Judge Jennifer Malkowski prefers this imitation (of life) to another imitation (of crab meat) that she experienced at a Chinese restaurant last week.
Delilah: "Teacher, has she been passing?"
Providing a fascinating comparison of two classic melodramas based on the same novel, Imitation of Life: Two-Movie Special Edition showcases the masterful melodrama of directors John M. Stahl (1934 version) and Douglas Sirk (1959 version). The set also allows helps viewers to critically consider the troubling racial themes so central to each film and the progress that was (and wasn't) made in Hollywood's depiction of race between 1934 and 1959.
Facts of the Case
Both versions of Imitation of Life tell roughly the same story (from the novel Singer House by Fannie Hurst) of two mothers—one white and one black—living together without husbands and raising daughters in a society full of obstacles. But a few noteworthy differences, and a full change of character names, make two synopses helpful:
In Stahl's 1934 version, a feisty young widow named Bea (Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night) is struggling to manage a lackluster business and raise her daughter, Jessie (played as an adult by Rochelle Hudson, Rebel Without a Cause), when help arrives on her doorstep. Delilah (Louise Beavers, Holiday Inn) is a single African-American mother willing to work for just room and board in order to keep her very light-skinned daughter, Peola (Fredi Washington, One Mile From Heaven). Bea takes Delilah on as a housekeeper and soon decides to market the woman's secret pancake recipe, opening first a restaurant and then a whole corporation to sell the pancake mix by the box. As Bea and Delilah (unequally) enjoy the riches of their (unequal) collaboration and Bea receives attention from a handsome admirer (Warren William, Cleopatra), Jessie and Peola grow into teenagers. Jessie undergoes painful schoolgirl crushes, but Peola experiences more serious angst from her unyielding desire to pass as white, even at the expense of her mother's feelings.
In Sirk's 1959 version, the young widow is Lora (Lana Turner, Somewhere I'll Find You), who becomes a successful actress of stage and screen rather than a businesswoman. Her housekeeper, Annie (Juanita Moore, Walk on the Wild Side) makes no direct contribution to her financial success this time around, and primarily serves as the caretaker of Susie (Sandra Dee, A Summer Place) and her own light-skinned daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner, Freud). The white woman's love interest is present from the first scene this time in the character of Steve (John Gavin, Psycho), a photographer enamored with Lora, but not with her relentless ambition.
Perhaps in 1934, Imitation of Life seemed like a typical depression-era escapist melodrama that happened to have a subplot about black characters, focusing more on the opulent mansions, beautiful jewelry and dresses, and dazzling romances of a rags-to-riches white woman. Today's scholarly interest in the original film and its 1959 remake looks past the glitz and takes interest instead in those revealing "subplots"—in the much more unusual story of the black housekeeper and her ever-troubled "almost white" daughter. For me, these films retain their interest both as great melodramas and as fascinating, and often troubling, glimpses into Hollywood's treatment of race in the '30s and the '50s, and it is the confluence and juxtaposition of white and black motherhood in those eras.
First, let's tackle the racial issues raised by the film—both what is problematic and what was progressive for the time. An important bit of historical background information is that the Production Code, which allowed Hollywood to self-censor its films rather than submit them to government censorship, was strengthened in 1934 when the first Imitation was filming and expressly forbade on-screen treatment of miscegenation, among other themes. Peola, then, was a bold, progressive, and dangerous character because she raised the specter of racial mixing (and note that both versions' scripts take pains to inform us that the girl's father was a light-skinned black, not a white man). Straddling this racial border, Peola/Sarah Jane unfortunately yearns to categorize herself as definitively white, and this agonizing African-American self-loathing is one aspect of the films that has offended many. Much like Hollywood's first gay-identified character, The Children's Hour's Martha Dobie, Sarah Jane wants terribly not just to "pass" within the dominant group (white, straight), but to truly belong in that group and forget the part of her identity that brings prejudice and hardship. As distasteful as Peola/Sarah Jane's self-loathing is, Delilah/Annie's cheerful subservience is even more offensive. As one commentator in the featurette remarks, "Delilah was reflective of what white America had hoped freed slaves would be like—very accepting of the overt racism that was going on and willing to still operate within a subservient role." When Delilah offers to work for very low wages at the beginning, we sympathize with her desperation and understand the choice, but when Bea later offers her a 20 percent share in the company her recipe built and her own house, Delilah balks and says she only wants to stay and take care of Bea and Jessie. At this point, our suspension of disbelief falters, and to top it off, Delilah confesses that all she wants money for is her funeral: "I does hanker for a good funeral." The stereotype of the black servant content simply to serve in life and desiring extravagance only in death is indeed offensive and detracts from other more progressive aspects of these films.
These racist aspects of the films lie close to the surface, but the more insidiously problematic racial message has to do with the films' attitudes toward passing. In both films, the black mother, whom we sympathize with strongly, fiercely advises her daughter against passing as white. Delilah tells Peola to attend a black college, to "go amongst your own. Quit battling!" and not to question how God made her (re: black). Annie disapproves of the practice even more strongly, saying "It's a sin to be ashamed of what you are. And it's even worse to pretend, to lie." It may be black characters who are speaking against passing in these films, but the sentiment surely relates most strongly to white American anxieties about visual confirmation of race. The idea of people who were "really" black being able to pass and circulate among whites—working with them, socializing with them, even having sexual relationships with them (as Sarah Jane threatens to)—hit on a strong and persistent fear of racial ambiguity for white America. It is a fear that explodes violently onto the screen when Sarah Jane's white boyfriend beats her and calls her "nigger" after finding out she is not completely white. Though Imitation of Life certainly condemns this violence, both films ultimately also discourage passing and condemn Peola/Sarah Jane for transgressing safe racial categorization.
