About twenty years ago, one of my co-workers offered to give me a videotape of the original version of Imitation of Life.
“You really should see it. It’s MUCH better than the Douglas Sirk version,” he said.
I almost passed out from shock. HOW COULD THAT BE? You see, I was a film studies major during the late 1970s/early 1980s, which was the height of the New German Cinema. Filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder was my god and Sirk was one of his biggest inspirations.
Besides, I had loved the 1959 version, starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore, since I was a kid watching my “4:30 movies” with my mom. (I explained what I mean by “4:30 movie” in my recent post about Peyton Place.)
So I initially approached the 1934 version, starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers and directed by John M. Stahl, with a bit of skepticism.
Both films are based on the Fannie Hurst novel and feature the same basic story: a white woman raising a small daughter after being widowed hires as a maid an African-American woman who also has a young daughter. The daughter of the maid is very light skinned and from an early age tries to pass for white. As the years pass, the women’s financial circumstances change greatly. Tragedy strikes when the maid’s daughter rejects her mother for good and the other daughter falls in love with her mother’s beau.
However, the movies diverge in some key ways: though they both keep the theme of racial inequality, the 1934 version is actually much more progressive when it comes to how it portrays women.
Which kind of shocked me.
In the 1959 version, it follows the typical post-war “career woman movie” playbook that portrays women who pursue careers saboteurs of their own love lives and neglectful mothers. Lana Turner’s character (called Lora) is an aspiring actress who finds success on Broadway. Her maid Annie never becomes more than her maid, but her life improves as Lora’s improves.
Colbert’s character (called Bea in this version) becomes a hugely successful business woman, first by opening a pancake shop based on a recipe her maid (Delilah, in this version) shares with her. Later a customer (Elmer Sparks) suggests they box the pancake mix. They brand the mix with Delilah’s image.
Never once is it suggested that Bea is a bad mother or selfish for becoming a success. In the 1959 version, Lora loses her boyfriend Steve because she won’t give up her career. In the 1934 version, Bea meets Steve (Warren William, playing the world’s most suave ichthyologist) after she is already a success. Much like the book and film Mildred Pierce, another story that takes place during the Depression, a woman’s busy career is not what causes the major conflicts between the mothers and daughters.
Another huge difference between the two films is the maid’s daughter (in this case named Peola) is played by an African-American actress, Fredi Washington. In the 1959 version, the daughter (named Sarah Jane) is played by Susan Kohner, who was Caucasian/Hispanic.
When it comes to how the movie portrays race, it is in other ways progressive–and in others, not (that’s also the case with the 1959 version). The tragic relationship between Delilah and her daughter is utterly heartbreaking and kicks up issues rarely dealt with in film even today. There’s a stark moment where Bea and Delilah go off to their respective bedrooms–and Bea climbs up the stairs at the same time Delilah goes down the stairs to a sublevel of the house. That visual pretty much sums up the differences in the lives of the two women, even though they live under the same roof.
But there are some cringe-worthy moments, too–such as Delilah refusing a substantial stake in the pancake business, claiming all she wants is to go on taking care of Bea. Bea decides to save the money for her. It’s a very patronizing moment and has been criticized from the time of the film’s release as offensive. Worse is when little Peola is upset that Jessie (Bea’s daughter) calls her “black.” Bea berates her child for doing such a terrible thing, rather than saying there’s nothing wrong with being black.
Delilah also spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about Bea’s lack of a love life, but never her own. She wishes for time off her feet, yet is shown regularly giving Bea foot massages. Even in a story trying to speak honestly about racism, the “happy black domestic who aspires to nothing more than serving and worrying about white people” stereotype prevails.
Still, there’s no denying the power of scenes such as when Delilah unwittingly outs her daughter as black at her school, or the famous funeral scene when Delilah finally receives respect and love from a daughter who tried to deny her all her life.
There are other times when Delilah seems far from naïve or stupid–she does, after all, manage to talk her way into a job with Bea, even though Bea has almost no money at the time. Bea later uses similar tactics to secure credit for their business.
Colbert and William are superb, of course, (they have WAY more onscreen chemistry than Turner and John Gavin in the 1959 version) and there’s a suggestion their romance still has a chance, even after Bea’s daughter Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falls for Steve–again emphasizing that a successful woman is not being punished for her success.
But the movie really belongs to Beavers and Washington. Even though Peola was for many years a reviled character in the black community (“Peola” was even used as an epithet for black women who passed for white), I feel Washington found ways to make Peola more empathetic than Kohner’s Sarah Jane.
Fredi Washington’s life was almost the opposite of the character of Peola–she was very proud of her race and never tried to pass for white. Washington was considered too light-skinned for domestic roles and movies with all-black casts, and directors were afraid to cast her in romantic roles. After Imitation of Life she only did two more movie roles. She tried to launch a radio career, but even that had limited opportunities for black actors. She later became a writer, casting consultant, and civil rights activist.
Louise Beavers had a long career playing roles Hollywood deemed appropriate for black actresses (in other words, almost always a domestic servant). She became the first black actress to have a leading role on a television series (Beulah)–playing, again, a maid.
I’m so glad my co-worker insisted I see this version. It was fascinating to compare the two, and to discover how in some ways it was actually more ahead of its time than the later version.