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Imitation of Life ’34

by Glenn Erickson Jan 17, 2023

John M. Stahl’s superior melodrama is a focus point for the study of African-Americans in Hollywood. Businesswoman Claudette Colbert a housekeeper Louise Beavers raise their daughters together for a story that expresses the racial divide in simple terms. Determined to pass for white, Beavers’ daughter Fredi Washington rejects her mother outright. The tale of motherly sacrifice is in some ways more honest than later ‘social justice’ films about race, yet it sticks closely to Hollywood’s segregationist rules.


Imitation of Life
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1167
1934 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 110 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date January 10, 2023 / 39.95
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks, Juanita Quigley, Alan Hale, Henry Armetta, Hattie McDaniel, Paul Porcasi, Teru Shimada, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Jane Withers, Dorothy Black.
Cinematography: Merrit Gerstad
Costumes: Travis Banton
Art Director: Charles D. Hall
Film Editor: Philip Cahn, Maurice Wright
Original Music: Heinz Roemheld
Screenplay by William Hurlbut from the novel by Fannie Hurst
Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.
Directed by
John M. Stahl

Universal produced two films from Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life; the 1934 original is the more interesting of the two. It has something almost unheard-of in Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking: black actors in substantial dramatic roles. Actresses Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington aren’t afforded equal status in the story, far from it. But theirs is the compelling storyline, and their combined appeal steals the movie.

Released late in 1934, this first version was monitored closely by the newly enforced Production Code Administration. It might at first seem to fulfill the Code’s avowed purpose — its highly moral story is filmed with sincerity and good taste. Criterion’s extras applaud the fine work of director John M. Stahl and point up the film’s obviously progressive aspects. What strikes us today is the casting of African-American actress Fredi Washington to play a black woman ‘passing’ for white. Washington’s character rebels against her mother’s acceptance of the racist status quo. Why should her life options be limited?  She’s torn by a serious identity crisis:

“Look at me. Am I not white? Isn’t that a white girl?”

The show’s progressive posture is mostly limited to the opportunity given to two deserving actresses. Even this exceptional picture observes the racial double standard that was already present in Hollywood filmmaking, and became firmly entrenched with the enforcement of the Code.

The show begins in Depression-era territory, with dialogue that doesn’t quite acknowledge hard times, as would a pre-Code show just a year before. Widow Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert) can’t make ends meet continuing her husband’s work selling maple syrup to restaurants. She has debts to pay and a toddler to take care of as well, her daughter Jessie. Domestic worker Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) offers to work for Bea for almost no pay, just for a place to keep her own small daughter, Peola.

Inspired by Delilah’s delicious pancakes, made from a secret family recipe, Bea uses her business knowhow and feminine allure to get a pancake house business going from nothing. Five years later, her debts are paid off. Bea’s business partner Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks) convinces her to market a pancake mix using Delilah’s secret recipe. They offer Delilah 20% of the business, but she declines, preferring to just remain Bea’s maid and good friend.

Trouble comes when young Peola realizes that she can pass for white, and decides that her own mother’s blackness is a humiliating handicap. When the girls are of college age (now played by Fredi Washington and Rochelle Hudson) Peola rebels, leaving her all-Negro college. Much worse, she disavows her connection to Delilah. Bea’s new romance with Stephen Archer (Warren William) is complicated by 18 year-old Jessie falling in love with him too. But Delilah’s heartache is much more serious — Peola runs away, vowing never to return.

Released five months after the strengthening of the Production Code, Imitation of Life seems to suggest that the now tightly enforced Code might stimulate adult, socially progressive subject matter. John M. Stahl said that his main concern was to communicate feelings. The show is primarily a ‘women’s story’ about the sacrifice of mothers, aimed just as squarely at the damp hankie crowd as King Vidor’s Stella Dallas. Yet the film’s subplot about ‘passing’ is what has kept it a relevant topic of discussion.

