The cast of the black & white version of Imitation of Life (1934) is the best of the two versions, but the script & story told was greatly improved for the remake.
I'm a fan of Louise Beavers & Fredi Washington, so find myself always wanting to prefer the older version, but Beavers is burdened by a script that wanted her to be as tragic as a hurt puppy instead of a human being, & this weakens the whole text.
The great thing about the story, however, is how Louise Beavers' standard "maid" character Delilah very soon finds herself going into the pancake flour business with Bee Pullman (Claudette Colbert), the woman who initially hired her as a maid.
Delilah had a fantastic family recipe & Bee had the business & advertising acumen to make "Aunt Delilah Pancake Mix" a success with Deliah's face on the logo as a classic Aunt Jemima.
Their company made them both rich & Delilah ceases to be shown as a maid in maid outfit thereafter.
Unfortunately, the script makes Delilah appear to diminish in importance to the business. She didn't really want to accept her percentage of the profits, & it ends up looking like Bee is just a Liberal White Goddess giving money away in the name of fairness but not because Deliah continued to be useful.
Even so, if a viewer looks through the creases of the plot, it's evident Delilah is so integral to the product's success, so that this film has got to go down in history as the first in which a black woman & a white woman were equal business partners. Compared to how African Americans usually appear in Hollywood films of the 1930s, this is pretty far ahead of its time.
Delilah has her daughter Peola (Sebie Hendricks plays her as a child; Fredi Washington takes over when Peola's a teenager; & we'll glimpse a much older Peola played by Dorothy Black), & Bee has her daughter Jessie (Juanita Quigly plays her as a three year old Marilyn Knowlden at eight, & Rochelle Hudson as a teenager).
The four of them build a good life together. The way Delilah likes to massage Bee's feet is obviously offensive in that putting a black woman at a white woman's feet has meaning that undermines the production's intent to show them as equals.
But on another level the foot-fetish is so bizarre a component of the story that one has to wonder if these two confirmed bachelorettes aren't actually a lovers, living together as "equals" all those years, or at least a lot more like husband (Bee) & wife (Delilah) than like mistress & maid.
The author of the novel from which the characters are derived was Fanny Hurst who regarded heterosexual marriages as "sordid endurance tests overgrown with fungi." Hurst's lesbian subtext is stronger in the novel but Stahl follows the novel so well that it does end up in the film less sublmiated than one would expect.
Eventually Bee does meet Steven Archer (Warren William) though he comes into the story quite late, & Steven is rejected in the end in favor of a continued life as a single businesswoman, or perhaps as a widow since by then Delilah is dead.
Hurst's character in the novel was actually based on restauranteer Alice Foote MacDougall, who did indeed get her company recipes from her black cook, but did not give the woman a percentage of the business nor bother to mention her name. McDougall had no cooking experience or knowledge of recipes, so her restaurants' success hinged wholly on a black woman.
Delilah's devotion to "Miss Bee" is sometimes, alas, slavish. This submissive attitude is in the remake written out of the story somewhat, despite that in the remake, where Deliah is renamed Annie (Juanita Moore), has her playing a maid to a stage actress & her role is a lot less inherently interesting than Beavers' as business partner. It's just that Juanita Moore as Annie smuggles into the role a considerable independence, whereas Louise Beavers as Delilah played what was put before her.
The character of Peola as played by Fredi Washington is a tremendous performance, perhaps Washington's best.
As a very light-skinned young woman Peola can almost pass for white, or perhaps Spanish.
She is tormented by having a dark black mother she would like to escape, so that she could live as a white girl with nobody to know her past.
"I want to be white, like I look!" demands Peola, who tearfully demands her mother never acknolwedge her again, so that she can make a new life for herself passing for white, Delilah takes to her deathbed & dies of a broken heart.
Peola will return to express everlasting regret at Delilah's funeral, which in accordance with Delilah's wishes was an extravagant affair, the only tme she was ever extravagant at anything, a veritable parade with her casket in a horse-drawn carriage.
Though Fredi's role is subsidiary to the tale of Bee & Delilah going into business, it is such a weighty part of the tale that it dominates.
And as Fredi Washington was herself a light-skinned black woman who could've passed for white if she'd wanted to, the role got a lot of attention.
Some members of the black community mistook Peolo for Fredi & condemned her for turning against black folk, but in reality Fredi fought hard for black roles identifying her as a black woman, at a time when she could've had more work if she'd been willing to hide her heritage.
For the remake, Peola is renamed Sarah Jane, & is played first by a white child (Karin Dicker) then by a white woman of Mexican & Czech heritage (Susan Kohner).
Instead of running away to a job in a small shop like Peola, Sarah Jane wants to be a chorus girl or burlesque queen, & not for black burlesque houses either.
She is (as was Peola) cruel to her mother, & likewise returns to the huge funeral to wail with regrets & lamentations. Somehow Fredi as Peola did seem meaner because she just wanted to be a white girl, but Sarah Jane was brutally beaten by a boy she liked, for the high crime of having passed for white.
So we're given a clearer understanding throughout the film that the choices Sarah Jane saw before her was to be a maid living in a cramped back room of someone else's home, or pass as a white woman to escape the constant badgering & humiliations of a racist society.
It's annoying to me that better casting of Beavers & Washington didn't work better, whereas the weaker casting of Susan Kohner in the remake is better played throughout, with Juanita Moore in Beavers' role very well played.
I do wish the remake hadn't made the mother "merely" a maid or turned her daughter into a burly-q; these were nasty unnecessary changes.
Even Bee, now named Lora (Lana Turner), meets her version of Steve Archer (John Gavin) in the first act, has a much weaker relationship with her "maid," & pursues a stage career instead of starting a chain of pancake houses.
All the characters are less interesting, except for the fact that Juanita Moore doesn't whinge & kowtow, & she's obviously a strong woman whose life was limited only because of racism.
And that makes Sarah Jane's choice to pass for white better contextualized, unlike Peola in the original version who sometimes seems herself to be racist against her own mom.
Which is not to say Sarah Jane lacks the mean streak we saw in Peola. In one scene when she's still a kid when she claims that "Jesus was white, like me," there's actually something sinister about her. It was potentially a very complex role but the fact that her dream in life was to do burlesque trivialized her.
Neither film is really great but there's just so much in them to think about. And it's perhaps a good thing to be reminded now & then that things really have changed in this world, & there's much to be glad about, despite that a lot more change is needed. The issue of passing for white was much, much more significant to a generation that would not give opportunities to many black folks. The melodramatics of these two films may not be realistic but they play off an issue that was all too real.
A side-note on the remake, it features Mahalia Jackson at the extravagant funeral singing "Trouble of the World." It also has a Nate King Cole imitator singing a number with the lyrics: "What is love without the giving/ Without love you only live/ An imitation. An imitation of life." These numbers seemed almost a respectful nod to the race films of the '30s and '40s which nearly always included great African American musicians.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl