after the household and take care of the two children, giving Lora the opportunity to pursue a career as a Broadway star.

‘Imitation of Life’ is a lovely film photographed in Eastman Colour and an accomplished production with superb performances, earning newcomer Moore an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress; Kohner was also nominated in the same category.

But the movie misses Rock Hudson’s soulful presence. Hudson was replaced by John Gavin, who is fine as the photographer and love interest for Turner, but lacking in star quality, especially when playing opposite Turner and Dee.

MOVIE MEMORIES: Taking a look at two thought-provoking films from the 1950s
Lana Turner’s look became a key marketing factor in her later films

Turner delivered one of her best performances and would soon become identified and recognised as the suffering woman in “women’s pictures” like ‘Portrait In Black’ (1960) and ‘Madame X’ (1966).

The on-screen look of Turner became a key marketing factor in her later films. The glamorous star always had a three-way full-length mirror outside her studio trailer so that she could check her appearance before going on the set.

For ‘Imitation of Life’, she became a clothes horse for Jean Louis, the reigning king of Hollywood stylists, who designed 34 spectacular gowns worn by Turner in the film and, valued at $78,000, the most expensive wardrobe for the time.

To complete the illusion of surface glamour, producer Ross Hunter also arranged to borrow a million dollars worth of real jewels from Laykin et Cie to be worn with Turner’s costumes. Two security guards were on call when the jewels were in use during filming.

The end result is dazzling; is there any celebrity today who could match the natural beauty and glamour of Turner?

Director Douglas Sirk had a unique philosophy that movies should not only be watched but “felt”. His resume of Hollywood pictures have a distinctive visual style unmatched by any other director.

It was difficult to find a dry eye in the cinema when the movie screened at the Odeon in Coatbridge during the winter of 1959. I cried openly and a kind patron gave me a small tub of ice cream as comfort food.

A week later it opened at the Pavilion in Airdrie where I enjoyed another show with my mother. It became her all-time favourite.

A movie masterpiece and the highest grossing film of 1959, ‘Imitation of Life’ will always have a very special place in my heart.

‘Peyton Place’, a 1956 novel by Grace Metalious, was the most scandalous best seller of the decade.

Challenging common traditions, habits, patterns, and beliefs present in a population group, Metalious sold all the film rights to Jerry Wald, a producer at Twentieth Century Fox.

The 1957 film version of ‘Peyton Place’ earned more than $20 million at the box office. Ticket sales were not only boosted by the phenomenal popularity of the novel but also by the significant public interest after star Lana Turner’s daughter Cheryl Krane killed Turner’s abusive boyfriend, gangster Johnny Stomponato, during a domestic struggle.

MOVIE MEMORIES: Taking a look at two thought-provoking films from the 1950s
Peyton Place includes themes of hypocrisy, social inequalities and class privilege

Krane was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence and justifiable homicide.

Hypocrisy, social inequities and class privilege are the themes in ‘Peyton Place’ in a story that includes incest, abortion, adultery, lust, and murder, all taking place in a small, gossipy New England town.

The film was developed with Metalious serving as a story consultant with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who had to write using the guidelines set down by the American Motion Picture Code which detailed what was morally acceptable on the screen, including no sexually explicit content, swearing or saying offensive things.

The screenwriter’s exclusion of the more salacious elements of the novel resulted in Metalious abandoning the project and openly detesting the film.

The main plot of ‘Peyton Place’ centres on the lives of three women: lonely, repressed Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner); Allison (Diane Varsi), her illegitimate daughter; and Selena Cross (Hope Lange), a girl from across the tracks.

Several of the characters and plot points were drawn from real-life events and people that Metalious actually knew in her home town of Gilmanton Ironworks in New Hampshire.

Beautifully photographed in the Fox Cinemascope process with colour by De Luxe, principal photography began on the film on June 4, 1957, on location in mid-coastal Maine – mostly in the picturesque small American town of Camden.

The haunting musical score for the picture was composed by Franz Waxman and recorded with the National Scottish Orchestra.

MOVIE MEMORIES: Taking a look at two thought-provoking films from the 1950s
William and his friends Ann Purchase and Violet Jarvie agreed that Peyton Place was “an outstanding movie for the times”

Turner was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award, together with Russ Tamblyn for a Best Supporting Actor award, at the 1958 Oscars.

The movie spring-boarded talented young actor Tamblyn to stardom in films like ‘Tom Thumb’ (1958) and the milestone musical masterpiece ‘West Side Story’ (1961).

It was a memorable experience for a seven-year-old to enjoy a movie classic with adult themes when my gran, Mary Hackett, and I saw ‘Peyton Place’ at the grand old Pavilion Cinema in Airdrie during the Easter break in 1958.

A few years later, when I had matured a little, I shared the ‘Peyton Place’ experience at a return engagement at the Pavilion with my two friends, Ann Purchase and Violet Jarvie. We mutually agreed it was an outstanding movie for the times.

In 1961, Fox released the impressive sequel ‘Return To Peyton Place’. The cast featured none of the original stars.

Constance was played by Eleanor Parker and Carol Lynley was delightful as Allison, however it was veteran Mary Astor as the possessive mother Roberta Carter who walked away with the picture.

In the hope of bringing the success of ‘Coronation Street’ to America, the TV series ‘Peyton Place’, produced by Fox Television, was the first prime-time US soap opera and ran from 1964 to 1969.

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