‘Imitation of Life’ (1934/1959)

Imitation (2)Imitation of Life
Written by William Hurlbut

Directed by John M. Stahl
USA, 1934

Written by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott
Directed by Douglas Sirk
USA, 1959

The debate about the necessity and worth of continual remakes rages on every year. Will the new version be as good as the original? Or even better? Should it have even been made to begin with? While we do seem to hear more about this recently, the concept of a remark is, of course, nothing new. Examples go back to the very dawn of cinema. What makes a remake particularly worthwhile, however, is when the films involved are dissimilar in certain aspects yet notably congruent in other areas: just enough to keep the basic premise or theme consistent, but varied enough to keep it up to date and original in one way or another. If both versions have their merits, a considerate comparison and contrast can be a fascinating critical opportunity and enjoyable entertainment.

This is where the newly released Imitation of Life (1934/1959) two-disc set from Universal Studios comes in. The two versions of this film (both based on the 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst) have their own respective strengths and weaknesses, with each encapsulating perfectly their years of production and each showcasing the talents of those involved with their creation. Both films are presented in gorgeously remastered form, with each film containing a commentary track by a noted scholar. There is also Lasting Legacy—An Imitation of Life, a documentary exploring the shared history of the two movies and the insightful social statements they each made.

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The 1934 version, though credited to writer William Hurlbut, had eight others contributing uncredited to its screenplay, including the great Preston Sturges. It stars Claudette Colbert holding court as Beatrice Pullman, a recently widowed mother of one who is desperately trying to take care of her precocious young daughter, Jessie, and her late husband’s maple syrup business. When Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) mistakenly shows up at Beatrice’s door in search of a housekeeping job, she sees that though Beatrice didn’t ask for help, she clearly needs it. Delilah offers to work for no more than room and board for herself and her own young daughter, Peola. This begins a strong and lasting relationship between the white businesswoman and the African-American maid.

It turns out Delilah make great pancakes, and since Beatrice has the syrup, the two go into business together. Beatrice enlists Delilah to not only be her partner, but to literally be the face of the business, with her dotty smile adorning the image of their new pancake enterprise, which is spurred on by customer Elmer Smith (the perpetually cranky Ned Sparks, a stalwart 1930s actor), who offers up two simple words of advice: “box it.” That they do and success follows.

While the film to this point seems to be primarily concerned with the financial gain of these unlikely associates, quite sharply at about the 30-minute mark, the picture’s social consciousness kicks in. When Jessie innocently calls the lighter skinned Peola “black,” the latter girl begins to cry and emotionally express her desire not to be identified with the race. In a further scene that is repeated in the later version of Imitation of Life, Peola is embarrassed when her mother visits her class to drop off some wet weather clothing. As Peola has been passing herself off as white, the teacher argues that she doesn’t have a “colored” child in her class. In many ways, this is the final straw for Peola, and it initiates a more determined quest to distance herself from her race and her mother.

Ten years down the road, Beatrice and Delilah have made a tidy sum and the girls are grown. Yet with enough money to presumably go her own way, Delilah remains naively loyal to Beatrice, even as they cruise along so-called easy street. In the meantime, two distinct narratives develop, one concerning Beatrice and her business and romantic interests and one concerning Peola and her continued racial anxiety.

Beatrice is the epitome of a 1930’s strong, independent woman. She is motivated and ambitious, perky and competent. She confidently drives a hard bargain when first renting the shop room and she makes no excuse for her enterprising ways, even if they conflict with her potential love life. “I’m a working woman,” she states one evening, refusing to stay up any later for a suitor. “There’s tomorrow morning, you know.” That suitor is Stephen Archer (Warren William), an ichthyologist (!)—a scientist devoted to the study of fish. As the relationship between Beatrice and Stephen develops, his reticence toward his new girlfriend has a good deal to do with the fear of just such a capable businesswoman and her own individuality.

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While undoubtedly dated, with black stereotypes that sit uncomfortably today, that this film would even attempt to confront the racial issues that it does should be admired. And that it explicitly calls attention to the unfair treatment of African-Americans in a variety of venues—and proceeds to condemn such prejudice—makes the film truly special. This was, after all, 15 years before Elia Kazan’s daring Pinky, which took on similar issues. It is surprisingly brash for its time, so much so that apparently the censorship office didn’t give their official approval until shooting was well underway.

Even with its commendable intentions though, it’s difficult to watch the demeaning submissive nature of the Beatrice/Delilah relationship. Scenes such as when Delilah rubs Beatrice’s feet (which she does not once but twice through the course of the film), and the stereotypical dialogue and dialect (“Does we get to stay?”) are appalling even if historically accurate. Many times, Delilah is also insultingly dim-witted, though she does get a few amusing lines of dialogue, as when the 240-pound maid quips, “I don’t eat like I look,” and when she acknowledges the quality of music being played by some jazz musicians, noting that they, “play good for white boys.”

The more profound racial dilemma is that of Peola (played at age 19 by the groundbreaking Fredi Washington), as she struggles to accept her identity well into adulthood. She and her mother speak of race along the lines of blame or fault, a tragic way to somehow reconcile their unjust treatment because of their natural skin color. Perhaps more than when she denies her race, Peola’s most heartbreaking renunciation is when she refuses to acknowledge her own mother, to her face.

