The 1933 novel, Imitation of Life, by Fannie Hurst has been adapted twice into feature films. Both versions center around the relationship of two single mothers raising their daughters and deal with issues of race identity and women’s place in society.
The 1934 film stars Claudette Colbert as young widow, Bea Pullman, who provides for her daughter by working as a maple syrup distributer. She befriends Delilah, a dark-skinned black woman and single mother, and offers a spare room in exchange for house choirs and babysitting duties. Delilah’s daughter, Peola, is often mistaken for white due to her fair complexion. Delilah proves to be a dedicated friend to Bea and provides a new business opportunity when she reveals a secret recipe for delicious pancakes. Bea and Delilah go into business together and achieve massive success.
The powerful subplot of the film occurs between Delilah and Peola over skin color and the daughter’s ostracism from society. Peola resents her mother for the darkness of her skin and old-fashioned southern ways and in an emotionally charged climax, forsakes Delilah to live as a white woman.
Fredi Washington brings a smoldering intensity to the role of Peola by embodying the affect of a caged and tormented animal. She elevates maudlin sentiment to a profound level and injects a palpable realism to an otherwise melodramatic story.
Louise Beavers brings humanity to Delilah through her earnest portrayal. As written, the character is modern day house slave straight off a plantation. When offered a twenty percent stake in the business she co-founded, Delilah rejects the proposition because just being with her caretaker, Bea, is payment enough. The audience might regard Delilah’s simple ways as comic relief, but Beavers steals each scene by projecting an irresistible dedication for both her friends and child.
Was Douglas Sirk a brilliant director who understood that juxtaposing the petty lives of affluent whites against the plight of blacks highlights most American’s utter disregard for minorities; or was the effect purely coincidently? His 1959 remake opens with a sequence of falling diamonds synced with a pompous ballad. The title sequence foreshadows the superficiality of the lead characters that, even when living under the same roof, seem oblivious to the profound suffering around them. Gone is the business partnership between the two mothers, used in both the book and 1934 version of the film, and Annie (renamed from Delilah) has been demoted to a dedicated housekeeper.
Instead of focusing on the symbiotic relationship of the two mothers, the story explores Lana Turner’s failings as an absentee mother too focused on her career. The trivial lives of an actress and her upper class friends ultimately sap the energy from the film. Even though Annie and her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, receive more screen time in the 1959 version, the pathos is misplaced and the daughter’s plight comes off as the overly dramatic rantings of a moody teenager.
Lana Turner repeatedly declares, “Oh Annie, what would I ever do without you?” yet, when her friend is dying she asks her daughter to remain by Annie’s bedside so that she can attend a film premier. The self-centered attitude of Turner’s character speaks volumes about the lack of empathy in American society. One can imagine the inscription on Annie’s headstone, No one heard, no one helped, and no one cared.
Both versions of, Imitation of Life, explore the highly charged issues of race identity using vastly different methods. The 1934 adaption utilizes a straightforward approach that depends on the performances of its actors, while the 1959 film emphasizes conflicts by structuring parallel storylines against each other. Although, the weakness in both films is the one-dimensional stereotyping of blacks, simply bringing the emotional struggle of minorities to the screen is laudable.