With these several serious offenses in their racial themes, the Imitation of Life films are perhaps politically unredeemable. But cultural and film historians Avery Clayton and Foster Hirsch help viewers to see a few more ways that the films were progressive for their time in their depictions of race and gender. For one thing, Clayton asserts that the 1934 version was the first Hollywood film to pay substantial attention to the emotional lives of African-Americans, and points out that it also portrayed a radical, lifelong friendship between a white and a black woman. [Spoiler in the following sentence] One should also note that the 1934 version is largely about the emotional lives of strong, independent women, with the male love interest entering late and eventually discarded. Bea is a smart, motivated woman who succeeds in a male-dominated business (unlike Lora who takes on the more typically feminine actress role), and Delilah, though without her consent, is the direct cause of their success. Commenting on the 1959 version, Hirsch illuminates the fact that the black mother and daughter become the focus of the picture, even to the extent that the studio added a scene between Lora and Susie to try to prevent such a takeover. Hirsh astutely observes that the "black characters are more commanding and our sympathy goes to them."
Moving from politics to aesthetics and emotional weight, both versions of Imitation of Life remain artistically interesting and emotionally captivating. Stahl's version is less visually aggressive than Sirk's, but still offers some treats in its sets, costumes, and in the disturbing interludes in which he tracks Delilah's rise to an Aunt Jemimah status of exploitation:
Sirk pushes the mise en scène farther than Stahl, truly languishing in the opulence of Lora's glamorous lifestyle and the seediness of Sarah Jane's "imitation" of that lifestyle.
Great attention is paid to everything we see on the screen: sets, costumes, props, lighting, color, camera angles and movements. As a result, almost every shot is interesting to look at and many subtly communicate the deeper themes of this overtly superficial world.
On a character and emotional level, both films are triumphs. Great performances from the casts (and especially by Claudette Colbert and Juanita Moore), moving scores, and skilled directing create some incredibly powerful scenes near the end of these movies. The final half-hour of each film got me crying, and tears are always the best evidence of any melodrama's emotional staying-power—these types of films weren't labeled "weepies" for nothing! Imitation of Life is full of the best staples of the melodramatic mode: mothers sacrificing happiness for their daughters, tearful deathbed goodbyes, and changes of heart that come just a little too late. Superb execution of these classic scenarios make both films must-sees for fans of the previously disregarded "woman's picture" genre.
Universal, packaging the films together as part of its "Universal Legacy Series," does a very good job presenting these classics. I don't feel fully qualified to comment on the audio and video quality, as I have not seen any other versions of the two films for comparison, but I can generally report that the 1934 version does exhibit a fair amount of flickering, but very few scratches. The color sometimes felt a bit washed out to me on the 1959 version and one or two reels of this transfer show more significant scratches than the others, which are noticeable and distracting. Whether or not the technical presentation is up to snuff, the extras provided are excellent. Along with original trailers for each film, we also get the two previously mentioned commentary tracks, both of which are well worth listening to. Avery Clayton provides a historical background and informed perspective that really helps us sort through the racial politics of the 1934 film, as well as some great details about the actors and the production. Speaking about Louise Beavers, who was often criticized for playing stereotypical black maids, Clayton quotes her as saying it was better to play a maid on TV for $5,000 per day than to be a maid for $5 per day. Clayton's commentary is interesting and informative, but Foster Hirsch's commentary on the 1959 version is one of the best I've heard. The perfect combination of obsessed fan and academic thinker, Hirsch is insightful and passionate in equal doses. He makes a strong, sustained argument for Sirk's subversive take on the story—the way he made the white characters excessively glitzy and superficial to really emphasize the seriousness of the black characters, and the way Hirsch thinks Sirk "direct[ed] Lana Turner in ways she didn't understand" to reinforce this subversion. As Hirsch puts it, "The film is convicting the white mother and daughter of triviality…their problems are insignificant compared to the problems of the black mother and daughter." But in addition to this fascinating reading and his many interpretations of color and lighting, Hirsch also gushes over the film's style and performances as only a die-hard fan could. His affecting style of commentary also wins us over with reminders like "You should be weeping!" at the end. He also knows many of the actors from the film personally and quotes them about their characters and their experiences playing these parts. Hirsch's favorite American actress, Juanita Moore (Annie), shows up as an interviewee on the 30-minute featurette that rounds out the special features. She and a number of scholars go into excellent detail about the production history and the racial themes of Imitation of Life in an extra that nicely complements and adds to the sustained feature commentaries.
Fans of melodrama may be tempted to write off these films' racism as simply "how it was" back in 1934 and 1959 in order to guiltlessly enjoy Imitation of Life, while those interested in depictions of race may stop watching when they first glimpse the offensive Mammy stereotype that is Delilah. I would challenge both of those types of viewers to put aside their initial reactions and take a closer look at both Imitation of Life films in this two-disc set. With intelligent commentary tracks from cultural and film scholars and careful viewings of both movies, those who watch Imitation of Life: Two-Movie Special Edition will gain a much deeper understanding of this complex pair of films.
Guilty of using racist stereotypes, but partially cleared by serious treatment of African-American lives and issues in Hollywood's unwelcoming climate (and also by top-notch melodrama!).
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