Sunday, June 24, 2018

Imitation of Life (1934)

Imitation of Life (1934) with Warren William (Stephen Archer), Louise Beavers (Delilah Johnson) and Claudette Colbert (Beatrice Pullman).

Uhrattua elämää / Livets offer / Lo specchio della vita.
    Director: John M. Stahl. Year: 1934. Country: USA.
    Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo di Fannie Hurst. Scen.: William Hurlbut. F.: Merritt Gerstad. M.: Philip Cahn, Maurice Wright. Scgf.: Charles D. Hall. Mus.: Heinz Roemheld. Int.: Claudette Colbert (Beatrice Pullman), Warren William (Stephen Archer), Rochelle Hudson (Jessie Pullman), Ned Sparks (Elmer Smith), Louise Beavers (Delilah Johnson), Fredi Washington (Peola Johnson), Baby Jane (Jessie Pullman bambina), Alan Hale (Martin), Henry Armetta (il pittore), Wyndham Standing (il maggiordomo). Prod.: Carl Laemmle Jr. per Universal Pictures. 35 mm. D.: 111’. Bn.
    Spirituals included in the score: "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen", "Old Man River", "Lord Have Mercy on Her Soul".
    Print from Universal. A Comcast company.
    Introducono Ehsan Khoshbakht and Jay Weissberg.
    Viewed with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato (Immortal Imitations: The Cinema of John M. Stahl),  Sunday 24/06/2018

Jonathan Rosenbaum (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "Americans know that Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” means “Make America white again” – a nostalgic longing for the repressive 50s, when Eisenhower spent as much time golfing as Trump does today, and when black men were caddies rather than players if they were visible at all. This is the America that warmly greeted Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life in 1959, and when I saw it in a whites-only Alabama theatre, this was with sobbing white matrons responding to the film’s deeply conservative message about knowing your place. Consequently, when I was informed by armchair Marxists in the 70s that the film was a work of Brechtian subterfuge, I recalled that the film was released during the Civil Rights movement, when Sirk’s bitter ironies were far too subtle to affect the status quo. As Sirk noted himself, “Imitation of Life is a picture about the situation of the blacks before the time of the slogan ‘black is beautiful’”. In Alabama, this isn’t called Brechtian, it’s called scaredy-cat."

"Twenty-five year earlier, John Stahl’s original adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s then-current (1933) novel was also conservative, but because the Depression was a far more progressive period than the conformist 1950s, it comes across today as considerably more enlightened. The black cook who moves in with the white heroine – Delilah (Louise Beavers) in the original, Annie (Juanita Moore) in the remake – is not really an equal, but at least she’s a business partner, and the film’s title is perhaps best illustrated by her manufactured smile, delivered on request to create an advertising logo for her pancakes. Her light-skinned daughter who passes for white is significantly played by a black actress (Fredi Washington) instead of a white one (Susan Kohner in the Sirk), and her mother is noticeably blacker, making the existential terms of the debate far more stark and honest. And thanks partly to the skill of Claudette Colbert, the humour of Stahl’s version is much warmer and less cynical, expressing the more inclusive humanism of the 30s, when, as critic Manny Farber once noted, “all shapes were legitimate”." Jonathan Rosenbaum

AA: It was an interesting emphasis of Universal Pictures in the 1930s that they produced high profile films with racial issues such as Show Boat and Imitation of Life.

I have seen John M. Stahl's Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession before but my first impression of them had been that they are fine melodrama subjects whose full potential was realized only by Douglas Sirk.

Seeing Stahl's Back Street for the first time a couple of years ago in Bologna I realized that I may have missed something about Stahl. His Back Street is generally considered the best adaptation of the subject.

In Imitation of Life, Stahl's approach is more laid back and more matter-of-fact then Sirk's. The performances of Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, and Rochelle Hudson are moving and engaging. Ned Sparks is an embodiment of lateral thinking. Of Warren William it is hard to say how intentionally dubious his character is meant to be understood.

The story of racial discrimination is all too relevant today. In Imitation of Life we see it at the school and at the cigar store. It is the story of a daughter who disowns her mother because of the colour of her skin. The heartbreak is too much for the mother to bear.

The multiple injustice experienced by Delilah (Louise Beavers) is never explicitly condemned but can there be a viewer who can remain indifferent to her predicament.

A very good 35 mm print from Universal.



Correspondence in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library reveal that the AMPP was reluctant to approve Universal's original script because they felt that "the main theme is founded upon the results of sex association between the white and black race (miscegenation), and as such, in our opinion, it not only violates the Production Code but is very dangerous from the standpoint both of industry and public policy." Also objectionable was a lynching scene in the original script in which a young African-American man is nearly hanged for approaching a white woman whom he believed had given him an invitation. In a memorandum for the files, the AMPP noted that they met with Carl Laemmle, Jr. and Universal Assistant General Manager Harry H. Zehner, and "emphasized the dangers involved in treating this story as regards to the possibilities having to do with negroes. It was our contention that this part of the plot--the action of the negro girl appearing as white--has a definite connection with the problem of miscegenation. We pointed out that not only from the picture point of view of the producer himself, but also from the point of view of the industry as a whole, this was an extremely dangerous subject and surely to prove troublesome, not only in the south, where it would be universally condemned, but everywhere else. The lynching scene in this story was discussed with the understanding if used at all, would be considerably modified. The producer suggested that to avoid the inference that the leading character was a descendant of a white ancestor, they would definitely establish that her white skin was due to a rare but scientific fact that such a child might come of a line of definitely negro strain."

On 22 Mar 1934, AMPP director Joseph I. Breen sent a memo to Will H. Hays at the MPPDA updating him on Imitation of Life , and informing him that the studio was considering dropping the story. Breen sent the script to Maurice McKenzie, Executive Assistant to Hays, who, in addition to noting problems with words and phrases such as "nigger," "Mah Lo'dy" and "Lo'd help," disagreed that the film dealt with miscegenation as "the act of miscegenation has occurred so remotely in the ancestry of the characters that it need not concern us." Nonetheless, he continued that "We here share your concern over the attempt to discuss a racial problem of this nature on the screen, and it is our earnest hope that you will be able to persuade the company to abandon its plans for production." A 3 Jul memo reveals that Dr. James C. Wingate of the AMPP met again with Harry Zehner and John Stahl, who requested written approval of the script. Wingate demurred, as the AMPP still had not received a complete script and they felt that "the real problem involved in the script occurs in the last part of the story." He further noted that he "discussed with Mr. Stahl the word 'nigger.' He advised me he would not use the word, 'nigger,' with the possible exception of one or two places in the script, and there he will be fully protected. He intends to use the terms 'black'--'colored'--'darky'--and 'negro.'" Although by 17 Jul the picture had been shooting for two weeks, Breen continued to refuse to approve the script, stating that "it is our conviction that any picture which raises and elaborates such an inflammable racial question as that raised by this picture, is fraught with grave danger to the industry, and hence is one which we, in the dispensation of our responsibilities under the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation of the Production Code, may be obliged to reject."

Baby Jane changed her name to Juanita Quigley during production. According to a news item in DV , Paul Lukas was originally wanted for the role of "Stephen Archer," but Warren William was borrowed from Warner Bros. instead. A news item in HR noted that the film was doing a "stand-out business" at the Roxy theatre in New York, where "the Sunday jam resulted in a call for the police and fire departments to keep the waiting crowd in order." The Var review stated that the "most arresting part of the picture and overshadowing the conventional the tragedy of Aunt Delilah's girl born to a white skin and Negro blood. This subject has never been treated upon the screen before....It seems very probable the picture may make some slight contribution to the cause of greater tolerance and humanity in the racial question." The Literary Digest review notes that "In Imitation of Life, the screen is extremely careful to avoid its most dramatic theme, obviously because it fears its social implications....The real story [is]...that of the beautiful and rebellious daughter of the loyal negro friend....Obviously she is the most interesting person in the cast. They [the producers] appear to be fond of her mother, because she is of the meek type of old-fashioned Negro that, as they say, 'knows his place,' but the daughter is too bitter and lacking in resignation for them." Imitation of Life was nominated for Best Picture at the 1934 Academy Awards. Modern sources report that the African-American press viewed this film unfavorably, and that Louise Beavers was assisted by the NAACP in influencing the filmmakers to delete the word "nigger" from the screenplay. A modern source includes Dennis O'Keefe (then known as Bud Flanagan) as a dance extra. Universal released a remake in 1959 based on the same source, directed by Douglas Sirk, and starring Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner (see below).


After her husband's death, Beatrice Pullman continues his maple syrup business and hires Delilah Johnson to take care of her home and daughter Jessie. Delilah moves in with her daughter Peola, who, although she is light-skinned, is black like her mother. After tasting Delilah's delicious pancakes, made from a family recipe, Bea uses her gumption and ingenuity to open Aunt Delilah's Pancake House. The restaurant is a success and they are finally able to live comfortably, but Peola grows up resenting her heritage, as she feels it separates her from the rest of society. On the suggestion of vagrant Elmer Smith, Bea boxes the pancake mix, and hires Elmer as her manager. Bea prints Delilah's likeness on every box, and the business becomes a multimillion dollar corporation. Although she makes twenty percent of the profits, Delilah chooses to stay on as Bea's maid. At a party celebrating the tenth anniversary of the business, Bea meets ichthyologist Stephen Archer, who is a friend of Elmer. Bea and Stephen fall in love and make plans to marry, but decide to wait until Jessie meets him. Jessie returns home for a vacation from college, but Bea asks Stephen to look after her as she is compelled to go to Virginia with Delilah to find Peola, who has run away from college. In Virginia, Delilah finds Peola working at a restaurant that prohibits black customers. Peola bitterly denies knowing Delilah, and runs out of the restaurant. She returns home briefly, however, where she disowns Delilah so that she can lead a non-segregated life. In the meantime, Jessie has fallen in love with Stephen, although he has given her no encouragement, and thinks of her as a mere child. Peola's departure proves too much for Delilah, who becomes gravely ill. On her deathbed, Delilah asks Bea to take care of Peola should she ever return. Peola attends Delilah's funeral, and becomes overwhelmed by her own selfishness and the loss of her mother. Bea takes her home, and in time Peola agrees to return to college. Acknowledging Jessie's love for Stephen, Bea postpones their wedding indefinitely until Jessie no longer loves him, so that there will be no obstacles. Stephen promises to wait, and Bea and Jessie reminisce about the time when their beloved Delilah first arrived.