An additional drama that plays a part in later sequences involves a love triangle between mother and daughter and Stephen. This subplot is rather shocking in itself, especially in its subtle reveal, but it is casually—and surprisingly—brushed aside.


Directing Imitation of Life was John Stahl, whose largely unassuming style here is crisp and clear and is essentially at the service of trying to contain Claudette Colbert, who is extraordinary. For her part, Colbert was having a banner year, with this film, Cleopatra, Four Frightened People, and It Happened One Night, for which she won an Academy Award.

This version of Imitation of Life successfully balances the role of a woman in an increasingly modern society with the conflicts concerning racial disharmony; its racial element is as socially profound as its sharp analysis of the struggles of a mother, lover, and professional.

Screenwriters Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott were behind bringing Imitation of Life back to the big screen in the late 1950s, but it’s director Douglas Sirk who is responsible for bringing the story to life. This version of the story starts in 1947 Coney Island. This time, Lana Turner is Lora Meredith, the white female lead. She is again a distraught mother, having lost track of her daughter, Susie. When she finds her, the girl has already met and befriended Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore, in an Oscar-nominated performance) and her daughter, Sarah Jane. The issue of Sarah Jane’s lighter skin is immediately broached when Lora asks Annie how long she has taken care of the girl, assuming the black woman is the white-looking girl’s caretaker. “All my life,” she responds, before explaining the paternal influence on the girl’s color. After exchanging some pleasantries, Annie offers to help around Lora’s house. Apparently homeless, she is, in fact, desperate to do so. This begins a bond between the two women that is essentially the same as the 1934 film.

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One key difference between the two movies is that now Lora is an aspiring actress, rather than a business woman, and she is confronted by multiple men of unreliable repute. Her initial love interest is with Steve Archer (John Gavin), a budding photographer. He, too, is an idealistic dreamer: “Don’t you believe in chasing rainbows?” he asks Lora. But there is also Allen Loomis (Robert Alda), a sleazy theatrical agent, equally ambitious and with his own shady motivations. His sordid suggestions question Lora’s moral character, but she remains steadfast and stands up for herself despite his offerings of career advancement; again, as in the earlier version of the film, her independence and strong will is a key character emphasis. The third relationship is between Lora and renowned writer David Edwards (Dan O’Herlihy), who becomes integral to Lora’s path to stardom, which, also like in the 1934 film, takes about 10 years to reach its peak. Through it all, Steve is the comparably more decent companion, but even he is domineering, something that comes up against the career-minded Lora.

As far as the racial themes in this version, the daughter (Susan Kohner—not a black actress—as the grown-up Sarah Jane) again has corresponding issues with her identity, and there is again the uncomfortable depiction of Annie’s servitude (more feet rubbing). But there is, in general, a less demeaning presentation of Annie, though there is still no denying the troublesome notion of such blind obedience.

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Kohner, who also received an Academy Award nomination, is by far the acting highlight here. Hers is the most complex, interesting, and attractive character. She also carries the more engaging storyline, the full extent of its combustible nature seen in an explosive confrontation with her boyfriend, which results in outrageous verbal and physical abuse. In the greatest contrast to Kohner is Sandra Dee as the 16-year-old Susie, a simple minded, boy-crazy ditz. The degree of separation in terms of maturity is extreme, for while Dee never seems to really age (at least not mentally), Kohner conveys a range of emotional reactions, especially in her distain toward her mother, as well as an unexpected sexuality, as when Annie discovers her daughter seductively dancing in a nightclub.

Though certainly present in the sequences that focus on Sarah Jane, the social commentary here is rather less pronounced, for two possible reasons. First, the melodrama—either in the narrative of Lora and her troubles or Susie and her silly concerns—borders on sheer frivolity, yet it seems to be a primary focal point. Then there is the context of the year the film was made, when the racial issues, though still an obvious problem, were not so rare on screen. As important as the subjects of racism and racial identity were and still are, by 1959, prior films had at least attempted to tackle the topic.


It’s only briefly suggested, but new to this version is a neglectful mother dynamic that arises toward the end, when it’s made clear just how little Lora has been there for Susie. Though Sirk’s take on the tale runs a little long and could have easily been trimmed down to the 111-minute length of the original version, this subplot could have been interestingly developed.

Stylistically, while Sirk keeps the Eastmancolor palette relatively restrained for the early portions of the film, with the more fashionable surroundings and clothing that result from Lora’s success comes the director’s trademark hyper stylization, which looks frequently, and not surprisingly, fantastic. Sirk does what he does best in the more decorative post-1958 sequences. In the end, this version of Imitation of Life is far more romantic than the earlier one, but not nearly as funny. And in classically Sirk fashion (this was his final film in Hollywood), emotions run high and run often.

Taken together, the two versions of Imitation of Life are equally worthwhile for their historical significance, their aesthetic divergences, and their narrative variations. It’s a great cinematic case study in adaptation and modernization. What might be most striking, though, is to look at these films in 2015 and scrutinize their presentation of racial unrest. Having both been made so long ago, it would be nice to see the issues related to prejudice and say, “Well, how awful. Can you imagine a time where people were so racist?” It seems so obvious that the racism in these two films is tremendously unjust, and it was obvious to audiences at the time. Yet here we are, decades later, and has so much changed? Or has the progress just been an imitation?


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