Imitation of Life began life as a novel by Fannie Hurst, published in 1933. By the next year, it had been made into a movie. Although the 1934 version of this novel, directed by John Stahl, leaves out the first part of the book, beginning after the protagonist is already a widow with a daughter, it follows the book more closely than does the 1959 version, directed by Douglas Sirk. Both movies won awards of various sorts, though neither quite managed to get the Oscar for Best Picture.
Both movies are something of a paradox. On the one hand, the critics did not seem to care for them. Writing for the New York Times in 1934, Andre Sennwald made the following comment: “Despite the sincerity of John M. Stahl’s direction, he scarcely manages to conceal the shallowness of the play’s ideas, the commonplace nature of its emotions, nor the rubber-stamp quality of its writing.” As for the 1959 version, Danny Peary, in his book Guide for the Film Fanatic, says the movie is “impeccably made Hollywood trash.” It would be easy to furnish more disparaging remarks regarding these two movies, but these will have to suffice for reasons of space.
On the other hand, these movies provoke strong emotional reactions that vary depending on the person who watches them, and they likewise lend themselves to different interpretations as to the significance of the story and whether we should approve or disapprove of what happens. In particular, there are those who say that the message of these movies is that we should all accept who we are and not pretend to be something we are not. Others see these movies as telling us we should know our place and stay in it. All of this is further complicated by the fact that Stahl presents his movie to be taken at face value, whereas some critics say that Sirk tends to be ironic and subversive in his direction.
So as to avoid anachronisms, I shall, when it seems appropriate, use the terms for African Americans that were in use when these movies were made. It is one thing to speak generally of how African Americans were portrayed in old movies, but it is quite another thing to actually use the term “African American,” which bespeaks of an enlightened attitude regarding race, to discuss a movie replete with prejudice and demeaning racial stereotypes, resulting in an incongruous combination of connotation.
We begin with 1934 version, in which there are four main characters. As they are listed in the credits at the beginning of the movie, they are Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), Jessie Pullman (Rochelle Hudson, as the grown Jessie), Delilah (Louise Beavers), and Peola (Fredi Washington, as the grown Peola).
In the very title of his book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films, Donald Bogle lists the five major categories for African Americans in the movies, especially those before the civil rights movement. Delilah has the physical features of a mammy, a usually overweight black woman with motherly characteristics. However, despite her sex, she is really a tom, a Negro that wants nothing more out of life than to serve his white master. This depiction of the Negro servant, as demeaning as it is, nevertheless constituted progress in humanizing such characters, as can be seen when contrasted with movies featuring Stepin Fetchit, the ultimate coon. As for Delilah’s daughter, Peola, she is a tragic mulatto.
Fredi Washington, who plays Peola, had some problems of her own along those lines. According to Thomas Doherty, in his book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, she was legally a Negro, so she could not play the part of a white man’s girlfriend in the movies. But at the same time, if she played the part of a black man’s girlfriend, it would look as though a Negro had himself a white woman. So, when she played in The Emperor Jones (1933), she had to wear dark pancake makeup.
Already we see the elements of discrimination against African Americans in 1934, for as you may have noticed, in the opening credits Delilah and Peola are not given last names. So, even though this movie was supposedly portraying a Negro servant in a positive light, an unconscious prejudice is revealed right there in the beginning.
As for the plot, one morning while Bea is struggling to get her daughter Jessie ready for the day nursery so she can hit the streets trying to sell maple syrup, Delilah shows up answering an advertisement for a maid and cook, although she has the wrong address. One of the qualifications in the advertisement is that she must be colored, presumably because she would work for less wages than a white housekeeper. Eventually, she convinces to Bea to let her work for her just for room and board for her and her daughter Peola. As Delilah explains to Bea, her daughter appears to be white because her father had light skin.
One morning, just as Bea is leaving to try to sell some more maple syrup, Delilah gives her a rabbit’s foot. You have to laugh. They are trying to portray Delilah in a positive light, but then they give in to the stereotype of the superstitious Negro. Well, at least in the movies, good luck charms do bring good luck. Bea decides that Delilah’s pancakes are so good, owing to a secret recipe, handed down to her by her mammy, who got it from her mammy, that she should open a restaurant featuring Aunt Delilah’s pancakes, with the maple syrup business on the side. Things work out well.
