Long before the famous Douglas Sirk / Lana Turner version was a twinkle in producer Ross Hunter’s eye, IMITATION OF LIFE first came to movie screens in 1934. The original novel by Fannie Hurst was a big bestseller, but the controversial subject matter made it a touchy subject with no less than ten writers taking a crack at it (including an uncredited Preston Sturges). Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code, objected to the theme of miscegenation which forms a crucial part of the story, and seemingly everyone else had a bone to pick including the Grand Encampment of the Knights Templar, who wrote a letter of protest in 1934 about plans to show “negroes in Knights Templar uniform.”
Now here we are eighty years later, and the film was shown in a glittering 35mm print on Friday night at the Chinese Multiplex with an introduction by Donald Bogle, film historian and author of the seminal book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. As with his other appearances, he offered a perceptive and tantalizing take on the film’s “deep impact on American culture” since it dared to even suggest that there was a race problem in America at the time. He also pointed out one of the more haunting nonverbal images in the film in which the two female leads retire for the evening, one heading upstairs and the other down.
Watching the film now on the big screen in 2014, it’s remarkable what a completely different creation it is from the later remake in almost every possible way. Here we have a film in which the viewer is encouraged to read between the lines in every single scene, with the characters and dialogue loaded with ambiguities. The film opens and closes with the line “I want my Quack Quack,” first spoken by the young Jessie as first played by Baby Jane, a cute tyke who softens the audience up for some serious blows to come. It’s spoken over a shot of her toy duck floating in her bathtub, bouncing out of her reach against the wall of the tub without ever budging an inch. Right away we have the focus of the film set up: four women will all want something to make their lives feel complete, and they intend to do it on their own terms in a world where the deck is already stacked against them. When the line is spoken again by Claudette Colbert (in a remarkably shaded performance as Bea Pullman, a charming bulldozer of a businesswoman), it’s the mournful mantra of someone whose motherhood and bond with her fellow women has been tested to the limit.
That brings us to the big shocker of watching this film now: at heart, it’s a love story between two women, one white and the other black. They hit it off right away, and in a startling move for a film of this era or most since, Delilah (an equally great performance by Louise Beavers) is quickly invited to “go into business” with Bea and serve as the face of the company. In fact it’s her own secret pancake recipe that gets the business going in the first place, but Delilah turns down 20% when it becomes incorporated. Some critics have cited this as a sign of her subservience, but if you look at it as an act of devotion between the two, it actually makes a lot more sense and gives her character a depth unheard of for the period. There’s even some satire when “Aunt Delilah” becomes the neon-encircled mascot of the brand, an open volley against the stereotyped grinning symbol of Aunt Jemima, and when the word “mammy” is spoken for the first time late in the film, it’s spat back by another character like it’s stuck in her throat.
Also significant is the film’s almost complete disinterest in men; Bea’s husband never gets a name and is simply mentioned as being dead, while in a concession to the Production Code, Delilah refers to the unseen father of her daughter, Peola, as a “light-skinned colored man” (lest viewers assume the man was actually white)– though this is redeemed with a resonant later line about him also beating against the wall society had built in front of him, just like his daughter. As for the only significant male character in the film, Stephen (played by Colbert’s costar in Cleopatra the same year, Warren William), he’s a damp fish from the start whose profession as an ichthyologist is said so many times the women simply seem to be referring to him as “ick.” Even his relationship with the adult Jessie is something of a question mark, as we’re left wondering about how they spent their nights alone together. It all seems like an innocent schoolgirl crush, but…
Still, it’s Peola’s desire to cross the color line that carries the most volatile charge today, right from the moment she’s exposed to her white classmates and walks in shame out of her school. The adult Peola is played by Fredi Washington, an African-American actress also seen in The Emperor Jones (1934) who became a real-life civil rights activist and head of the Negro Actors Guild. She’s simply terrific here, conveying layers of emotion throughout and imbuing a potentially tricky line like “I want to be white, as white as I look” with multiple meanings far deeper than the written word could have indicated.
Interestingly, she and the two white women in her life seem to have no particular use for the religion that forms such a major part of Delilah’s personality; in fact, Delilah’s intention to put the money saved from the pancake business aside for a grand funeral someday comes across as a self-fulfilling death wish that Bea is trying to hold at bay during the film’s emotional third act. The sense of uncertainty continues right through to the haunting final moments in which the fate of Peola is left unresolved apart from her decision to return to school (but under what pretense?). What we’re left with is the façade of Delilah’s painted face hovering in lights in the middle of the night sky as Bea turns down a marriage offer and opts to focus on her daughter. The specter of racism remains, casting a shadow on the women trying to make their way against the odds.