On IMITATION OF LIFE

Over the summer, I had the sheer joy of spending some time with my cousin.  If he and I were just longtime friends, I'd consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world.  The fact that we're related constantly has me sending up many, many prayers of gratitude.  I'm doubly blessed.  We stayed up very late one night at his house and watched a DVD of the 1934 Imitation of Life starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers.
The celebrated 1959 Douglas Sirk remake starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore as the mothers played by Colbert and Beavers seems to be more popular with today's audiences than the very fine original.  That's probably because Sirk gave it a deluxe, melodramtic treatment with lush color, fabulous costumes by Jean Louis for Lana Turner, lurid situations, a glamorous stage career for Turner's character and a big memorable gospel number by the legendary Mahalia Jackson in the famous funeral scene.
My cousin and I talked about this after the movie.  Both versions entertain us.  We prefer the original because it stays on the racial drama more than the remake.  Colbert becomes a food industry executive, a nationally successful businesswoman, in the original.  Bea (Colbert) and Delilah (Beavers) are single working mothers raising their little girls.  Bea and Delilah help each other.  Delilah talks herself into a job as Bea's maid.  Their little girls become friends.  We learn that Peola's father was a very light-skinned black man.

Delilah's pancakes make Bea's diner business a big hit.  Delilah is a good luck charm and her talent takes Bea to bigger success in the food business. Delilah becomes her famous corporate logo and is offered a percentage in Bea's lucrative business.   The two single working mothers remain together and remain dear friends devoted to each other....

...both will be better off financially at the end than they were at the beginning....

...but there will always be that social barrier of race between them in their relationship.
One can move up in society while the other can only go so far with restricted freedom.
There's a different tone to the Douglas Sirk version.
With Lana Turner doing plays instead producing pancake mix, we focus on her theatrical mama drama trying to balance that career, motherhood, and her daughter's reckless mulatto best friend who's passing for white and breaking her poor black mother's heart.



My cousin and I have a lot of friends who prefer the remake to the original.  When Mahalia Jackson sings, it makes them want to weep like the folks in church.  I can totally understand that.  The Great Mahalia was a force of nature.  Her gospel singing could've made the men of Mount Rushmore shout "Amen!"

Here's the thing that they probably don't realize about the remake in comparison to the original:  Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane, is a non-black actress who was playing a light-skinned black woman -- just like Jeanne Crain as Pinky and Ava Gardner in Show Boat.  For her portrayal, Kohner was an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress.  Also nominated in that category was Juanita Moore as her mother.  For Sirk's 1959 film, Moore made history as the fourth black actress ever to receive an Oscar nomination.

Susan Kohner went on to star in All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960) with Robert Wager, Natalie Wood and Louise Beavers, By Love Possessed (1961) with Lana Turner and Freud (1962) opposite Montgomery Clift as the wife of Sigmund Freud.

In the original Imitation of Life, Peola, the light-skinned black woman trying to pass for white, was played by Fredi Washington, herself a light-skinned black woman.  The grown Peola is refined, stylish, conflicted and heartbreaking.  She's at war with herself and society's racial exclusions.   It was a bold, new image of a modern black American woman in a Hollywood film.  If today we read that Fredi Washington was the first black actress nominated for the Oscar and Hattie McDaniel was the second, I would not be surprised.  Look at the power, complexity, truth and charisma of her performance.  It's got a quality that we'd come to associate with white actresses like Barbara Stanwyck.

Read her reviews from top publications in this 1934 trailer for the movie.

When I was in high school, I'd seen the 1959 version on local television.  My mother told me about the original 1934 production and mentioned what a hit it was when she was a little girl growing up in New Jersey.  Mom told me how her mother had loved seeing Imitation of Life in Manhattan.  According to Mom, grandmother enthusiastically said "Black and white folks were crying during that funeral scene!"  Mom told me to watch for the Claudette Colbert version.  She added that I should know about actress Fredi Washington.  I'm so glad my mother introduced me to the significance of the 1934 film.

Ms. Washington could not move on to other good roles in major Hollywood studio releases the way Susan Kohner did.  Why?  Because she was a black actress and Hollywood had not embraced racial diversity and equal opportunities then.  Black women basically played maids, like Hattie McDaniel did in 1939's Gone With The Wind, the film that made her the first black person nominated for the Oscar and the first to win.


The second black person nominated for an Oscar was Ethel Waters.  She was in the Best Supporting Actress category for playing the grandmother in 1949's race drama, Pinky.

Black actresses, on the whole, were not seen working upscale jobs in movies and wearing elegant, sophisticated outfits like Fredi Washington did in 1934's Imitation of Life.
                                     


Reportedly, Hollywood pleaded with Fredi Washington to pass for white so it could give her the kind of roles that went to Constance Bennett and Joan Crawford.  Washington refused to deny her racial heritage.  She went back to stage work in the New York theater and, later, became a Civil Rights activist.  She was active with the NAACP.
So, while a bunch of my friends feel that 1959's Imitation of Life makes a bigger impact helped by the big voice of Mahalia Jackson, I feel that the stronger and more relevant comment on race in America comes in the 1934 original movie and in the behind-the-scenes story of its co-star, Fredi Washington.

In a way, actresses Fredi Washington and Susan Kohner were like Bea and Delilah in the first Imitation of Life.  One could move up the Hollywood career ladder.  The other could only go so far with restricted freedom.  In the story, Bea could not have become wealthy without the cooking skill, the work and even the face of Delilah.  But the world outside their Manhattan townhouse will not grant people like Delilah equal rights and privileges.
One note about the excellence of Louise Beavers as Delilah.  She was just one year older than Fredi Washington when they played mother and grown daughter.  Think of actors Beulah Bondi and Thomas Mitchell in my earlier blog post this month, "On Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)."  It's another classic in which Louise Beavers performed.

As for the film's star, Claudette Colbert, 1934 was an excellent movie year for her.  She starred in three films that were nominees for Best Picture.  Imitation of Life was one.


She won the Best Actress Academy Award for the screwball comedy, It Happened One Night.  Claudette Colbert's three movies nominated for Best Picture were:  It Happened One Night (winner, Best Picture), Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra and Imitation of Life.

Comments

  1. Thank you. I think people have forgotten about this version because the Sirk version is so over powering. Fredi Washington is brillant. It makes me sad to think that Beavers had to go back to playing maids after this wonderful role. I recently saw her playing one in a terrible film with Roz Russell and Jimmy Stewart. She stole every seen and was the only reason to watch it.

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