Imitation of Life

Imitation of Life by Fanny Hurst was published to great success in 1933, made into a film in 1934, and then again in 1959. All three are a fascinating window on race in the USA. Fascinating and deeply depressing.

The movies are kind of an obsession of mine. Particularly the contrast between them. So much changed in those intervening 25 years, and so very little. David Kehr in today’s New York Times describes the films thus:

Douglas Sirk’s 1959 “Imitation of Life” is among the most closely analyzed films in the Hollywood canon, a Lana Turner soap opera turned into an exercise in metaphysical formalism by Sirk’s finely textured and densely layered images. Less well known is John M. Stahl’s first film version (1934) of this Fannie Hurst novel about the complex bond between an enterprising white businesswoman (Claudette Colbert) and the black woman (Louise Beavers) who becomes her housekeeper and supplies the secret formula for pancakes that becomes the basis of Colbert’s character’s empire.

That was the year that Hollywood began seriously to enforce what had been the largely toothless Production Code, which, among its many nefarious effects, would result in the near disappearance of socially engaged films for the next two decades. But Stahl’s “Imitation of Life” still benefits from the frankness and skepticism of the early Depression years. Though hardly free from stereotyping, it stands today as perhaps the most powerful Hollywood film about race until the civil rights movement of the 1950s.

Hardly free from stereotyping is right. The black characters are happy with their place in the world. All but the housekeeper’s daughter, Peola, who is so light-skinned she can pass for white. Yet in both films her decision to do so seems inexplicable. The black people are all happy. Why would you want to pretend to be one of the tormented white people? Look how hard the white man’s burden is!

If you were an alien watching the movies you’d be scratching your head trying to figure out what was so very terrible about being black. In neither film are there any cafes with signs saying “Whites Only.” The black characters never have to sit at the back of the bus. There’s no mention of slavery, lynchings, or the civil rights movement.

There is one horrible scene of racism in the 1959 version, but it plays out as though racism is just that particular person’s problem, not anything systemic. The most you get in the 1934 version is the kids at school looking shocked when they discover that Peola is passing. Their reaction shot lasts less than five seconds.

One of the things that puzzles me most is that in 1934 a black actress was cast in the role of the daughter who passes as white, but in 1959 she was played by a white actress. What’s up with that? Were there truly no light-skinned actresses of Fredi Washington’s (pictured above) calibre around in the 1950s? Colour me doubtful.1

I find the 1934 version more powerful because it doesn’t lose its focus on racism; the 1959 movie winds up being largely about Lana Turner’s scandal-ridden life, specifically her daughter killing her mobster boyfriend. David Kehr is spot on about the final scene of both movies:

Like the Douglas Sirk version, Stahl”s “Imitation of Life” climaxes with a lavish funeral procession. But what Sirk turns into a triumph of coolly expressive visual style becomes, in Stahl”s version, a sustained march of silent protest against a system as unjust as it is deeply ingrained. The film seems unable to put a name to the monumental grief it depicts with such devastating force.

That’s a large part of the problem with boths films: they are about systemic racism and injustice, but they cannot name them. Both films are exercises in avoidance, shame, and lame liberal justifications. What fascinates me is their inability to articulate the bleeding obvious: It is unjust that the black woman who makes the white woman’s life of money and privilege gets so little for it. It is unjust that the black woman’s daughter cannot get what she wants unless she pretends to be white and then when she does that she is punished.

Both films are clear that the problem lies with Peola for trying to be something she is not. Her passing is what is at fault, not the system of racial inequality that makes passing as white an attractive path.

But most of all neither of these films are about Peola or her mother: They’re about the white woman. Claudette Colbert in the first film and Lana Turner in the second. I’ve always longed for it to be remade with the focus squarely on the black woman with the miracle pancake mix.2

Happy Super Tuesday to all you USians living in those states. Vote well! I bet Peola would be happy to see a black man in the running, but sad to see how much racial and sexual inequality still exists. But we can change that, right?

