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Through a chance meeting, two widowed mothers - one white, Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert), and one black, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) - decide to pool their talents and go into business together, opening a waffle shop. A surprising financial success, their business is quickly franchised into a chain of coffee shops that market their unique product line - Delilah's waffle recipe and Bea's maple sugar-candy hearts. But their success is a mixed blessing because it complicates their relationships with their own daughters. Feeling neglected, Bea's daughter, Jessie, rebels against her mother and eventually tries to steal her fiancee away. Delilah's daughter, Peola, on the other hand, is a beautiful mulatto who tries to pass for white, completely disassociating herself from her mother and her own race.
Less well known than the 1959 Douglas Sirk remake starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore, the first film version of Imitation of Life (1934), directed by John M. Stahl, is actually more faithful to the Fannie Hurst novel and in many ways presents a much more socially progressive viewpoint than the Sirk version. For one thing, Stahl's version was ahead of its time in presenting single women as successful entrepreneurs in a business traditionally run by men. Even more significant was its subplot which addressed sensitive racial issues (light-skinned vs. dark-skinned blacks) that were rarely acknowledged in Hollywood films. Not surprisingly, the 1934 film version was attacked by both liberal and conservative critics when it was first released. The liberals felt that Delilah's character was an outdated domestic stereotype ("the jolly black cook") which was unrealistic in the context of the story. After all, Delilah was the one who created the successful waffle recipe and had no need to continue living with Bea as her servant. At the same time, some viewers, particularly in the South, felt it was unbelievable that a white woman would go into business with her maid.
Stahl's version of Imitation of Life is also significant for another reason - Fredi Washington's performance as Peola. According to Jean-Pierre Coursodon in his essay on John M. Stahl in American Directors, "Fredi Washington...reportedly received a great deal of mail from young blacks thanking her for having expressed their intimate concerns and contradictions so well. One may add that Stahl's film was somewhat unique in its casting of a black actress in this kind of part - which was to become a Hollywood stereotype of sorts. Subsequently, the studios cautiously used white actresses in semi-blackface: Helen Morgan in the 1936 and Ava Gardner in the 1951 Show Boat, Jeanne Crain in Pinky, Susan Kohner in the second Imitation of Life."
As for Louise Beavers, her role as Delilah was rather ironic since she made it clear she detested kitchen work and particularly hated pancakes and waffles. On the set, professional white chefs would prepare the food while Beavers, pancake flipper in hand, would stand by, waiting for the director to yell, "Action!" Despite her own feelings about her roles, Beavers built a career on playing cheerful domestics in films with Jean Harlow, Mae West and Carole Lombard, and eventually became one of the first black actresses to have her own television show - Beulah (1952-1953). Imitation of Life is certainly one of her best performances and should have been nominated for an Oscar. Columnist Jimmy Fiddler was one of many who objected to this oversight and wrote, "I also lament the fact that the motion picture industry has not set aside racial prejudice in naming actresses. I don't see how it is possible to overlook the magnificent portrayal of the Negro actress, Louise Beavers, who played the mother in Imitation of Life. If the industry chooses to ignore Miss Beavers' performance, please let this reporter, born and bred in the South, tender a special award of praise to Louise Beavers for the finest performance of 1934."
Not many people know that the actual inspiration for Fannie Hurst's novel Imitation of Life came from a road trip to Canada that the author took with her friend Zora Neale Hurston, the acclaimed black short-story writer and folklorist who wrote Mules and Men (1935), a non-fiction study of black culture in Florida, and Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), a novel about a black preacher. Hurst had originally planned to call her novel about Bea and Delilah, Sugar House, but changed the title to Imitation of Life just prior to publication. Like most of Hurst's novels, Imitation of Life became a popular screen success as well - in both of its versions. The 1934 version won Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Sound while the 1959 version garnered Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner.
Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Director: John M. Stahl
Screenplay: William Hurlbut
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Film Editing: Phil Cahn
Original Music: Heinz Roemheld
Principal Cast: Claudette Colbert (Beatrice "Bea" Pullman), Warren William (Stephen Archer), Louise Beavers (Delilah), Ned Sparks (Elmer), Fredi Washington (Peola at 19), Rochelle Hudson (Jessie at 18), Alan Hale (Martin), Seble Hendricks (Peola at 4).
BW-111m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford