Imitation of Life (1934/1959)

 

Directors: John M. Stahl/Douglas Sirk

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among master directors of women’s films are two men whose careers are intertwined. John Stahl, whose heyday occurred during the 1930s, and Douglas Sirk, the 1950s king of technicolor melodrama, each made versions of the same three novels: Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, Lloyd C. Douglas’ Magnificent Obsession, and James M. Cain’s Serenade (Stahl’s film was called When Tomorrow Comes, and Sirk’s film was titled Interlude). It is hard to say what attracted Stahl and Sirk to genre films often disparagingly described as “weepies” and “soapers,” but it is fair to say that these two men wanted more from these stories than to give women a vicarious romance and a good cry.

Neither Imitation of Life is a run-of-the-mill women’s film in any case. While its main story involves the fortunes and loves of a central female character, this story intersects with the racially charged travails of an African-American woman and her light-skinned daughter. Both films offer the view that a white woman can improve her circumstances with enough guts, ingenuity, and physical attractiveness, but that African Americans, even those light enough to pass for white, are inherently unable to realize the Horatio Alger dream of the self-made person that infects Americans to this very day.

Stahl’s film, a faithful adaptation of the Hurst novel, centers on Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), a widow barely supporting herself and her three-year-old daughter Jessie (Baby Jane) by running her late husband’s maple syrup business. On a very busy morning, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her four-year-old daughter Peola (Sebie Hendricks) fetch up at Bea’s door answering an ad for a live-in maid. They have come to the wrong address, and Bea offers her regrets. Just then, Bea runs upstairs to rescue a crying, fully clothed Jessie from the bathtub she slipped into to retrieve her rubber ducky.

When Bea comes back downstairs, she sees that Delilah has been fixing her breakfast. Delilah basically volunteers to be Bea’s servant in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter, who has been a handicap to Delilah’s job search. Thus begins a relationship that will see an uncomplaining Delilah give up her secret pancake recipe, come along with Bea as she sets up a pancake house, and become the face of Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Flour and a household fixture as Bea’s success affords her a luxurious lifestyle and the attentions of ichthyologist Stephen Archer (Warren William).

Sirk’s film maintains the basic outline of the novel, but provides all but the Stephen Archer character with new names, and makes Bea, called Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) here, an aspiring actress. Lora and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) meet at Coney Island beach while Lora is looking for her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham). Lora brings Annie and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker) home because they are homeless. Lora also meets Steve Archer (John Gavin), an aspiring fine-art photographer, on the beach. Lora finds the same success as Bea, and like Delilah, Annie comes along for the ride.

Both of these films remark on race and gender relations, as well as the times in which they were made. Stahl’s film reflects the social consciousness of Depression-era America, saving its sympathy for the economic precariousness of women without men. Although the story makes both Bea and Delilah widows, many women lost men to the road as they looked for work and to despair through the bottle and abandonment. Bea must finagle her store using hard bargaining, charm, and a generous amount of bull. Delilah’s character is just as desperate to hold her family together, but Stahl plants her character firmly in a caricature of the jolly mammy.

Stahl’s treatment of Bea’s story is standard Hollywood glamour. Bea wears one luscious gown after another in the success part of the story, falls into a very quick and intense romance with Archer, who despite his seemingly ordinary career as a marine biologist, seems to be independently wealthy. The pair steals kisses, Colbert’s head tilted so far back I thought it would break off (couldn’t they have provided her with a step stool?). Finally, Bea and Stephen deal with the complication of a college-aged Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falling for Archer by delaying their marriage with tortured longing until Jessie has gotten over him.

Delilah and Peola’s story is treated in both a demeaning and paradoxically realistic way. Louise Beavers’ Delilah is simple-minded, ignorant, emotional, and religious. There are ways to ask for room and board in lieu of payment that aren’t so butt-insulting as the way Stahl directed Beavers, making it sound like Delilah’s main delight in life is serving white folks. A close-up of Beavers posing for the image Bea wants on her restaurant sign is a caricature of the Aunt Jemima caricature; I can just hear audiences of the time busting a gut at her lengthy, demeaning mugging. During Delilah’s death scene, we get a full chorus of the black servants in Bea’s employ singing a field hand lament from behind closed doors, and Beavers is never accorded the dignity of a close-up. We really never see her full face in a scene normally so important that Alla Nazimova rewrote the story of her Camille (1921) so that she could die without Rudolph Valentino’s character in attendance to pull focus from her.

The paradoxically realistic parts, however, are Delilah’s religious faith and Peola’s perception of how different her life would be if she hadn’t been born black. Peola persistently tries to pass for white throughout the film. Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African American, plays Peola as a young woman who hates the restrictions on her, yet Fredi, with those same restrictions, never denied her race; indeed, she refused to pass for white when the studio bosses wanted to build her up, and went on to form the Negro Actors Guild to expand opportunities for African-American actors and fight discrimination. Although her character disowns her mother and comes to regret it in two emotionally wrenching scenes, Peola’s feeling of being white, which I read to mean she knows she’s as good as everyone else, announces her as a member of a new generation, one that would eventually go on to fight and win the battle for civil rights.

Delilah’s attempts to get Peola to accept who she is arise from her deep faith. She believes God made folks black and white for a reason and that it is nobody’s place to question that decision. Beavers makes Delilah’s professions of faith so effortlessly sincere and idealistic that she manages to flesh out her character and provide some believable motivation for her acceptance of a second-class role in Bea’s household and business. When, in the end, she is given the grandest funeral New York has ever seen, the film brings into focus the success of Delilah’s lifelong goal—her glorious assumption to heaven.

