Year Released: 1934
Running Time: 111 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: Imitation of Life (1959 Remake), De Frente al Sol
For Fans Of: Black Girl, Pinky, I Passed For White, God’s Stepchildren, Body and Soul
-Special thanks to Blkpride from Mosi-Blog for introducing me to this film.
-There will be talk about racism including my own experiences being a victim of this matter. Expect uncomfortable truths and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
-Imitation of Life is based on a novel by author and playwright Fannie Hurst. She has also written Mannequin, Five and Ten, and The Man With One Head. Hurst actively supported causes for equality with African-Americans and has even befriended Zora Neale Hurston.
-This film was directed by the Azerbaijan-born Russian-American filmmaker John M. Stahl. His other works consist of The Walls of Jericho, Magnicifent Obsession, and Back Street to name a few. Outside of his directorial work, Stahl was a founder of MGM (via a preceding company Louis B. Mayer Pictures) and The Academy itself. Yes, he was one of the people responsible for the existence of the organization that brought The Oscars.
-The adult version of Peola Johnson was played by Fredi Washington. She was actually biracial (black/white mixed) in real life due to both of her parents being of mixed descent themselves. In a stark contrast to the Peola character, Washington never wanted to pass for being white since she couldn’t deny or even want to lie about her black heritage.
-There’s actually a bit role from then child actor Jane Withers who is the one of two cast members to still be alive at the time of this review (the other one is Marilyn Knowlden who played the eight-year-old version of Jessie). Outside of her work in Imitation of Life, she has been in Ginger, A Very Young Lady, and her final role was voicing the gargoyle Laverne in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame series.
-Imitation of Life faced lots of censorship during production mainly because of the issues of race. Despite Peola being a light skinned black character, the censors feared she was a result of an interracial parentage and would violate miscegenation laws at the time.
-Film Error: The original cut had a title screen that showed how the first part of the movie takes place in Atlantic City, New Jersey. However, in the scene where Bea is looking for space to rent for her business, there’s a sign that clearly reads Pleasantville which is a completely different town in the same state. After realizing this, the title card was removed in future releases about the faulty location of Atlantic City instead of Pleasantville. That’s also part of the Jersey Shore, but thankfully no one has to worry about seeing Snooki or DJ Pauly D or any look-alikes around in this movie.
Just because I mainly focus on obscure movies and international fare doesn’t mean I can swear off Hollywood let alone mainstream movies. I feel like most of it is so formulaic and uninteresting to me. Now, I’ve covered a few films that have been distributed by major companies such as Offside, Persepolis, When Marnie Was There, and even Birth of a Nation (2016) which is the only movie with major distribution to get a 10/10 from me. The last one is certainly an awkward one in hindsight because it was distributed by Fox Searchlight before Disney bought out 20th Century Fox (Okay, Mickey Mouse. You win this one by technicality). There are certainly talented film bloggers out there that cover old-school Hollywood such as Sally Silverscreen from 18 Cinema Lane for example. I’ve reviewed older films before, but not so much from major studios. However, I would’ve never thought about reviewing this particular film had it not have been for Blkpride mentioning it in a conversation we had.
How will this pre-code era Hollywood movie fare especially given the touchy subject it covers?