 

In 1934 African-Americans in movies were restricted to a narrow range of roles, either comedy relief or in musical numbers. In Imitation Bea’s half of the mother-to-mother story gets more screen time but Delilah’s half is what engages our interest. The social divide between an educated white professional and a black domestic worker is considerable, yet the relationship between them feels natural: the two are perfectly positioned to help each other. It was customary for pre-Code ‘independent women’ to be entertainers — in the previous year’s Torch Singer Colbert played an unmarried mother who becomes a radio star. Colbert’s Bea pulls herself out of Depression insolvency the same way that Mildred Pierce did, by starting a business. As in all post-Code films about bootstrap entrepreneurism, Bea makes the founding of a big business seem easy.

Bea’s progress with businessmen is the opposite of Mildred’s with pies. Mildred was practically required to sleep with a real estate agent to get her restaurant in motion. Bea has only to bat her eyelashes to obtain the credit she needs to remodel her pancake house. She leverages the labor of Delilah and the business acumen of Elmer Smith, and in a few years a giant neon sign of Delilah’s beaming face looks down on Manhattan. It’s the American Way.

Atop her pancake empire, Bea now wears world-class gowns and entertains nightly in her midtown house with its grand piano and open-air garden terrace. Her beau Stephen (Warren William) is a cultured fantasy, a wealthy ichthyologist with his own yacht, who spends his evenings in white tie and tails. Even with her kind attention to Delilah, Bea’s half of the story becomes becomes forgettable elitist mush.

 

“Bow your head. You got to learn to take it.”

But Delilah and Peola’s problems are emotionally devastating. Delilah still thinks of herself as ‘Mammy’ and recoils from any notion of changing her status. Delilah wants nothing for herself. Instead of accepting a chunk of the corporation, she just asks that Bea set aside money for the lavish funeral she’s always wanted.

Bea’s concern for Delilah comes with a degree of condescension. She both honors and humors Delilah’s self-enforced humility. With her life experience, we understand why Delilah would withdraw from complex issues and seek a simple personal arrangement dependent on Bea’s good will. But is Delilah’s pure, childlike innocence a racist stereotype, as some contemporary critics argued?  Even if Delilah denies herself, it doesn’t follow that she would be blind to Peola’s dilemma. It seems inconceivable that Delilah not understand the cruel politics about ‘passing.’

 

Fredi Washington is the film’s most dynamic character — even the spelling Fredi makes her seem a contemporary woman stuck in the wrong decade. We’re on Peola’s side when she expresses her inner rage, and when her attempt to pass is foiled by her own mother. The world demands that Peola abandon her ambition and her pride.

Bea is concerned about the trouble between Delilah and Peola, but also clueless regarding how she might help. When Bea and Delilah find the runaway Peola working as a cashier in a ritzy uptown restaurant, passing for white, Bea would be the logical person to go in to directly contact her.    But it’s Delilah who enters the all-white establishment to talk to Peola, putting her on the spot. The confrontation is wrenching, almost Biblical. Peola denies her mother more than once, as did Peter in the Passion story.

Imitation of Life is a product of a movie industry that maximized its profits by racially cleansing all product to be compatible with ‘community standards.’ Regional Southern censor boards would reject for exhibition movies that failed segregationist criteria. The races had to be depicted as socially separate in business and in daily life; blacks could not be shown as equals in any way.

 

‘Sanitized’ for the Censors.

White Supremacists would of course reject Imitation’s black characterizations outright, but the PCA’s stance was almost as racist. The presence of a light-skinned black character would indicate what was then given the legal term miscegenation, which the PCA had decreed could not be a part of movie entertainment. An exception was made, partly quoting a mealy-mouthed excuse that the forbidden instance of race mixing happened way before the present, and was not a direct issue.

The film isolates its black characters as much as is possible. Delilah really has contact only with Bea, and most of their interaction is carefully modulated. Bea is always scrupulously fair and thoughtful, on her best behavior. Even as Delilah stands in Bea’s kitchen pleading for employment, she remains meek and subservient. She’s the original movie Mammy, the cheerful domestic that, when her white employer encounters difficulties, works for free out of the goodness of her heart. Bea accepts the bargain on its unequal terms. She’ll do her best for Delilah, but the deal is open-ended and non-binding.

