#362) Imitation of Life (1934)

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#362) Imitation of Life (1934)

OR “The First Pancake is Always Spoiled”

Directed by John M. Stahl

Written by William Hurlbut. Based on the novel by Fannie Hurst.

Class of 2005

The Plot: Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) is trying to maintain her late husband’s maple syrup business while simultaneously raising her daughter Jessie (Juanita Quigley). She hires Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) as her housekeeper, who agrees to work for free on the condition that Bea provide housing for her and her mixed-race daughter Peola (Dorothy Black). Bea successfully turns Delilah’s family recipe for pancakes into a profitable business, and despite their new wealth, Delilah insists on her continued employment for Bea. 10 years later, Bea finds herself in an unknowing love triangle with her fiancé Stephen (Warren William) and the now grown up Jessie (Rochelle Hudson). But the film’s emotional core comes from adult Peola (Fredi Washington), embarrassed by her heritage, passing for white and cutting off ties with her mother. It’s a controversial subject, but I’m sure 1934 Hollywood’s take on it will age well, right? …Right?

Why It Matters: The NFR singles out the film’s status among melodramas and “woman’s pictures”, and suggests it is “arguably the first Hollywood studio film to treat African-American characters in a dignified fashion”. An essay by film preservationist/cat person Ariel Schudson is primarily about the novel’s author, Fannie Hurst.

But Does It Really?: “Imitation of Life” was quite the daring project in its day, but thanks to some highly restrictive censorship, the complexity of “Imitation of Life” couldn’t be captured on film in 1934. This film is a baby step towards breaking down racial barriers in film, but the handling of its subject matter makes for a cringe-worthy watch today. I can definitely give “Imitation of Life” a pass on “historical significance”, but this is another movie that may just be for film buffs.

Everybody Gets One: Louise Beavers didn’t aim to be an actor, but a performance in her church choir caught the attention of a Central Casting agent and she landed her first audition. Beavers was always cast as the “Mammy” character subservient to a film’s white leads, but as she once said, “I’m only playing the parts. I don’t live them.” With support from the NAACP, Louise Beavers successfully persuaded Universal to delete some of the more offensive slurs from the “Imitation of Life” screenplay.

Wow, That’s Dated: Yeah, this is a tough one to watch through a modern lens. With the start of the Civil Rights movie still 20 years away, Hollywood’s answer to racial intolerance in 1934 was to just shrug it off and go about your business. Bea always treats Delilah and Peola respectfully, but any acknowledgment of systemic racism is stated matter-of-factly with no thought of challenging it. And despite the film’s progressive views, Delilah is still the warm, uneducated “Mammy” stereotype.

Title Track: Does anyone know the significance of the title? Originally titled “Sugar House”, Fannie Hurst changed the name just before publication. Is she commenting on how this story is a reflection of what’s going on in America? Is Hurst tooting her own horn?

Seriously, Oscars?: “Imitation of Life” received three Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Sound, and the now-defunct Assistant Director category. The only reason Claudette Colbert wasn’t nominated for Best Actress was because she was already a nominee (and winner) for “It Happened One Night”.  And had Best Supporting Actress existed back then, I’m sure Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington still wouldn’t have been nominated.

Other notes

  • The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was newly formed in 1934, and “Imitation of Life” was one of their first major challenges. Miscegenation was forbidden under the new production code, and the MPAA fought Universal on turning “Imitation of Life” into a film, to the point of possibly shutting down production. After much back and forth, the MPAA approved “Imitation of Life”, two weeks after shooting had already started. Suffice it to say that a lot of liberties are taken with the source material.
  • How did they work around having a mixed-race character in a movie? The script states that Peola’s father was “a very light colored man”. In addition, the MPAA insisted that nothing work out for Delilah and Peola, thus highlighting the “definite connection with the problem of miscegenation”. Oy.
  • A single woman raising her daughter and opening her own restaurant? Bea must have gone to the Mildred Pierce Academy of Entrepreneurship and Family Therapy.
  • I get the feeling Walter Matthau saw Ned Sparks’ performance in this movie and decided to base his entire screen persona on it. But hey, it’s a nice change of pace to see someone other than the black maid be the comic relief in a ‘30s movie.
  • And then this movie very clumsily tries to tackle societal racism, with Delilah saying she “don’t know rightly where the blame lies” while looking almost directly into the camera. Real subtle everyone.
  • Longtime readers might recognize Fredi Washington from “Black and Tan” and “The Emperor Jones”. Washington was one of the first successful light-skinned African Americans in show business, and her casting as Peola was quite controversial. Up until then, light-skinned African Americans were portrayed by white actors in makeup. If nothing else, “Imitation of Life” busted down one of filmdom’s strongest taboos.
  • Is it just me, or is there no chemistry between Bea and Stephen? Both Colbert and William are charming, but together something doesn’t click.
  • How did Bea not figure out that Jessie had the hots for Stephen? They’re practically all over each other. Wake up, Mom!
  • This movie has its share of problems, and it is an unapologetic melodrama, but I’ll be damned if Peola didn’t make me tear up at the end. Even the most troublesome films can have effective emotional moments.
  • When it comes to curtain lines, “I want my quack-quack” is one of the weirder ones. The film tries to bring things full circle with Bea and her daughter, but at the end of the day, that’s not the plotline we care about.

Legacy

  • With a somewhat looser censor board in 1959, Douglas Sirk worked his melodrama magic on a remake of “Imitation of Life”. The remake found its own place on the National Film Registry, though is still plagued by some of the same problems its predecessor faced.
  • Many assumed that Fredi Washington, like her character, wished to pass for white in real life. Washington was always quick to shoot down this assumption, stating on several occasions, “I am a Negro and I am proud of it.” Her film career ended shortly after “Imitation of Life” (producers felt casting her was too risky), and like Louise Beavers, Ms. Washington spent the rest of her life as a vocal civil rights activist.

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