  1. Well, okay, Fredi Washington was AMAZING; finding any actress as good as her would have been tricky. But Susan Kohner was definitely not up to the job. []
  2. The second film takes away the pancake empire and makes the housekeeper character just a housekeeper. Another reason I prefer the first film. []


  1. Diane on #

    If they made it today, I would give excellent odds the story would *still* focus on the white woman, because Hollywood still feels more comfortable having a white character at the center of the story, even if it’s primarily the non-white character’s story. (Cf. Gene Hackman and Willen Dafoe in “Mississippi Burning”, Kevin Kline in “Cry Freedom”, or Nicolas Cage in “Windtalkers.”)

  2. Justine on #

    I fear that you are right.

  3. Justine on #

    Veronica: Have you read the book? I finally got hold of a copy but haven’t read it yet. I’m very curious.

    You’re exactly right in all your points. (Those films are so sticky. Ever since I first saw the Lana Turner one when I was a kid I can’t get them out of my head.) Especially how egregious the later one is given that it takes place right smack in the middle of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King is already a public figure! Rosa Parks had already refused to give up her seat on the bus! It’s like the film is taking place in a whole other world. (Er, that would be because the film is taking place in a whole other world: fantasy Hollywood land.)

    It must be great fun teaching them together.

  4. Camille on #

    Or pretty much anything with Djimon Hounsou or Morgan Freeman in it. Not to mention “Darjeeling Limited.”

  5. Justine on #

    Yup, the list is long and depressing.

  6. Veronica on #

    I teach both versions of this movie in my course on mother-daughter relationships in twentieth-century literature, because I find the differences so intriguing. The black mother in the first movie is such a buffoonish character–a racist cariacature of the “mammy”–but she is in fact, as you note, the driving force of the pancake empire. Without her pancakes, there’s no recipe; without her recipe, there’s no empire. In the second version of the movie, her character is afforded much more dignity–but at the cost of removing her from any economic power at all. In the second movie, the families’ economic rise is due entirely to Lana Turner’s character’s acting. It’s almost as though the black woman can have economic power as long as she is an idiot, or she can be a powerful character as long as she is completely dependent economically, for her to be economically powerful and thoughtful would be simply too threatening to white Hollywood.

    At the same time, in the earlier version, Claudette Colbert’s character is never punished for being ambitious and successful. Lana Turner is abandoned by her boyfriend for refusing to give up her acting ambitions, and when he does return to her it’s only at the cost of her successful career. But Colbert is allowed to be both professionally successful and romantically successful (this last is delayed at the end of the movie, but there’s no suggestion that she and her lover won’t get back together after a little while). And unlike Turner, Colbert is never victimized sexually.

    Also, the love interest in the earlier movie is an icthyologist! How cool is that? How many leading men nowadays are icthyologists?

    But as you say, the most disturbing part of each film is how they’re intent on ignoring the instituationalized racism of the US, so that Peola and Mary Jane’s actions are made personal pathology rather than part of a larger racist system. I find this especially unforgiveable in the later version because by using the trope of the black and white dolls, it is very clearly referencing the Brown v. Board of Ed. case that had been decided four years earlier, but it is refusuing not only to acknowledge what that case had been about, but also to acknowledge any of the civil rights organizations and movements that were active in the late 1950s.

  7. simmone on #

    i have only seen the sirk – i saw it when I was about 13 and remember having a strong emotional response to it – i’ll def have to seek out the others – to ACMI I go!

  8. sara z on #

    I used to own the later version on VHS(as for you Troy Donahue I know what YOU wanna do…wow I really hope that reference makes sense to you). I was pretty young (early 20s) and did not have a lot of deep thoughts about it – it was more about my love of old movies and melodrama. Now I want to watch it again as well as the earlier.

    did you ever see Todd Haynes’ homage to Sirk – Far From Heaven?

  9. Justine on #

    Sara Z: I love Far From Heaven! Watching it immediately after All That Heaven Allows is deeply pleasurable. i, too, am an old movie fanatic—ever since I was a littlie.

  10. Nick on #

    Slightly OT – but I’m fascinated by this and I can’t help linking it wherever it seems even vaguely appropriate:

    The Federal writers project has some fascinating stuff from cross section of Americans in the 30s, talking about their own lives.

    To try and make it a little more on topic, there’s some really interesting stuff from women, about their working and home lives – it’s just an amazing insight into the period, I think.

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