That Bea honors her wish to keep house and accedes to her decisions about her daughter, for example, suggesting Delilah send Peola to an all-black university in the South, may seem as though she is reinforcing the limitations on the black community. Yet I felt more camaraderie between her and Delilah, a shared fate as widows and mothers, than would be evident in the 1959 version. Perhaps the most famous moment of this inventively shot film, one in which both women go off to bed, Bea climbing the stairs of her mansion and Delilah descending into the below-stairs quarters, may be Stahl’s one statement about the inequality that all the characters but Peola accept as the natural order of things.

Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life is a different animal altogether. With a script much more layered and explicit with regard to the evils of the world, it poses a greater indictment of the relationship between Lora and Annie. At the same time, it indulges in its own stereotyping, offering either objectification or infantilization of the women in the film.

Right off the bat, Steve, a photographer, snaps Lora’s picture as she searches frantically for her missing daughter. He insinuates himself into her search, wheedles an “invitation” to her home by offering to hand-deliver a photo of Susie and Sarah Jane, and then assumes prerogatives over Lora that seek to control how she pursues her acting career—a far cry from the genteel Warren William who is willing to do anything Bea says. While Lora puts him in his place, as well as talent agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda), who agrees to get her work in exchange for her “escort” services, the choice to make Lora an aspiring actress puts her squarely in the ’50s mold of objectifying women; while post-success Bea was certainly a glamorous figure, she herself was not characterized as an object. Using her intelligence as well as her feminine wiles to get started in business was made to seem admirable, whereas Lora’s outright lying about being a film star to get in to see Loomis seems tawdry.

Lora and Annie are nowhere near equal footing. Annie exchanges domestic duties for a place to live. She offers no secret recipe or services that could help Lora advance her career aside from answering the phone “Mrs. Meredith’s residence.” Although Lora only rents the apartment in which all of them live, it is clearly her home, not Annie’s. There doesn’t seem to be any real camaraderie between Annie and Lora—the bonding that developed when Delilah rubbed Bea’s tired feet has no real match in this film. There is one foot-rubbing scene between Lora and Annie late in the film that is fleeting and rather perfunctory, and the film takes pains to show that Lora barely knows anything about Annie. When Annie describes who she’d like to have come to her funeral, Lora says she had no idea Annie knew so many people; Annie’s reply is the gentle rebuke, “You never asked.” Therefore, while Annie has a much richer on-camera (or, at least, scripted) life in Sirk’s version, the “all in this together” ethos of Stahl’s Depression-era film is largely lost.

Sarah Jane’s character, beautifully played as a young woman by Susan Kohner, is much more blatant in her contempt for the place of African Americans in her world. When Lora finds out Sarah Jane has a boyfriend, she asks if he is “the Hawkins boy”—the black son of the chauffeur in a neighboring household. Sarah Jane is deeply offended, and later puts on a shuck-and-jive show when her mother asks her to bring a meal tray into Lora and her guests. Sirk expressly ensures that we understand why Sarah Jane wants to pass.

When her white boyfriend finds out she is actually black, he asks her if it’s true that she’s a nigger, slaps her silly, and leaves her laying in a puddle in a dark alley. This scene is brutal, but tracks with the ambivalence shown by the white lover in Cassavetes’ Shadows, which also premiered in 1959, and the general unease of the white community toward the burgeoning civil rights movement. On a less generous note, Sarah Jane leaves home to find herself as a scantily clad showgirl, not the respectable store clerk Peola tries to be before Delilah and Bea track her down. The ’50s didn’t leave women who wanted to make their own way in the world many options, and call girls and actresses abound in films of this time.

Among the supporting characters in each film, I found the contrast between Rochelle Hudson and Sandra Dee, who plays the college-aged Susie, to be almost freakish. Hudson’s Jessie is young, but not unintelligent or lacking in social graces. She and Stephen keep company together while Bea is tied up with work or helping Delilah find Peola; despite their age difference, Jessie manages to be decent company for Stephen and seems justified in thinking she could be a good wife for him. Sandra Dee’s Susie is a blithering idiot who seems hopped up on amphetamines. It’s hard to believe Sirk couldn’t rein her super-fueled perkiness in, so I smell a bit of studio interference on this one to keep the controversial aspects of the story from infecting their virginal starlet.

Ned Sparks is a wonderfully comic presence as the general manager of Bea’s company who begged for some free pancakes at her restaurant and gave her the million-dollar idea to box the flour and sell it. By contrast, Robert Alda’s presence in Lora’s life is an insult. He practically rapes her, and yet later, she’s happy to have him represent her and get his 10 percent cut. Maybe this is a comeuppance for Lora, whose crime of neglecting Susie and Steve is pure ’50s sexism.

Finally, ’50s notions of where a woman’s place should be, as well as the era’s blatant racism get the final word. Annie’s funeral offers a thrilling performance by Mahalia Jackson singing “Trouble of the World,” but truncates Sarah Jane’s moment with her mother’s casket. In the end, Lora shepherds Sarah Jane into the mourners’ limo, as the camera lingers lovingly on Lana Turner throwing a meaningful look at Steve and Susie that signals family life has finally won out over self-actualization.

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