Imitation of Life (1934)


$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, Warren William, Ned Sparks, Alan Hale Sr., Rochelle Hudson, Clarence Wilson, Henry Armetta.

Contemporary audiences watching 1934’s Imitation of Life through the rearview mirror of time will undoubtedly find much to look down their snoots at, and rightfully so. But when viewed from a historical perspective, the rampant stereotyping of yesterday inherent in John Stahl’s adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s novel was once considered groundbreaking. Before passing for white was introduced as the film’s main melodrama motivator, the story gained much of its audience appeal by fancying two fiercely devoted mothers pitched at opposite ends of life’s rainbow. Bea (Claudette Colbert) is a single mom looking to restart the pancake syrup business begun by her late husband. Delilah’s (Louise Beavers) no account man ran off leaving her to look after their conflicted daughter, Peola. Delilah shows up on Bea’s back porch, looking for room and board. The moment she walks through the screen door, it becomes apparent that these two went together like pancakes and syrup.

Both women would go to great lengths to ensure their daughter’s safety, but sometimes even the best of mother’s err. The same rubber duck that opened the picture almost resulted in Baby Jessie (Juanita Quigly, credited as Baby Jane) drowning when left unattended at bathtime. In the time it took Bea to nurse her daughter, Delilah took it upon herself to prepare breakfast. Delilah’s maternal shortcoming cut an even deeper gash in her relationship with her daughter. First off, she prefers “mammy” over “mother.” No sooner did the two mothers meet and Delilah was already drawing Bea’s attention to Peola’s light skin. It was an essential plot point, but in the days when the Hays Office dictated content, miscegenation was impermissible in Hollywood films. It was a law the almighty Production Code stood firm on. When the subject of Delilah’s husband comes up, instead of marrying a white man, she claims that her ex was a light-skinned negro. Peola hates being the product of a mixed marriage and grows to blame her mother for making her black. The only solution was to make Peola’s father black, with just enough white ancestry in him to lighten the load and mollify the censors.

Delilah is able to put a roof over her baby’s head, and for her part of the bargain, Bea gets rich by flipping flapjacks. Her mother’s secret pancake recipe is so good, Delilah becomes the face of a pancake empire. (Aunt Delilah wasn’t a far stretch from Aunt Jemimah, upon whom the character was based.) Bea opens a pancake house on the Boardwalk (in Atlantic City) where her hotcakes sell like hotcakes. She rents the storefront from Clarence Wilson — the meanest skinflint in Tinsel Town this side of Charles Lane. Henry Armetta was hired to paint the ramshackle space with Alan Hale Sr. brought on board to provide the furnishings. Ned Sparks was the cigar chomping down-and-out entrepreneur, with a voice modeled after an air raid siren and the two words needed to turn a corner diner into a flannel cake phenomena: “Bottle it!”

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It’s been written that this was the first Hollywood film to feature a single woman who made it to the top of the corporate ladder without the help of a man. Other than flirting with her debtors, we’re never quite sure how she built her empire. Once it appeared that the diner was poised to take off, a jump-cut whisks us five years into the future, putting to rest any thoughts of an explanation. One guesses that Bea’s feminine wiles had more to do with her success than any innate sense of business acumen. And for those who thought this was the way Ms. Beavers spoke in real life, guess again. It was her Massuhs at Universal who asked that she “coon it up” to help put the white masses at ease. (The studio was also insistent that Beavers kept her weight up.) Beavers spent a career basically playing one role, but from her point-of-view, it was better to make $5,000 a day acting as a maid on television than earning $5 a day playing one in real life.

The passage of time couldn’t erase Peola’s struggle to accept her blackness. An unexpected downpour brings Delilah to Peola’s school with rubbers and umbrella in hand. She’s framed outside the classroom door as though it were visitor’s day at Sing-Sing. Jim Crow laws saw to it that in 1934 a black child would be barred from attending an all-white classroom. (It would be 20 years before Brown vs. The Board of Education mandated racial desegregation.) The humiliation weighed so heavily on Peola she could barely raise her head as she marched to the door amid a gust of gossiping student’s whispers. As much as she loved her mother, that’s how much she resented her. This would mark the first of two instances where Peola was outed by her mother. Years later, Delilah tracks her runaway daughter (played as an adult by Fredi Washington) to the register of a restaurant where she once again outs her baby. It’s the only time in the film where Peola appears relaxed enough to set loose a smile. Washington played a 19-year-old, when in reality she was less than a year younger than the 31-year-old Beavers.