We see the undemanding Delilah as a superior soul, even though she presents herself as incapable of taking on anything more complicated than housework. Noting how smart the young Peola is, she says that  “We all starts out that way; we don’t get dumb till later on.”  It’s as if her will had been scalded out by years of hardship and cruelty. She interacts with others in ways least likely to cause her pain. Were Delilah any more subservient, we’d think she was putting on a simpleton act. Although Bea truly cares, she mostly doesn’t interfere in Delilah’s self-denial. She accepts her at face value.

Delilah initially minds the house and the children, freeing Bea to make a living in the outside world. Their closest contact is made when Bea returns home with aching feet, which Delilah volunteers to rub. It’s their most natural, sharing scene, even if we can’t imagine Bea offering to reciprocate in kind. Delilah even offers Bea romantic advice, which Bea accepts with amusement. But she’s also touched. The moment forms the basis for their mutually trusting, if grossly asymmetrical, relationship.

 

Delilah’s part in the business venture is passive. Bea decides to exploit Delilah’s pancake recipe without even asking for permission. Bea presumes that Delilah will work in the restaurant, and presumes to use her Jemima-like portrait in the café’s advertising, which becomes a trademark.    The inference is that Bea means well for Delilah, but this is still rank exploitation.

The same thing happens when they incorporate. Delilah won’t sign the papers giving her 20% of a business for which she rates at least 40%. There is apparently no formal contract — Bea just promises to set Delilah’s money aside for her. What happens if the business is bought, or if Bea dies?  Elmer Smith witnesses this deal with a look that is either kindhearted benevolence  (‘what a sweet woman!’)  or amused disbelief  (‘Aren’t we being generous with this ninny?’). 

The arrangement wasn’t taken as an outrage — 14 years later, in a supposedly more liberated postwar Hollywood, Cary Grant’s executive keeps his advertising job and his costly dream house by openly appropriating a slogan invented by his housemaid/cook Gussie . . . Louise Beavers.  Grant and Myrna Loy live in style, and Gussie gets zilch.

 

Editorials in African American magazines in 1935, didn’t echo the mainstream critics’ praise for Imitation of Life. Delilah and Peola live in Bea’s showcase townhouse in as segregated a manner as is possible — on a separate, lower level. We never see them eat at the same table. Some of the servants are black; they remain on the margins, invisible. If Bessie were home from school she would likely attend Bea’s swank parties. Delilah and Peola continue to behave like servants. There are no situations where blacks socialize with whites.

Delilah remains invisible to Bea’s associates, a non-entity. Although they express concern for her, Elmer and Stephen never acknowledge Delilah personally, not even for a greeting. Nobody even speaks to Delilah directly — all communication goes through Bea.

The gross inequality in Peola’s grade school class might make white movie patrons consider the injustice of the segregated status quo. But the film reinforces the notion that white and black just don’t mix. When Peola shamefully exiles herself from the all-white classroom, nobody suggests that a wrong needs to be righted, not even the obviously sensitive schoolteacher.    That’s (sigh) just how things are.

 

Every black-white interaction is segregated. When riding in Bea’s car Delilah mostly sits up front with the chauffeur. That class distinction stays in place even at the sentimental finale: when Peola and Bea are tearfully reunited in the middle of a crowd, Peola still sits up front in Bea’s car, like a servant.

When Peola is seen working in the restaurant, she’s poised and ladylike. But to have a white man take an interest in her would be unthinkable to the Production Code. Just by showing things as they are, the movie is progressive. But the message is ambiguous. Peola is still wrong for trying to pass, even when the only alternative relegates her to inferior status. (In the book, Peola does find an alternative, the same taken by many American blacks sick of discrimination. She goes abroad to live in a civilized country.)

Delilah’s life seems completely isolated until the finale, when we learn that she’s been part of a vibrant church community and a member of an African-American lodge. A great crowd turns out to acknowledge Delilah’s goodness. Bea and Stephen are impressed by this demonstration, but not enough.

