Sunday, January 22, 2012
Imitation of Life (1934)
Amidst the treasure trove of films produced within Hollywood in 1934 comes a jewel of a picture, grand not for breaking new ground in cinema technology or above reproach quality, but rather for its subject matter. Hidden within a story of a single mother pulling herself up by her bootstraps and making herself something in life is film that deals with race relations and America’s view on a fraction of their own population, African Americans. An emotionally filled picture starring one of Hollywood’s brightest stars at the time would stand out in history as being one the best race films for African Americans, but before that, the picture was an exceptional production, and film ahead of its time.
Imitation of Life is a drama about a single mother who, with the help of her black single mother housekeeper/friend, turns her struggling life into one of prosperity while struggling with parenthood and love. The beautiful Claudette Colbert plays the single mother Bea who teams with her black housekeeper Delilah (Louise Beavers) to create a very successful pancake business, using Delilah’s Aunt Jemima-like image, and recipe. Through the years of working to become successful with the business the two are raising their two daughters on their own, juggling life and the girls.
The story gets more complicated as the two daughters grow older. The primary story being that of Bea’s new secret fiancé Steven Archer (Warren William) and how Bea wants to ease him into her now young adult daughter Jessie’s (Rochelle Hudson) life. The couple keeps their intentions secret from Jessie until she gets to know Steve better, but things get complicated as Jessie begins to believe there is romance between herself and Steve. Meanwhile Delilah’s daughter Peola (Fredi Washington) is a light skinned black that can pass as white, that is with the exception of her very black, mammy-style mother. Peola grows to resent her mother’s color and disowns Delilah so that she can live as a normal white. This breaks the heart of Delilah, who slowly loses the will to live by way of a bed-ridden illness. Delilah passes away, but is hailed as a great friend of Bea and an even greater black figure in culture, as seen in here large funeral precession.
After these emotional events Peola is ashamed of her actions in disowning her mother, sobbing uncontrollably at what Peole believes she had done to her own mother, returning to the black college her mother wished for her to go to. Despite Bea setting the record straight with Jessie about Steve, who breaks Jessie’s heart, Bea cuts Steve from her life. Seeing Jessie as the only important thing in her life, Bea cannot see a future with Steve in it as a constant reminder of mistaken love of Jessie. This ends the film similarly where it started, with Bea alone in the world with Jessie, her most important treasure.
In a film that spans a little less than two hours, so much is covered in the story of Bea. The center of the picture is Bea as she starts off as meagerly and humble, moving to financial success, concluding with trials of love and an adult daughter. Beyond that is a far more gripping story of Delilah, the black housemaid who cheerfully works for Bea, asking little in return other than a roof and food. Her daughter Peola is the world to her, as Jessie is to Bea, but the difference is how Peola passes as a white child and young adult. It is tragic to watch Peola wish so much to be white and cruses the very idea of her mother being black. In a time of greater racial segregation that was the 1930s, it is hard to be against Peola, but it is even harder to watch Delilah be shunned by the one she loved all her life. The tale is absolutely heartbreaking as Delilah loses first her daughter then her life. Peola is even more broken as now she no longer has that unconditional loving figure in her life in her mother. This story of race is so very powerful for the time the film came out of, making for a surprising picture where race was not dealt with as much in the main stream motion pictures.
The movie is gripping and done tastefully well. With the picture starting so unassumingly it turns into a force that I could not turn away from. I am sure it rocked the culture underneath the simple dramatic story the movie was blanketed in. To make a mainstream picture about race in that time was something not seen. Remember in 1934 the Civil War happened only 70 years prior, W.D. Griffith’s epic picture about the KKK , Birth of a Nation, was only released 19 years prior, and the Second World War was still a thing of the future. Race issues still had a long way to come, as segregation was part of American life then. The film did not talk about it, but is made clear as Delilah lives in a dark lower level of the house where things are gloomier, while Bea lives upstairs in the bright shimmering white world of public display and elegance. The film says volumes about that time without actually saying much at all. It is because of that perhaps why Time Magazine would name the film one of the top movies about race in 2007, an honor well deserved.
The headlining stars of the feature were Claudette Colbert and Warren William, who both had just come off of working on the DeMille epic drama Cleopatra. Seeing the good chemistry the two had as the title character and Julius Caesar, Universal pictures saw them as a good team in this love story. Colbert was in the middle of perhaps her busiest year, which also included It Happened One Night, for which she won the Oscar for best actress. The role of Jessie went to the 18-year-old Rochelle Hudson. This young lady seeking stardom was cast as the 19-year-old daughter because Hudson entered the movies as a very young lady, but padded her age by two years to get better roles for herself with her youthful looks. She would soon start to get more work in upcoming features in Hollywood.
The most notable of the cast were Louise Beaver and Fredi Washington, who played mother/daughter Delilah and Peola despite only being two years different in age. Beavers was a very popular black actress that tended to play similar roles as the mammy character in several features. Some African American resented her as playing to a stereotype, but Beavers in fact turned down her fair share of role because she was a proud black woman. Her strong performance as Delilah manifested a character as humble, never greedy, and one of unconditional love. Fredi Washington was a very different type of black actress. She was very light skinned, able to be considered white, but she made people know she was very much a black actress. Here she plays a girl ashamed of being black, but Washington was very proud of her race and never regretted her color, becoming a strong civil right advocate.
For a bit of humor we see Ned Sparks cast Elmer, the two women’s business partner that initiates the idea that made them all very rich, in boxing up the famous pancake flour created by Delilah. Sparks deadpan face and sarcastic tones made great side character, cynical towards the world in the film, but providing much needed humor; a break from the drama.
The director of the film was a go-getter himself, in John M. Stahl. Many might never had heard of him, but he was very much a part of the creation of Hollywood as the film capitol. He directed in the earlier years of MGM studios, and even helped found the Motion Picture Academy. For a time while he was the head of the short lived Tiffany Studios, which eventually folded. He would direct for many years with many of the brightest star in the land, but Imitation of Life would perhaps be his best known work.
Imitation of Life was critically acclaimed movie then as it would be in time. The Academy would nominate the picture for three awards: best sound, best assistant director (a short lived category for a position that is not generally understood by the audience as to what he does), and even for best picture, losing to another Colbert film It Happened One Night. Due to the films racial issues the picture would be on the valued list of films preserved in the Library of Congress and be one of the more significant films in terms of race matters in the twentieth century.
Once again I am humble to discover such treasure in motion pictures. An unassuming picture with such a well known star in the 1930s produces a film that is very much watchable through the many decades following its initial release. It does not give the fullness of what it was like for minorities in that time, but it gives hints and opens the doors to discussion. Imitation of Life is a film well deserving of its honors and picture that I am very happy to have seen. Without this film journey that I had set myself out on, I do not know if I would have ever discovered the film on my own. Once again, this proves why I value the production of motion pictures and why I choose to see where they and we have all come from.
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