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The opening and closing cast credits vary in order. Actress Karen Dicker's name is misspelled as "Karin" in the onscreen credits. This picture, Douglas Sirk's last feature, was a remake of the 1934 Universal film of the same title directed by John M. Stahl and starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40). According to a July 19, 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item, producer Ross Hunter originally planned to make a musical version of the story starring Shirley Booth and Ethel Waters. In April 1957 and January 1958, "Rambling Reporter" items in Hollywood Reporter stated that Deborah Kerr and Richard Egan were being considered for starring roles.
Hollywood Reporter noted that in the novel on which the film is based, and in the 1934 film adaptation, the character played by Lana Turner "combined her business acumen with a recipe for pancakes invented by a Negro woman and reaped a fortune. The characters lived together, loved one another and faced tragedy through their respective daughters. The plot formula would not have stood up in today's era of integration when a Negro who owned half a successful corporation could buy her own home in any area that pleased her." Of the change in plot, Variety commented about the 1959 film, "While this device lends more scope, it also results in the over-done busy actress-neglected daughter conflict, and thus the secondary plot of a fair-skinned Negress passing as white becomes the film's primary force." A modern source reported that Sirk had read the novel before directing this film, but had not seen the 1934 film.
Universal borrowed costume designer Jean Louis from Columbia for the film. According to August 1958 Hollywood Reporter news items, portions of the picture were shot at the Warner Bros. studio, the Methodist Church in Hollywood, CA, and at the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Los Angeles. A August 21, 1958 Hollywood Reporter article states that thirty members of the Donn Arden Revue appeared in the musical number shot at the Moulin Rouge nightclub.
According to Daily Variety, Universal encountered some resistance to the promotion of the film and tailored its advertising campaign for the South, where, a studio representative said, "white southerners avoid films that are advertised as dealing with the race problem." On February 2, 1959, Hollywood Reporter reprinted the following wire sent by LA Tribune editor Almena Lomac to numerous white publications: "Imitation of Life...is a libel on the Negro race. It libels our children and the Negro mother [and] should be banned in the interest of national unity, harmony, peace, decency and inter-racial respect. The Tribune is refusing all advertising of it and will picket it in the Los Angeles area and call upon the N.A.A.C.P. to condemn, oppose and picket it, too." The outcome of this boycott is not known. Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner both received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress, and Kohner won a Golden Globe in the same category. According to a April 3, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Turner contracted for a five percent participation in the film's profits.