John M. Stahl’s 1934 version of Imitation of Life may be a product of a certain era, but some of its themes still feel relevant today. It is a film that speaks to all those who, even for a fleeting moment, wished they were born into different circumstances.
Adapted from Fannie Hurst’s novel, Stahl’s film tackles themes of race, female empowerment and identity, while still adhering to the cinematic conventions of the time. The film focuses on the friendship, and eventual business partnership, between white widow Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her black housekeeper Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers). Both women are single mothers doing the best they can to provide for their children.
Inspired by Delilah’s delicious pancakes, Bea decides to open up a pancake restaurant on the Atlantic City boardwalk despite having little money. After growing their business for five years, with Delilah handling the bulk of the cooking and Bea handling the customers, their venture starts to turn a profit. Things really take off when, at the advice of a local entrepreneur, Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks), Bea decides to mass market the pancake recipe for home use with Delilah’s image serving as the Aunt Jemima-style mascot.
Though a large part of Imitation of Life focuses on Bea’s growing success, and the potential love triangle it causes when she and her teenage daughter Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) fall for the same guy, it is Delilah who is the true heart of the film. The obedient helper, caring more about taking care of Bea than amassing her own wealth, Delilah struggles to understand why her daughter Peola (Fredi Washington) is ashamed of her heritage. Light skinned like her farther, Peola has wanted nothing more than to “pass” as white since she was a little girl.
Imitation of Life may follow familiar tropes of the era, specifically the nurturing mammie (Delilah) and tortured mulatto (Peola), but offers more nuances than many of its contemporaries. While Peola may lament the hardships of looking white and being black, it is Delilah who provides the film’s most heartbreaking moments. Unlike her daughter, Delilah has never been able to “pass”, or hide in plain sight. Peola’s rejection of her blackness is also a rejection of everything that her mother is. Louise Beavers’ performance takes what could have been a simple character and delivers rich emotional layers.
Beavers work also helps to show the how Bea and Delilah’s relationship may be one of mutual respect, but not one of true equality. One of the most telling shots in the entire film comes after a lush party celebrating Bea aka “the queen of pancakes.” As the duo head off to bed, Stahl shows Bea, dressed in a glamorous gown, ascending up the stair case like an heiress. This is a direct contrast to Delilah, who has spent the better part of the evening standing on the outskirts, descending to her quarters down below. She will always be below Bea, and her familial problems will also have more damaging ramifications than any squabble Bea and her daughter may have.
While Stahl’s film does occasionally make Delilah’s plight feel like an afterthought, again remember the era when the film was made, it is the complexities of Delilah’s relationships with those around her that makes Imitation of Life a fascinating exploration of family bonds in the face of societal prejudices.
Sunday, November 12, 7: 30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
This film is part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Black Star series running from November 3, 2017 to December 22, 2017.