Imitation of Life starts out in New Jersey. There’s a widowed woman named Beatrice “Bea” Pullman who has inherited her late husband’s maple syrup business. She has to juggle the company in between taking care of her young daughter Jessie. On one morning, Bea scrambles to give her toddler daughter a bath while also trying to expand her clientele which she’s been struggling to do to make a profit. Next thing, she gets a knock on a door from a black woman named Delilah who is willing to be a housekeeper. She gets the wrong address despite the streets having the same name. Bea tells Delilah it’s the wrong house, but Jessie falls into the bath with her clothes on which catches the mother’s attention. In the time of getting Jessie and then coming downstairs, Delilah fixes up breakfast for everyone. Bea eventually agrees to hiring her for a room and board deal and Delilah is able to stay with her light skinned daughter Peola (the father is said to be a black man with a fair complexion). Bea has to try to set up shop for the business, but things take a turn when her family becomes enraptured by Delilah’s pancakes. She decides to make a pancake restaurant business using Delilah’s face and name to promote the product. The pancake business becomes a success. Meanwhile, despite Peola and Jessie becoming friends and going to school together, Peola begins to hate being black after being called that and wants to pass as white because of her lighter complexion. Aunt Delilah’s Pancake company keeps raking in profits especially after the secret recipe is boxed while also moving to New York City, but the families become strained with Peola’s increasing self-loathing of her heritage in her adulthood and Bea looking at marrying the ichthyologist Stephen Archer while the eighteen-year-old Jessie gets affectionate for him even though she’s nineteen years his junior.
To be honest with most of you, I’m not a fan of most forms of older American cinema, but I saw good things in Imitation of Life. This movie had elements of being shockingly progressive especially in a time period that was more oppressive and overtly bigoted towards the ADOS community than it is now even though 2020 isn’t much better which is just a sad reality. The fact it involved a woman-owned business was new in mainstream movies at the time. It also showed a very realistic portrayal of “racial passing” when it came to black people who happened to be lighter-skinned or possibly biracial and how it could lead one to have feelings of inferiority. There were also white characters who didn’t act like racist jerks to black people since even Bea calls it out from time to time while coming off as genuine. That was a nice touch with the characterization there. I will also say that the DVD remastering job was nice and crisp and I forgot I was watching a movie from the 30s. Imitation of Life could’ve been made in the 40s or early 50s (not the remake which I haven’t seen) and I wouldn’t have noticed with the visual restoration. The pacing was surprisingly quick and even though this movie was almost two hours long, this felt much shorter. However, the story covered so much in that time and it didn’t feel like it overstayed it’s welcome. The set design was basic, but completely worked with the environment. The only expensive thing I could think of was the Aunt Delilah’s sign with the flashing lights in the b-roll footage, but if you took that out, it could be a neorealism film if the actors weren’t professional. The acting was also top notch as I could feel the characters just selling it in their particular roles. Most of the characters felt like real people with their own flaws and quirks which was good. Given how these golden age Hollywood films involving both black and white characters would portray the latter as Mary Sues, this wasn’t the case. Bea has a habit of sweet-talking her way out of not paying as much money and completely Beckys her way to get what she wants, but it has consequences for her. Jessie is someone who struggles with school and has very selfish desires once she becomes an adult. Stephen is a very successful scientist with marine life, but he’s oblivious to Jessie’s affection for him at first. Peola is very intelligent, but has too much self-hatred for her own good. Delilah is selfless to a fault much to her detriment especially later on in the film. Most of them were well-written which I thought was fine. A major aspect that floored me was Peola’s character. It was so tragic by how much she does her best to pass as white. The thought of her moving from school to school, working at a segregated restaurant until she’s discovered, and not wanting to associate with her own mom made me tear up. I couldn’t imagine living like that in the 30s where race was everything and where Jim Crow infiltrated American laws. She may have lived in a Northern state like New Jersey, but they had a lot of issues against black people as well. I wanted her to reconcile with Delilah who did so much for her before and during the success of the pancake business. She didn’t deserve to hate herself and suffer in this racist society.