 

John M. Stahl’s direction is often praised for its sincerity. We remember Bea and Delilah’s affectionate relationship, not a social statement. But one scene ends with a line of dialogue that truly gives away the game. Elmer Smith remains respectfully silent as Bea tries to persuade Delilah to come into business with her, to take official possession of what she’s due. We’re supposed to think Elmer a good guy because he doesn’t just roll his eyes and say ‘the silly fool doesn’t want the money, so give up.’

But then, in full Ned Sparks form, Elmer expresses his disbelief at Delilah’s decision with a semi-sarcastic comment:

“Once a pancake, always a pancake.”

We read the line as a euphemism, a tame version of  “Once a n_____, always a n_____.”

That dialogue line has seen a lot of discussion over the years. (Lester B. Granger in Opportunity magazine of March 1935, page 88.)   *

Audiences charmed by Delilah’s goodness and Bea’s heartfelt concern overlook its segregationist hypocrisy. Good intentions place Imitation of Life in the plus column, even if its sensitivity is carefully shaped and limited. Ten years later, a major wave of ‘social justice’ cinema became big box office. For a year or two, producers made responsible liberal arguments a selling point, in films ‘bravely’ calling out controversial issues, especially intolerance toward Jews and blacks.

The film was still banned in some municipalities in 1934. When reissued in 1945, censors in Atlanta decided to ban it, even though it had originally been shown in that city without comment. The notoriously racist Memphis censor Lloyd Binford rejected every release of Imitation. He reportedly said that if Memphis residents wanted to see it, they’d have to go outside the city limits.

Imitation’s main claim to artistic relevance comes through Fredi Washington’s unforgettable characterization . . . she’s simply genuine, the real deal. Ten years later, when Hollywood had a role that needed a black-that-can-pass-for-white, it almost always went to a white — as with actresses Jeanne Crain,  Beatrice Pearson & Susan Douglas. Movies from the pre-Code era weren’t racially inclusive, but the Production Code helped greatly to maintain and promote segregationist values.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Imitation of Life is a stunning 4K digital restoration. We wish every ninety-year-old film could be preserved so well.

The extras aren’t many — John M. Stahl wasn’t a director with a strong PR presence, and by the time film culture took a look backwards he had been gone for twenty years. Universal (or a collector?) provides a trailer tailored for the African-American theater circuit, which billboards the black cast only. Beavers and Washington’s names don’t appear on standard theatrical posters, but bit-part player Henry Armetta’s does.

The disc benefits from excellent critical-editorial input of two serious scholars. Imogen Sara Smith has written about Stahl, and offers a thoughtful and reasoned discussion about the film’s impact and importance. It was recognized as fine filmmaking, and nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Most reviews were overwhelmingly positive and complimentary to the two black stars, although Smith touches on some differences of opinion in the press. She also explains how Claudette Colbert was Hollywood’s woman of the year for 1934, in three big, very different successes, De Mille’s Cleopatra,  Imitation of Life and the Best Oscar winner  It Happened One Night.

 

Miriam J. Petty contributes another excellent video lecture plus the disc’s insert text essay. Here we learn much more about the way Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington worked in a demeaning industry while maintaining the respect of the black community. Washington only made a few movies. When Hollywood offered no worthwhile roles she returned to the New York stage and took up work in political activism.

The final scene seems tacked on to assure audiences that all is well, that the ‘race crisis’ is over. Peola has returned to the all-Negro school as her mother would have wanted. Are we to assume that she has given up her foolish notions about passing?  If Criterion takes on the 1959 Douglas Sirk remake, the comparison ought to be interesting . . . did Hollywood learn anything in 25 years?

Written with major input by correspondent ‘B.’

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Imitation of Life
Blu-ray rates:

Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
‘Introduction’ video essay by Imogen Sara Smith
Video essay with Miriam J. Petty
Trailer tailored for segregated Black theaters
Insert foldout with a text essay by Ms. Petty.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
January 12, 2023
(6858life)

*  In the same link to the magazine Opportunity, down on page 121, author Fannie Hurst and critic Sterling A. Brown argue the merits of the film Imitation of Life. On page 185, Hazel Washington is even more explicit about the disputed ‘pancake’ dialogue line. She interprets it as ‘You darkies will always be darkies.’

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.