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.