Before I go forward with this review, I do have to make a confession. I struggle with self-hatred and part of it back then was racial. For those who may or may not know, I happen to be black/white mixed. Even though I have a lighter complexion, I have just enough melanin to make people realize that I don’t look white. While my self-loathing never got to be as overt as Peola, it was more subtle. I would be gravitated towards white characters when I was a kid watching cartoons since I didn’t see too many black characters that were positively written. Instead of R&B, funk, jazz, or rap (even though I listened to some of that music thanks to my mom), I went into liking rock, metal, and punk during my high school and college years. I got into anime partially because I wanted to relate to characters who would be considered POC and be interested in Japanese culture despite not having an ounce of Japanese or Asian DNA in me. I’ve dealt with my fair share of racism with being called the N-word, people saying dog whistle terms to my face, getting pulled over by cops for completely bogus reasons, feeling underestimated all the time, and being treated like I was Satan himself while my white peers would get a free pass for making the same mistakes or having a bad day. There have been some white people who have treated me like garbage and some black people who say that I don’t know anything about being discriminated. Both of them were and are so wrong. It has taken me years to find reasons to love myself and to appreciate my heritage. When it got to the scene where Delilah is trying to cheer up Peola and says “He [God] made you black, honey. Don’t be telling Him His business.”, I just lost it and teared up hearing that line. It’s not my fault for my interracial parentage, and I wish I didn’t have to prove my humanity to anyone. It has been a miracle that I would be accepted by other bloggers even after they knew about my African-American heritage.
Imitation of Life does suffer from a few things. Since this movie is very old, this does affect aspects of my score. You can clearly tell it was made in the 30s with the technology, the way they talk, fashion, and with how old the footage is. Besides that, the editing got choppy at times. The scene where Jessie falls into the bathtub had an awkward jump cut and other scenes had jump zoom-ins for no reasons or some jagged cuts in the middle of some conversations. That did distract me at times while watching. The Delilah character had some ambivalent connotations to her despite positive traits about her. While I applaud her doing the best for her daughter and being charitable, it still doesn’t change the fact that she’s in a subservient position. She does have that “mammy archetype” look with her being obese, talking in a stereotypical way with saying “mammy”, “yes’m”, or unnecessary pluralizing certain words. Some of those aspects in the subtext are in the text like how Delilah claims that she doesn’t eat as much as how she looks (side note: the character is 240 pounds while Bea assumes she’s “only” 200) or how she will do anything and everything for the Pullman family. The fact that she isn’t seen as intelligent or as well-spoken as her daughter doesn’t help. I get that employment opportunities for black people were limited then in real life and you did have black housekeepers, maids, butlers, cooks, etc., but it’s hard not seeing how a character like her can turn off viewers. Delilah is far more redeemable than other characters from movies I’ve reviewed like the Beta Israel community in The Rabbi’s Cat or Getz from Sukeban Deka who were obviously racist, but I had my issues with how she was portrayed at times.
Despite some outdated aspects, I was still glad to have seen Imitation of Life. The plot was well-done and there were many dynamic characters in this tragic drama of sorts. The fact that the filmmakers took a chance on a plot like this to tackle race in Jim Crow-era America is certainly commendable. Peola’s self-loathing really hit home and is believable to me despite not being like her and I know I’m not the only one who finds her character development to be very tragic. The restoration job was wonderful despite some editing issues. Delilah was a two-edged sword with her having both positive and negative qualities with how she was portrayed. Imitation of Life was certainly one of the better golden age films from the otherwise bigoted Hollywood machine. Thanks, Blkpride. I needed to see this.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1 point if you like classic cinema.
Subtract 1-2 points if you don’t like black & white cinema.
Subtract 1-3 points if you don’t feel comfortable with movies about race and ethnicity.
-Amazing film restoration job
-Great characters and character development
-Realistic portrayal of racial “passing” and the negative effects of colorism.
-Editing issues in the movie
-Obviously dated elements on display
-Delilah playing up some mammy-isms
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: While Imitation of Life was made before the MPAA existed, I’m sure this would get a PG if it were rated today. There’s drinking and smoking at different points. The elements of racism, colorism, and self-hatred are very realistic and those elements could be complex for young children to grasp. The subplot with the Jessie/Stephen/Bea love triangle gets very uncomfortable especially when both the mother and daughter fall in love with the ichthyologist. One character also dies in the final act of the movie.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Imitation of Life is property of Universal. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Universal.