Some groaned over Delilah’s 20% cut of the action and her initial refusal to accept money from Bea. (She asked that her earnings be put towards an extravagant funeral.) After all, it was her secret pancake batter they were getting fat off of. In her defense, Bea provided the syrup and secured the down payments needed to lease and renovate the storefront. Even when Missis Bea awarded Delilah her freedom, she still refused to leave the pancake plantation. Delilah would be content to spend the rest of her days in servitude to Bea. This is best summed up in a shot taken from the first-floor landing, with Bea walking up one flight to the mistress’ boudoir and Delilah hoofing it downstairs to her basement accommodations. To no one’s surprise, the woman who came up with the pancake mix isn’t allowed to come to the victory dinner. And wouldn’t it have been nice if for once Delilah took a load off while Bea rubbed her feet.   

The inimitable Warren William co-stars as Stephen Archer, an ichthyologist whose profession exists as a means to draw cheap laughs. (Earlier that year, William played Caesar opposite Colbert’s Cleopatra.) There is one particularly cruel moment when Bea laughs at Delilah fumbling over the word. No one makes a joke when Jessie (played as an adult by Rochelle Hudson), a white college student, sneaks into the other room to consult a dictionary. As written, Delilah is simple to the point of being childlike making it difficult to take her character seriously.

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Allow me a moment of self-congratulation. I wrote the entire review without once mentioning Douglas Sirk’s both deeply sardonic and remarkably reverent 1959 remake, which happens to be an all-time personal favorite. If you haven’t seen it, I cannot urge you enough to watch them as a double feature. Criterion’s special Blu-ray Edition includes interviews with Miriam J. Petty on the careers of Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington, as well as insights into the career of John Stahl from Imogen Sara Smith. There’s also a trailer pitched to black audiences that showcases Beavers and Washington over Colbert. Those looking for a commentary track had best consult Universal’s Imitation of Life two-Movie Collection and enjoy the second audio commentary featuring African-American cultural scholar Avery Clayton.

Cleopatra (1934)


$19.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Joseph Schildkraut, C. Aubrey Smith. 

I can remember back in early 1963, when everyone was wondering if the still not released Taylor-Burton Cleopatra would do to 20th Century-Fox what Heaven’s Gate later did to United Artists (which, by way, it almost did). This would have been a serious matter — for one thing, had Fox gone under, we wouldn’t have had the 1970 movie version of Myra Breckinridge — so everyone was grasping for any news. At this point, I fell into Red Buttons doing a standup routine on some variety show, at which point he announced that he had seen the picture. And then he added after the pause for effect: “Claudette Colbert was great.”

By this point, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 version had been on TV for four or five years depending on the whims, taste and pocketbook of your local market’s buyer. And having positively eaten up, in theaters, Anne Baxter all but lusting to rip off and then catnap with Chuck Heston’s loincloth in the VistaVision/Technicolor remake of The Ten Commandments, I naturally took to this example of more vintage DeMille and still do. Universal’s new Blu-ray of the Colbert take on the legend — Eureka!’s “Masters of Cinema” collection has already issued the spectacle in a Region ‘B’ version — is one of the most immaculate presentations of a vintage black-and-white movie that I’ve ever seen. So if you whip through its hundred minutes and still find it too pandering to the yahoo masses who made DeMille the most commercially successful director of day (actually, many days), it won’t be the physical quality of this Blu-ray that causes your eyeballs to roll back into your head.

The rap on DeMille’s quarter-century of Paramount talkies — and Cleopatra is another Paramount picture that Universal has owned more for than half-a-century — is a) they’re not especially cinematic and b) that their dialogue is often too tin-eared to serve even a kazoo band. The first is generally true (more on the second later), yet the pacing of even his increasingly long-ish projects is still surprisingly peppy in certain, though not all, cases — and he got attractive performances out of some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, though his casting instincts started going the gonzo route as he got older. Just as we speak, I’m salivating to get a look at the just-out and on-order Region ‘B’ import of DeMille’s 1947 Unconquered, a mid-18th-century epic I seem to recall reading that Martin Scorsese made the cast and crew look at when they were making The Age of Innocence. It’s not every movie where you get to see a Technicolored Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard as an attractive 1753-or-so couple — in a canoe over one of the Fort Pitt vicinity’s most treacherous waterfalls, albeit with a rear-projection assist.)

Anyway. Offbeat water transport figures prominently in Cleopatra as well, even if Egyptian Cleo’s barge-binge seduction of Rome’s Mark Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) is jumping the narrative gun here because, for one thing, Julius Caesar has to die before this happens. Her second consecutive sexually oriented power grab goes a little beyond the usual boilerplate wiles-and-guiles stuff — complete with marauding tigers on deck who are probably wondering what kind of gig this is, flaming hoops, frolicking virgins (maybe) from central casting and a bunch of minimum-wage types doing the galley-slave rowing bit and wondering if someone will even toss them a fig. According to the pro-job commentary here by writer/historian/F.X. Sweeney, this was the last film released before much-tightened Production Code took effect in mid-1934, so C.B. was just able to take advantage of the No. 1 way to take patrons’ minds off the Depression. Or at least suggest it. Low (or no) moviegoer incomes or not, the movie defied economics to become a monster hit.

Though an easier feat to pull off at 101 minutes vs. the Taylor-Burton’s give-take 250, it’s a credit to the ’34 Cleopatra that it doesn’t lose too much gas with the death of Caesar the way the ’63 version does when Rex Harrison takes all those blades. In both cases, the actor playing Caesar is the movie’s best, and here it’s Warren William — though Sweeney takes note of DeMille’s stated disappointment that the actor’s performance was underrated by critics, even though it’s fully credible and absent of any camp dimension. I also like Henry Wilcoxon as a not overly bright Antony — which leaves Claudette Colbert’s mixed bag and notably American performance in the title role. I just can’t accept Colbert as any kind of seductress, even though she’s a personal favorite who appeared in three best picture Oscar nominees in ’34: this, Imitation of Life and It Happened One Night, which won her the best actress award just before Cleopatra began shooting. But she has the spunk, command and frame-friendly presence that puts over one of the movie’s key points: that Cleo has more on the ball than her bedmates. What’s more, you can’t say she doesn’t know how to put over the Travis Banton costumes, which are among the most iconographic (earning the right to that overused term) of Banton’s great career.

The other rap on DeMille is, getting back to Colbert and a previously mentioned point, is the down-home dialogue and deliveries of even his historical epics set in other lands — as in the way that John Derek and Debra Paget of The Ten Commandments suggest two teens who simply want to make it in the back seat at some mid-’50s drive-in during a showing of, say, Queen Bee. Or, to come in from other direction, Pauline Kael wasn’t wrong when she compared Cleopatra’s dialogue to people talking over the backyard fence or clothesline. But like it or not (and no one says you have to), DeMille did this intentionally to make his movies more accessible to the masses — and, more arguably, even better paced for the great unwashed who shelled out for decades to see them.

Thus, not only does William utter, “You, too, Brutus?” when Caesar’s payoff moment comes — but we actually hear a gossiping partygoer utter, “The wife is always the last to know” when discussing Caesar’s infidelity behind wife Calpurnia’s back. Cast as in the latter role is Gertrude Michael — who, in a bit of unintentionally amazing casting from the same year that only history appreciates, also sang “Sweet Marijuana” with a bunch of sweaty chorus boys in Mitchell Leisen’s Murder at the Vanities. It reminds me that Greer Garson had the Calpurnia role in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 Julius Caesar, and does the mind ever go into overdrive over the concept of Garson taking a flier with the Lessen production number over at MGM in Mrs. Miniver Goes Doobie.

The narrative is tight and keenly modulated between lickety-splitting chariots, political chicanery and effectively languid romancing, though were it not for the movie’s production values/décor so remarkably preserved on this release, I wouldn’t be making as big a deal here, at least for predisposed non-enthusiasts. I haven’t even mentioned that Victor Milner won the cinematography Oscar here against a weak nominee field — not that it couldn’t hold its own against a big-gun lineup — though you have to wonder how Bert Glennon’s work on Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (soon to be on Criterion’s Dietrich-Sternberg Blu-ray box) ended up being overlooked. I know the picture was a flop at the time, but come on, people.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cleopatra’ (1934) and ‘A Lady Takes a Chance’