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Imitation of Life

Imitation of Life(1934)

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Correspondence in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library reveal that the AMPP was reluctant to approve Universal's original script because they felt that "the main theme is founded upon the results of sex association between the white and black race (miscegenation), and as such, in our opinion, it not only violates the Production Code but is very dangerous from the standpoint both of industry and public policy." Also objectionable was a lynching scene in the original script in which a young African-American man is nearly hanged for approaching a white woman whom he believed had given him an invitation. In a memorandum for the files, the AMPP noted that they met with Carl Laemmle, Jr. and Universal Assistant General Manager Harry H. Zehner, and "emphasized the dangers involved in treating this story as regards to the possibilities having to do with negroes. It was our contention that this part of the plot-the action of the negro girl appearing as white-has a definite connection with the problem of miscegenation. We pointed out that not only from the picture point of view of the producer himself, but also from the point of view of the industry as a whole, this was an extremely dangerous subject and surely to prove troublesome, not only in the south, where it would be universally condemned, but everywhere else. The lynching scene in this story was discussed with the understanding if used at all, would be considerably modified. The producer suggested that to avoid the inference that the leading character was a descendant of a white ancestor, they would definitely establish that her white skin was due to a rare but scientific fact that such a child might come of a line of definitely negro strain."
       On March 22, 1934, AMPP director Joseph I. Breen sent a memo to Will H. Hays at the MPPDA updating him on Imitation of Life, and informing him that the studio was considering dropping the story. Breen sent the script to Maurice McKenzie, Executive Assistant to Hays, who, in addition to noting problems with words and phrases such as "nigger," "Mah Lo'dy" and "Lo'd help," disagreed that the film dealt with miscegenation as "the act of miscegenation has occurred so remotely in the ancestry of the characters that it need not concern us." Nonetheless, he continued that "We here share your concern over the attempt to discuss a racial problem of this nature on the screen, and it is our earnest hope that you will be able to persuade the company to abandon its plans for production." A 3 July memo reveals that Dr. James C. Wingate of the AMPP met again with Harry Zehner and John Stahl, who requested written approval of the script. Wingate demurred, as the AMPP still had not received a complete script and they felt that "the real problem involved in the script occurs in the last part of the story." He further noted that he "discussed with Mr. Stahl the word 'nigger.' He advised me he would not use the word, 'nigger,' with the possible exception of one or two places in the script, and there he will be fully protected. He intends to use the terms 'black'-'colored'-'darky'-and 'negro.'" Although by 17 July the picture had been shooting for two weeks, Breen continued to refuse to approve the script, stating that "it is our conviction that any picture which raises and elaborates such an inflammable racial question as that raised by this picture, is fraught with grave danger to the industry, and hence is one which we, in the dispensation of our responsibilities under the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation of the Production Code, May be obliged to reject."
       Baby Jane changed her name to Juanita Quigley during production. According to a news item in Daily Variety, Paul Lukas was originally wanted for the role of "Stephen Archer," but Warren William was borrowed from Warner Bros. instead. A news item in Hollywood Reporter noted that the film was doing a "stand-out business" at the Roxy theatre in New York, where "the Sunday jam resulted in a call for the police and fire departments to keep the waiting crowd in order." The Variety review stated that the "most arresting part of the picture and overshadowing the conventional romance...is the tragedy of Aunt Delilah's girl born to a white skin and Negro blood. This subject has never been treated upon the screen before....It seems very probable the picture May make some slight contribution to the cause of greater tolerance and humanity in the racial question." The Literary Digest review notes that "In Imitation of Life, the screen is extremely careful to avoid its most dramatic theme, obviously because it fears its social implications....The real story [is]...that of the beautiful and rebellious daughter of the loyal negro friend....Obviously she is the most interesting person in the cast. They [the producers] appear to be fond of her mother, because she is of the meek type of old-fashioned Negro that, as they say, 'knows his place,' but the daughter is too bitter and lacking in resignation for them." Imitation of Life was nominated for Best Picture at the 1934 Academy Awards. Modern sources report that the African-American press viewed this film unfavorably, and that Louise Beavers was assisted by the NAACP in influencing the filmmakers to delete the word "nigger" from the screenplay. A modern source includes Dennis O'Keefe (then known as Bud Flanagan) as a dance extra. Universal released a remake in 1959 based on the same source, directed by Douglas Sirk, and starring Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner (see below).