As the daughters grow up, Peola, who is slightly older than Jessie, helps Jessie with her homework. Bea comments that Peola seems to be pretty smart. Delilah replies that they start out that way, and they only become dumb later. At first, I thought what she meant was that it is too dangerous to be an uppity Negro, so they have to pretend to be ignorant and poorly educated as they get older. However, there are one or two scenes where Delilah does slip into the coon category, that of the Negro that is funny on account of being simple-minded, so maybe we are supposed to take what she says seriously. And besides, we have to wonder if Peola is allowed to be smart in this movie on account of her having white blood in her.
The tragic part of the tragic mulatto begins when Jessie says that Peola is black, causing Peola to cry, insisting that she is white. Bea tells Jessie to apologize, but Delilah shows her wisdom in saying that there is no good in that, that it’s something Peola will have to accept. She goes on to say that it’s not Jessie’s fault or that of anyone else. However, she also says it’s not the Lord’s fault. I’m not quite sure how she reached that conclusion.
This is followed by the worst day in Peola’s life. Jessie has stayed home sick, supposedly, and is playing Old Maid with her mother. It’s pouring down rain, and Delilah is worried that Peola, who forgot her umbrella and rubbers, will get sick too, so she picks up her rain gear and heads out to her school. The wisdom shown by Delilah when Peola was crying about being called black seems to have left her, for it never occurs to her how her appearance in Peola’s classroom will affect her daughter. When she enters the classroom, the teacher says she must be mistaken, since there are no colored girls in her room. But then Delilah spots Peola trying to disappear behind a book. She asks the teacher if Peola has been passing, and the teacher sadly answers yes. Peola says, “I hate you,” several times to her mother and runs out into the rain, rendering the entire traumatic experience for naught. And as several critics have noted, most children would be horrified if their mothers showed up with their rubbers even if race were not a problem.
When a fellow named Elmer Smith advises Bea to “Box it,” meaning to put Delilah’s pancake recipe in boxes and sell them in stores, she takes his advice and makes Elmer her business partner. The brand name is “Delilah’s Pancake Flour,” with Delilah’s picture on the box as well. But when they decide to incorporate after becoming successful, Delilah refuses to sign the papers, which would give her a twenty-percent share in the business, making her rich. Instead, she goes full tom, saying she wants nothing more than to continue to work for Bea as her maid and cook. Bea tells her she will put her share in the bank for her, and Delilah says she would like the money to be spent on a grand funeral for herself when she dies. It will be her sendoff to glory.
This appears to be another black stereotype, the white man’s conception of the Negro’s childlike religious notions, the kind we see in The Green Pastures (1936). It is a literal, physical understanding of religion. Toward the end of the movie, when Delilah goes into elaborate detail about all the trappings of her funeral procession, this is no mere expression of vanity, as it might be if a white person in a movie wanted such a fuss being made over him. Rather, Delilah thinks she needs to make a good impression on the Lord. Speaking to Bea, she says, “I want to meet my Maker with plenty of bands playing. I want to ride up to Heaven in a white velvet hearse.” We would probably have a feeling of revulsion if it were Bea that said she wanted a lavish funeral when she died. And we would think her silly to talk as though God would be impressed by the band that was playing or the hearse that would be transporting her to Heaven. But the movie asks us to smile at Delilah’s notions, the way we might tenderly listen to a child talk about his letter to Santa Claus.
African Americans are often portrayed as more religious in the movies than their white counterparts. And if true, this should not surprise us, for as we learn from Nietzsche, Christianity began as a form of slave morality, one that promised Heaven for slaves, for the weak and the downtrodden, while Hell awaited their masters, those with money and power. Therefore, Christianity perfectly suited African Americans when they were slaves and for the next century as they suffered from the aftermath of that period of bondage. And in many ways, this suited white people too, because it helped to keep blacks in their place, along the lines of Marx’s observation that religion is the opiate of the masses. It is no coincidence that right after Delilah says she does not want to become rich, she starts talking about her funeral, for Jesus taught that we should despise worldly goods and think of our reward in Heaven.
Ten years pass. Bea is rich and lives in a mansion. She throws a party for the swells, and everybody is rich, elegant, and white. Downstairs, where Delilah and Peola live, Peola is miserable. No one has told Peola she is not invited to the party. No one has to. It’s just understood. In her frustration, she looks in the mirror and insists to her mother that she is white. But her difference from her mother is more than just her skin color. Her physiognomy also indicates a Caucasian influence. And whereas Delilah speaks the dialect of the southern Negro, Peola’s English is impeccable. Moreover, while Delilah weighs two-hundred-and-forty pounds, Peola has a slim figure, allowing for graceful movement.
