TMP Reads: “Born to Be Hurt” by Sam Staggs

(Image: E-Books Images)
(Image: E-Books Images)

One of my resolutions for 2013 has been to read more books about film. I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping up with that goal, my latest conquest being Sam Staggs’ “Born to Be Hurt,” a book about Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life — one of my all-time favorite films. A beautiful introduction to the book has Staggs sharing his own personal connection with the film. He also sets up the framework for the book’s ongoing discussion of the film’s cultural significance in terms of how it deals with the subject matter of discrimination and racism. Staggs points out that a lot of people have been able to connect with the film — not only African American viewers, but viewers belonging to any minority group which has faced discrimination:

“It’s easier now not to be ashamed of what you are. But in those audiences of 1959, I wonder how many words like ‘gay’ or ‘Jewish,’ ‘Asian,’ ‘Hispanic,’ ‘poor’ or ‘disabled’ could have substituted for ‘white’ and ‘black’? It’s clear today [at an anniversary screening of the film] that the picture speaks to a global audience that’s boundlessly diverse.”

Staggs does more than just discuss Sirk’s adaptation of the film. He discusses the novel, the 1934 film version, the pre-production process of Sirk’s film, the casting process and on through the film’s release. Included are some disturbing facts about the film’s production, such as the fact that Susan Kohner was actually beat by Troy Donahue during their characters’ major fight scene. She had to miss a few days of work after the scene was filmed due to her injuries.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s clear that Staggs put an incredible amount of effort into researching this book. “Insider” information comes from interviews with those involved in the production, including the great Juanita Moore, who sounds like the coolest lady in the world from Staggs’ experience with her. Staggs got to know Moore pretty well through the extensive interview process, and he describes her as just about the polar opposite of her Imitation of Life character. She’s very outspoken and has a killer sense of humor, but encountered a lot of hurt throughout her life and career as well. She doesn’t shy away from shedding light on the worst aspects of being an African American actress in midcentury Hollywood. This perspective is a very valuable one to share, especially given the film’s racially charged subject matter. “Born to Be Hurt” is a book that I would very highly recommend to fans of Sirk’s Imitation of Life. This is the definition of an in-depth exploration of a film, and Staggs couldn’t have chosen a more fascinating film to explore. I look forward to reading the rest of his work, including his book on All About Eve!


4 thoughts on “TMP Reads: “Born to Be Hurt” by Sam Staggs

  1. I hadn’t realized that there were complete books written about single movies. It sounds really interesting to learn so much about such a specialized topic, especially if the movie is one of your favorites. I’d love to read more about some of my favorite movies, maybe The Princess Bride or 10 Things I Hate About You :)


    1. It isn’t a super-common non-fiction subgenre, but there are a few books devoted to single films. Staggs has written a number of them on classics, and at my library I’ve seen a few about big blockbusters like Star Wars. I actually own a vintage “making of” book about South Pacific as well, so perhaps they were more common in the midcentury! Thanks for checking out my review :)


  2. While Troy Donahue beats Susan Kohner in the movie, ironically, a hero, yet another Troy, this time Troy Cansler gave his life saving a woman! Troy Donahue’s real name was Frederick Merle Johnson, Jr. while Troy Cansler’s real name was Ambers O’Neal Shewmaker, Jr. Crazy World!


  3. Comparing the Two Troys
    Troy Donahue and Troy Cansler both born in January.
    Both died at age the ends with an odd number.
    Both have fathers of the same name (Frederick Merle Johnson and Ambers O’Neal Shewmaker)
    Troy Donahue was born on the 27th and Troy Cansler died on the 27th.
    Both changed their names to Troy (Frederick Merle Johnson, Jr. became Troy Donahue while Ambers O’Neal Shewmaker became Troy Cansler.)
    Both fathers died.
    Both married to wives first names began with an A (Alma Sharp and Autumn Glazier)


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