DirectorJohn M. Stahl
Release Date(s)1934 (January 10, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (The Criterion Collection – #1167)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
In the 1930s, Hollywood was constrained from dealing in a frank manner with certain subjects by the new Production Code. It’s therefore unusual that Imitation of Life, based on the novel by Fannie Hurst, was made at all.
The film tells two stories that overlap. Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) are widows of different races with very young daughters. Delilah turns up at Bea’s home, having mistakenly come to the wrong address to seek employment as a domestic. Bea’s late husband left her in financial straits and she can’t afford the household help she needs as the working single mother of a two-year-old. Delilah offers to work for Bea in exchange for room and board provided that her own daughter, Peola, can live with her. As the women immediately feel a liking and empathy for each other and Bea can use the help, she agrees to the arrangement.
When Delilah makes pancakes for breakfast from her special recipe, Bea finds them so delectable that they inspire her to open a restaurant. Bea will find a location, negotiate with contractors, and manage the business, and Delilah will be the cook, turning out her irresistible pancakes. The restaurant turns out to be a success, loans are paid off, and the women gain a measure of financial security. One of their diners suggests that they package Delilah’s pancake mix to sell nationwide. Bea soon sees the potential of the idea and the product makes her and Delilah a fortune.
As time passes and the little girls grow up, the very light-skinned Peola (Fredi Washington) has been passing for white at school. She’s unhappy about the discrimination black people face and wants the advantages and opportunities she would have as a lovely young white woman.
When charming Stephen Archer (Warren William) turns up at one of Bea’s parties, she’s attracted to him and a romance develops. Bea’s daughter, Jessie (Rochelle Hudson), comes home from college on vacation and she, too, is attracted to Stephen. An awkward love triangle develops.
The romance with Stephen is cumbersome and gets in the way of the more interesting story of Delilah and Peola. Their relationship, which becomes increasingly strained with time, is the emotional heart of the film. Without preaching, William Hurlbut’s script contrasts Delilah’s acceptance of the limitations America imposed on black people with Peola’s struggle to escape them. Director John M. Stahl tells the story with the racial element never addressed head on. Instead, he keeps the focus on Delilah and Peola as they deal with how race and perceptions create unhappiness and even desperation.
The film is very melodramatic and is what was once referred to as a “women’s picture.” It’s also one of the very few Hollywood films that contained substantial roles for black actors at a time when they were typically cast as servants. In Imitation of Life, Delilah is a real person, a loving mother suffering as her daughter is suffering, wishing she could cause Peola’s pain to cease. When she confides to Bea about how unhappy Peola is, she never addresses her own pain. She is selfless and will do anything for Peola.
Louise Beavers, who built her career on playing domestics in countless films, is perfectly cast as a loving mother whose heart is breaking over the unhappiness of her daughter. With her warm smile, gentle manner, and ability to show the joy Delilah gets from pleasing others, she brings dignity and humanity to the role of Delilah.
Claudette Colbert, the nominal star of the picture, convinces as both the loving mother and the smart businesswoman able to turn femininity to her advantage in a man’s world. We buy that she and Delilah would confide in each other and that she would treat Delilah fairly and with respect.
Ned Sparks provides some comic relief as Elmer Smith, the customer who gives Bea the idea of packaging the pancake mix and selling it nationally and later becomes the company manager.
Modern viewers might be put off by how, even though Bea and Delilah and their daughters live together, Delilah is never fully integrated into Bea’s circle. At two points in the film, Delilah actually rubs Bea’s feet. She has no understanding of business and gives total control to Bea even though it’s her pancake recipe that’s made them both rich. And she never refers to Bea as anything but “Miss Bea.” Still, the portrayal of Delilah is pretty enlightened for the time. The relationship between a servant and her mistress who become business partners and friends is delicately conveyed.
Imitation of Life was a critical and financial success. The film reflects attitudes of the period toward race, but with a subtle touch. In order not to overstep her bounds, Delilah chooses to live downstairs in a huge mansion she shares with Bea in New York, doesn’t join a party celebrating their success, and continues to live with Bea and Jessie when she has enough money to buy a house of her own. A sort of time capsule, the film illustrates how some attitudes have changed over time and others have not.
