IMITATION OF LIFE
Released in 1934 and an immediate box office hit, John Stahl's adaptation of Fannie Hurst's best-selling novel, Imitation of Life, received lukewarm critical reviews. The critic who referred to as a "the most shameless tearjerker of the Fall", also noted that "the stentorian of sobbing ladies in the Roxy mezzanine yesterday seemed to suggest that it held a vast appeal for the matinee trade as well as Miss Hurst's large and commercially attractive public. On the whole the audience seemed to find it a gripping and powerful if slightly diffuse drama..." (1934 New York Times Film Review)
At the heart of Imitation of Life is Bea Pullman's (Claudette Colbert) journey from rags-to-riches. With the help of Aunt Delilah's (Louise Beavers) pancake recipe, Bea builds a business to support herself, her daughter Jessie (Rochelle Hudson), Aunt Delilah, and Delilah's daughter, Peola. The pancake business storyline is not in the 1959 remake of Imitation of Life. It would have been outdated and inappropriate because of the aunt Jemimah-like images of Delilah and her stubborn rejection of part of the profits from the sales. However in the 1934 version of the film, the business partnership (albeit unequal) was important because it demonstrated Delilah's loyalty to Bea. When Bea tries to give Delilah 20% of the profits for her family recipe (and for cooking the pancakes), Delilah rejects her offer.
Bea: "You'll have your own car. You own house."
Delilah: :My own house? You gonna send me away, Miss Bea? I can't live with you? Oh, honey chile, please don't send me away."
Delilah: :How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie if I ain't here? I'se your cook. And I want to stay your cook. I gives it to you (the pancake recipe), honey. I makes you a present of it."
The fact that the recipe is Delilah's family secret is stated numerous times throughout the film. If black pride was a lesson in this film (as it is in Micheaux's films about passing), her decision to sell a piece of her family history to a white woman for profit and to work for a white woman for the rest of her life also would have contradicted that message, but for a mainstream audience in the 1930s, Imitation of Life provided the right answers -- loyalty between the races (especially from the black characters), selflessness, blacks accepting their place, the commodification of black culture, and hard work.
Through hard work, intelligent business deals, and determination, Bea uses Delilah's family pancake recipe to open a store, and create her own pancake mix brand. While she is building her business, Bea develops a relationshp with Delilah, and together, they raise their daughters. The relationships between mothers and daughters constitute the central plot of this film.
From the beginning of the first scene of the film, a close-up of Bea bathing toddler Jessie, and Jessie begging her mother to let her stay home so that they can spend time together, it is clear that the focus of the film will be on the relationships between mothers and daughters. When Bea explains that Jessie must go to school since she cannot afford to miss work, societal factors (namely money) are represented as a negative influence on the "natural" relationship between parent and child. This theme is repeated in the relationship between Delilah and Peola, only in their case, the societal factor is racism.
Peola, played by Fredi Washington, is the movie's "single subversive element" (Bogle, 59). Peola, Delilah's daughter, is very light-skinned and spends her life wanting to be white. By refusing to play the stereotypical black role (i.e. like her mother Delilah), and proclaiming her own race, based on how she sees herself (and chooses to be seen), Peola rejects the limitations placed on her by society's treatment of blackness. In all early passing films, that blackness is rejected at least three times: by racism in American culture, by the passing character's abandonment of her mother, and by a self inflicted removal from the black community.
Peola's relationship with Delilah is strained from the beginning of the film when she is caught passing for white in school. When Delilah goes to pick her up from school, Peola hides behind her book. Once Delilah tells the teacher that her daughter has been passing, Peola runs out of the school. Students can be heard in the backround saying, "Gee, I didn't know she was colored", suggesting that to strangers, Peola physically looked white, and would successfully pass for white if her mother did not exist. (Micheaux remakes this scene in God's Stepchildren. In most of the passing films made before 1960, education allows the passing characters to self-identify as white.)
In another scene, in response to Jessie calling Peola black, Peola runs into the house crying, "I'm not black. I'm not black. I won't be black". Unintentionally (and perhaps missed by many audience members), when Bea reprimands her daughter, she actually supports Peola argument that being black is bad. Bea tells Jessie, "Jessie Pullman, for shame on you... how could you say such a mean, cruel thing to Peola?" Delilah refuses to allow Jessie to apologize to Peola, and advises Peola to "learn to take it". This interaction reinforces ideas about race that existed during this period. This scene also contains the only fight between Peola and Jessie (suggesting that if Peola knew her place they would not fight -- Bea and Delilah do not have one argument in the film), and is the first time the audience watches Peola's humiliation (she is humiliated again when her mother finds her passing in another town and when she blames herself for her mother's death).
Remade in 1959, Imitation of Life, appealed to generations of Americans during periods of cultural (especially race and class related) instability. While both films are adaptations of Hurst's novel, they differ in significant ways and will be analyzed separately in this site. (For more information on the 1959 version, please visit Post WWII)
In the 1936 Oscar Hammerstein version of Showboat (the first Showboat film was made in 1929 and the last was in 1951), featuring Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel, and Allan Jones, the passing figure, a mulatta named Julie Laverne, is forced out of her job in Captain Andy's Floating Palace because her black blood is revealed to the authorities. The film plot centers around the character, Magnolia (since Edna Ferber, the author of the book the film was based on, said that the book was really about the South, Magnolia is probably named after the white flower found in the South). Throughout the film, Magnolia is contrasted against Julie (the mulatta, or as she is represented in the film, the black character). In the beginning of the film, Magnolia is portrayed as an innocent (and sheltered) woman. Once Julie leaves, Magnolia is no longer protected and experiences many of the same challenges that Julie encounters when she is on her own. The difference is that Julie, a ghost-like character throughout the rest of the film, is constantly working in the shadows to protect Magnolia. Julie is never really developed as a character and Magnolia does not know that she exists. Magnolia's igorance of Julie's existence (and sacrifice on her behalf) allows her to take advantage of the privileges given to her, guiltfree. Although Edna Ferber acknowledges that her book "failed in its handling of the Negro" (Bennett, 75), the film adaptation of her novel posits an interesting understanding of American race relations and a recognition (albeit in the shadows) of the necessity of African Americans in American culture. Magnolia, serving as the white double for Julie, expresses herself through blackness, and in fact, makes a living by singing "nigger songs" (the description of a potentail employer in the film). Juda Bennett notes of "the importance of performance in the making of Americans" in this film (as well as most other passing films). Again, a passing character engages in the commodification of black culture, while also bringing the performance of race and capitalism together to create identity. While these are interesting ideas, none of Ferber's race related plots are developed, and even she admitted that her book "unsuccessfully explore[d] the tension between North and South, future and past, racial segregation and racial integration." ( Bennett, 75)