Upstairs, Elmer’s friend, Stephen Archer (Warren William), an ichthyologist, meets Bea. They eventually fall in love and decide to get married. But she wants to hold off on telling Jessie for a while, who is coming home from college during a semester break, to give her time to get to know Stephen.
About the same time, Peola, who apparently agreed to go to one of those high-toned Negro colleges in the South, has apparently left, according to a letter that Delilah receives from an official at that college. Bea and Delilah head south to look for her. Though Peola could have all the money she wanted by remaining part of the Bea/Delilah household, yet she seems to have found happiness working behind a counter selling tobacco products. But Delilah comes in and spoils everything.
When Delilah brought Peola her rubbers at school that day, she said she didn’t do it on purpose, and so we wrote it off as inadvertent, as a blind spot she had to her daughter’s suffering, though we didn’t know how could have been so oblivious. But now there is no excuse. Delilah comes in the store, acting all pitiful, insisting that she is Peola’s mammy. Peola denies knowing her, telling those around her that she doesn’t know the woman. But then Bea comes in and asks Peola how she could do this to her mother. Peola runs out of the store. Of course, while I’m seeing Peola’s side of it, the movie seems to insist that it is Peola who is in the wrong, that nothing is more important than a mother’s love, and that Peola has hurt her mother terribly. And there are doubtless those who would agree with that way of looking at it. This is one of those different ways of reacting to the movie that make this story so interesting.
When Bea and Delilah return home, they find that Peola is already there, waiting for them. She apologizes to her mother for what happened, but then tells her she is going away for good, and that should they pass on the street, she asks her mother not to speak to her or recognize her in any way. After she leaves, there is a decline in Delilah’s health, to the extent of putting her on her death bed, and we are supposed to conclude that she is dying of a broken heart. She does die, and then we see the grand funeral that Delilah always dreamed of. Peola shows up in the crowd on the street, tearing up, until she can stand it no longer, calling out “Mother” and rushing to embrace the coffin just as it was put in the hearse.
In the midst of all this, another mother-daughter problem has been in the works. While Bea and Delilah were out of town, Stephen was graciously keeping Jessie entertained. For him, she was just the child of his fiancée, but Jessie had been falling in love with him. Through a combination of coincidental scenes that could only happen in a movie, Bea found out about Jessie’s infatuation without either Stephen or Jessie knowing that she knows. In real life, Bea and Stephen would go ahead and get married, knowing that Jessie would go back to college and fall in love with someone else in no time. Stephen says as much when Bea tells him she knows.
But this is a domestic melodrama, the theme of which is a mother’s sacrifice for her daughter. Bea tells Stephen that their marriage would make for an impossible situation, that she cannot marry him at this time. She tells him to go to his islands and study fish, and that when the time is right, when Jessie has found someone else, she will come to him, if he stills wants her. Stephen leaves. Jessie comes out in the garden where Bea is, and Bea reminisces about the day she first met Delilah. For what it is worth, in the novel, Bea’s love interest is Frank Flake, who is sort of a combination of Elmer and Stephen, but then again, not really. Anyway, he is eight years younger than Bea, and she gives him up so he can marry Jessie.
Before quitting this essay, I suppose something must be said about those foot massages. Twice in the movie, Delilah massages Bea’s feet. My reaction was the one that occurs to most people, that despite the fact that Bea and Delilah are friends and business partners, a scene in which Bea massages Delilah’s feet would have blown the lid off. But others, such as threemoviebuffs.com, have seen a lesbian subtext in this, especially since in both foot-massage scenes, they talk about men and love or the lack thereof. And that reminds me of Pulp Fiction (1994), in which there is a discussion between Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta about how some guy got in trouble with Uma Thurman’s husband for giving her a foot massage. Jackson dismisses the whole thing as ridiculous, saying there is nothing sexual about a foot massage. Travolta says that since it is not sexual, would Jackson give him a foot massage, since, he says, he sure could use it. Jackson gets angry at the suggestion that he would give a foot massage to a man, because he realizes he has been caught in a contradiction. Another hint at a lesbian subtext is the scene in which Bea kisses Jessie on the lips. And at cinematasmoviemadness.com, it is suggested that the reason Bea is so willing to break off the engagement is that, being a lesbian, she never really wanted to marry Stephen in the first place. None of this would ever have occurred to me on my own. I just figure that women do stuff with each other that men would not.