Imitation of Life is a popular 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst that was adapted into two successful films for Universal Pictures: a 1934 film, and a 1959 remake. It dealt with issues of race, class, and gender.

From the turn of the 20th century until the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia (1967), numerous Southern states passed laws enforcing a "one-drop rule", requiring that persons of any known African ancestry had to be classified in records as black. Only black and white were recognized as racial categories, and blacks were restricted by racial segregation laws. Virginia passed such a one-drop law in 1924.

Plot summary

Set in the 1910s at "the Shore" of New Jersey, the novel explores issues of race and class in early 20th-century America. Bea Chipley is a quiet, mousey, Atlantic City teenage girl whose mother dies, leaving her to keep house for her father (Mr. Chipley) and Benjamin Pullman, a boarder who peddles ketchup and relish on the boardwalk and sells maple syrup door-to-door. Within a year, her father and Pullman decide that she should marry Pullman; she soon becomes pregnant and has a daughter named Jessie. Her father suffers an incapacitating stroke, confining him to a wheelchair, and Pullman is killed in a train accident. Bea is left to fend for her father and Jessie by herself.

She takes in boarders to defray expenses, as well as peddling Pullman's maple syrup door-to-door, using his "B. Pullman" business cards to avoid the ubiquitous sexism of the 1910s. To care for her infant daughter and disabled father, Bea Pullman hires Delilah, an African-American mammy figure, who has an infant daughter Peola. The girl has "light skin" (as described then; it shows her partial European descent, which is not as obvious in her mother.)

As Delilah is a master waffle-maker, Bea capitalizes on Delilah's skills to open a "B. Pullman" waffle restaurant. It attracts many of the tourists at the Shore. She eventually builds a nationwide and then international chain of highly successful restaurants from this start. Frank Flake, a young man intent on entering medical school, becomes Bea's business manager.

Jessie and Peola have grown up side by side. Peola is painfully aware of the tension between her white appearance and black racial identity (as imposed by society). She continually attempts to pass as white to gain wider advantages. Disturbed by her daughter's unhappiness, Delilah encourages the girl to take pride in her black "race." Eventually, after living in Seattle for several years as a white woman, Peola severs all local ties. She marries a white man and moves to Bolivia to pass permanently. Heartbroken, Delilah dies soon after.

Bea falls in love with Flake, who is eight years her junior. Jessie, by now in her late teens, comes home for a visit just as Bea is planning on selling the "B. Pullman" chain to marry Flake. The three are mired in a love triangle in the last dozen or so pages, resulting in a tragic ending.

Literary significance and criticism

Hurst was a Jewish woman and supporter of feminist causes. She also supported African Americans in their struggle for greater equality. She was deeply involved in the Harlem Renaissance, especially with Zora Neale Hurston. Hurst helped sponsor Hurston in her first year at Barnard College and employed Hurston briefly as an executive secretary. The two traveled together on road trips that may have contributed to Hurst's understanding of racial discrimination. Both Hurston and Langston Hughes claimed to like Imitation of Life, though both reversed their opinion after Sterling Allen Brown lambasted both the book and the 1934 film adaptation in a review entitled "Imitation of Life: Once a Pancake", a reference to a line in the first film.

The novel Imitation of Life continues to provoke controversy, as some read it as heavy-handed stereotyping, while others see it as a more subtle and subversive satire of and commentary on race, sex, and class in early 20th-century America. At the time, Peola was described as a "light-skinned black"; people did not refer to the history of relations between Europeans and Africans that produced such mixed-race descendants[citation needed]. The book was adapted twice as film, in 1934 and 1959. Both the novel and films have remained deeply embedded in the American consciousness. Toni Morrison named one of her characters "Pecola" in her 1970 novel The Bluest Eye.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

    1934 – Imitation of Life directed by John M. Stahl
    1959 – Imitation of Life directed by Douglas Sirk
    1992 – De Frente al Sol produced by Carla Estrada

Novel publication details

    1933, US, P F Collier (ISBN NA), Pub date ? ? 1933, hardback (First edition)
    1990, US, Borgo Press (ISBN 0-8095-9011-5), Pub date ? December 1990, hardback
    1990, UK, HarperCollins (ISBN 0-06-096365-4), Pub date ? February 1990, paperback
    2005, US, Duke University Press (ISBN 0-8223-3324-4), Pub date 15 January 2005, paperback


Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2003.

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