Imitation of Life was shot by director of photography Merritt B. Gerstad on 35 mm black-and-white film and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Criterion Collection Blu-ray features a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Liner notes indicate that “the digital restoration by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment was created in 4K resolution on an Oxberry film scanner from a 35 mm nitrate composite fine-grain from the Library of Congress and a 35 mm silent safety duplicate negative.” The image is nearly radiant, with a silvery tone, making it look pristine. Details such as patterns and shimmering appliques on Claudette Colbert’s and Rochelle Hudson’s dresses, objects in Bea’s kitchen, tea cup decoration, and furnishings in the mansion are nicely delineated. There are no distracting imperfections such as scratches, reel changeover cues, emulsion clouding or dirt specks. Clarity and contrast are excellent, offering a theater-like experience.
The soundtrack is English mono LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. The film begins with the airplane-circling-the-globe Universal logo and segues into Heinz Roemheld’s dramatic score under the opening credits. Dialogue is clear and easily understood throughout, even in scenes with ambient crowd noise and music, as in a party scene at Bea’s elegant home. Sound effects are limited to a heavy rain, cars pulling up to buildings, and background traffic. A key scene toward the end of the picture features a procession with musicians, scores of marchers, and hundreds of viewers. It’s the single biggest scene in the picture and the music establishes the somber mood needed, though the sound here is a bit muddy.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Introduction by Imogen Sara Smith (24:11)
- On Passing and Blackness (19:58)
- Trailer (1:15)
Introduction – Film critic Imogen Sara Smith, contributor to The Call of the Heart: John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama, discusses Imitation of Life in the context of John M. Stahl’s other work. She talks about his silent films with African American characters. Stahl’s themes dealt with female devotion and self-sacrifice. Imitation of Life followed the Stahl-directed films Seed, Back Street, and Only Yesterday. All are about women who dedicate their lives to children, a husband, or a lover. They never get back from these relationships what they put into them. Class, economics, and race are important elements in Imitation of Life. Stahl employs a “wider lens for social pressures that affect personal relationships.” The women’s picture has traditionally been looked down on. In a biographical overview, Smith notes that Stahl’s early life is “murky.” He was featured prominently in publicity for his films, which was unusual for the time. Many of Stahl’s films are based on stories or screenplays by women writers. The 1920s and 1930s saw changing, unstable ideas about a woman’s place. Traditional roles were explored against professional careers. The Production Code had problems with the role of Peola, whose light skin suggested miscegenation. The film was deemed dangerous in terms of the industry and public policy, and offensive to customers in the South. The Code wanted to avoid topics that could be considered controversial. Several writers worked on the screenplay. There’s no social critique. Stahl’s style is not showy. The relationship between Delilah and Peola overshadows the romantic story of Bea and Stephen Archer. In 1934, Claudette Colbert appeared in three films that were nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award—Imitation of Life, Cleopatra, and It Happened One Night, which won the Oscar. The 1959 remake proved an even bigger success at the box office.
On Passing and Blackness – Miriam J. Petty, author of Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood, discusses the complicated relationships actors Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington had with their characters and the differences in how the film was received by white and African American audiences at the time of its original release. Louise Beavers played a role similar to those she had previously played. It was difficult for Hollywood to see black actors in any other context. The film is one of several in which a character passing for white is doomed. Peola is looking toward the future. Capitalism fed the desire for black people with lighter skin to succeed. Peola is happiest when she passes for white in school (as a child) and as a cashier (as an adult).
Trailer – This is the second trailer made by Universal, which was geared to predominantly black audiences and featured Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington, along with newspaper quotes praising their performances.
Booklet – This 12-page, accordion-style booklet, included in the packaging, contains an essay by Miriam J. Petty, cast and production credits, several black-and-white photos, and information about the film’s restoration.
Imitation of Life is a moving story of a strained relationship between mother and daughter. Director John M. Stahl balances the melodrama with a light touch, making Delilah a real person rather than a metaphor for an entire race. Beavers’ performance is masterful, conveying a wide range of human emotions from joy to anguish, never sounding a false note.
- Dennis Seuling