Speaking of sex, the movie makes no reference to Peola’s love life or the absence of such. But we think about it, especially when she seems determined to pass for white. Presumably, since she decides to go back to that Negro college at the end of the movie, we can assume she will marry a black man. Her love life is made explicit in the 1959 version of Imitation of Life, however, to which we may now turn.
In this 1959 remake, there are several changes. For one thing, the setting is contemporaneous, at least when we get to the end of the movie. That is, it begins in 1947 and ends in 1958. Furthermore, the names have been changed. Bea has become Lora Meredith (Lana Turner); her daughter Jessie has become Susie (Sandra Dee, when grown); Delilah has become Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore); and her daughter Peola has become Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner, when grown). Unlike the 1934 version, Annie’s last name is listed in the opening credits, so I guess we can count that as progress in race relations.
On IMDb, Annie is said to be a black widow, “black” in the sense of being African American, of course. However, in the movie, Annie says that Sarah Jane’s father left before she was born. Annie never refers to this man as “her husband,” but only as “Sarah Jane’s daddy.” So, whereas this movie gives Lora the respectability of being a widow, it would seem to be playing into the racial stereotype of the morally irresponsible black man who would abandon a pregnant woman.
For that matter, whereas in the 1934 version, Bea refers to having had a husband that died, Delilah only refers to Peola’s “pappy,” there being no reference to her having had a husband or to her being a widow. Perhaps this was a deliberately created ambiguity. For the progressives in the audience, the movie offered them a humanized Negro servant, depicted in a positive light. They were allowed to assume the best about Delilah and put her into the widow category. As for those depraved souls that were inclined to think the worst of the black race, they were allowed to imagine that Peola was a bastard.
As for the plot of this version of Imitation of Life, Lora wants to be an actress. One day at the beach, she meets Annie, a black woman that is taking care of a little girl who appears to be white, but who turns out to be colored. Lora ends up hiring Annie as a maid, and they all live together from then on. Whereas Delilah’s pancake recipe is a key to Bea’s success, making them equals in their business relationship, despite Delilah’s refusal to become a stockholder in their corporation, in this movie, it is Lora’s success as an actress alone that results in her becoming wealthy. Though Lora and Annie may be friends, Annie’s economic relationship with Lora is never more than that of her maid and cook.
While at the beach, Lora also meets Steve Archer (John Gavin), a photographer, with whom she forms a romantic attachment. The movie implies that Lora should have given up her aspirations to be an actress and married Steve, staying at home to be a good wife and mother. And it implies that Sarah Jane should have accepted the fact that she was colored, and not try to pass for white. Because they prefer imitation over authenticity, they both forgo happiness, until the end, when Sarah Jane openly declares that Annie was her mother at her funeral, and when Lora agrees to give up her career and marry Steve. As for this latter, the love triangle between Steve, Lora, and Susie ends more realistically, if somewhat melodramatically, with Susie accepting the marriage between her mother and Steve, planning to go to college far away.
There is a foot-massage scene in this movie as well, and it’s no wonder Lora’s feet are sore, since she is always wearing high-heeled shoes, just as Bea did in the original. Lora is even wearing heels when they are all at the beach at the beginning of the movie. As David, her favorite playwright, says when Lora says she wants to act in the new Stewart play, “That? What part? Not the dull social worker with high dreams and low heels? … No clothes, no sex, no fun.” But it is perhaps worth noting that both movies avoid the outrageous scene in the book regarding feet: rising from her death bed, Delilah manages to get down on the floor and start kissing Bea’s feet, after which she collapses and dies.
Strangely enough, our twenty-first century perspective is likely to make some people more supportive of Lora but less supportive of Sarah Jane. As for Lora, we now believe women are perfectly in their rights to want a career. Some women prefer to be homemakers, allowing themselves to be completely dependent on their husbands financially, and we wish them luck in their choice. But women who want a career of their own have every right to pursue one, and we regard any man who would object as patriarchal.
After all, Steve could have agreed to let Lora continue to pursue her career as an actress after they got married, but that was obviously out of the question as far as he was concerned. And it was out of the question for the 1950s audience as well. There was an assumed emptiness in the life of a career woman, even if she got married; for she was bound to neglect her husband and miss out on the deep satisfaction of giving herself completely to her family. Steve is resentful of the way she puts her own ambition before his love, because he thinks his love for her should have been the overwhelming consideration. An underlying assumption in the movies in those days was that if a man truly loved a woman, she was wrong not to accept his proposal of marriage, for it was thought that she would never again have a chance for happiness. How the woman felt almost didn’t seem to matter. It was the man’s love that was determinative.
The dialogue makes this perfectly clear. Right after Steve proposes marriage, but before Lora gives him an answer, she gets the job offer she has been waiting for:
Steve: I don’t want you to go.
Lora: Do you realize what this could mean to me?
Steve: I’m not asking you not to go down there. I’m telling you.
Lora: What makes you think you have that right?
Steve: Because I love you. Isn’t that enough?
Lora: No, Steve, I’m sorry.
In the movies of the 1950s, a woman was supposed to give herself to a man unconditionally, and not be thinking about “What if?” But attitudes have changed. We now believe a woman is better off if she is financially independent, in case the marriage goes bad, as marriages so often do. We are more likely today to think Steve was wrong-headed, and to be a little disappointed at the end when Lora says she is going to give up her career and marry him.
As for Sarah Jane, some people may be less supportive about her desire to pass for white, because today being an African American is not supposed to be something bad, something to be ashamed of. A lot of people would say she should have been proud of her African heritage. Well, that’s a nice attitude to have in the twenty-first century, but considering the prejudice against African Americans in the 1950s, not to mention the laws requiring segregation, trying to escape from such oppressive conditions seems perfectly reasonable. I would have tried to pass for white had I been in her situation. Actually, Sarah Jane’s problem may not be so much that she tries to pass for white as that she insists that she is white.
Whereas Steve’s attitude toward Lora’s ambition makes us uneasy today, a lot of people feel equally uneasy about Annie. In the introductory scene at Coney Island, Annie refers to how Sarah Jane’s light skin bedeviled her where they used to live (probably the South), and so they moved. She sees how Sarah Jane hates the black doll that Susie tries to give her. And when they are discussing what color Jesus is, Sarah Jane says, “Jesus is like me. He’s white.” In other words, Annie knows how Sarah Jane feels. And yet, just as in the 1934 version, she shows up at her school to give her an umbrella and her rubbers without the slightest thought that she might embarrass Sarah Jane. We might give Annie a pass on that, but later, when Sarah Jane tries to make her own way performing in a night club, Annie shows up and ruins that for her daughter too. The way Annie disapproves of the night club, you would think it was a den of iniquity and that Sarah Jane was doing a striptease, but she is reasonably attired and merely singing and dancing in a sexy but respectable way. On the other hand, maybe it looked worse to the audience of 1959. And I must admit, the men in the night club are loud and crude.
Annie should have warned Sarah Jane of the dangers of trying pass for white (“What if you have a baby, and it comes out black?”), but then supported her daughter whatever her decision was. The possibility that Peola would marry a white man was avoided in the 1934 version, but it is made explicit in the 1959 remake. Sarah Jane gets herself a white boyfriend, played by Troy Donahue, who becomes angry when he finds out her mother is a “nigger” and brutally beats her. While the fact that this movie showed Sarah Jane as actually having a white boyfriend may be thought of as a weakening of the Production Code, which forbade miscegenation, I can’t help but think that in order to do this, they picked an actress that was white, unlike Fredi Washington, who was of mixed race like Peola.
Actually, in Fannie Hurst’s novel, Peola nipped the baby problem in the bud by having herself sterilized. She estranges herself from her mother, marries a blond engineer, and moves to Bolivia, passing for white permanently. In previous reviews of the movies Stella Dallas (1937), Kitty Foyle (1940), and Tom, Dick, and Harry (1941), I remarked on this theme of running off to South America to get away from one’s family. There must have been some kind of mystique about South America in the early part of the twentieth century as a place to get away from it all and get a new start. I suspect this trope was spoiled when the Nazis fled there so they could get a new start themselves.
Anyway, Sarah Jane gets another job dancing, at a more respectable night club. This time her mother finds her, not to spoil things again, but just to say goodbye. She is finally reconciled to the fact that her daughter wants to pass for white. Also, she knows she is dying. Of course, just as in the 1934 version, Sarah Jane shows up at Annie’s funeral, tearfully crying out for her mother while embracing her coffin.
This movie seems to say that Steve knows what is best for Lora, and that Annie knows what would be best for Sarah Jane. And there are those who would agree with them. But I agree with those who say they should not have tried to impose their values on others, and instead allowed them to live their lives the way they wanted to.