Imitation of Life (1934)

Although the 1959 version of Fannie Hurst’s popular novel (with Lana Turner and Sandra Dee) is better known to many today, Hollywood’s first attempt to film the story of two mothers whose business success threatens their relationships with their daughters is a powerful film in its own right. Despite numerous differences, both pictures have one thing in common—the subplot about African-American Delilah (Louise Beavers) and her light-skinned daughter (Fredi Washington) who tries to pass for white, which upstages the main romantic plot featuring the film’s top-billed leading lady (Claudette Colbert). The original IMITATION OF LIFE is one of the most racially progressive Hollywood films made before the civil rights era. Some African-American journalists at the time objected to Beavers’ subservient position in Colbert’s household, particularly since she creates the pancake recipe that makes Colbert a millionaire. But black and white audiences alike were enthralled by the plight of Beavers’ daughter, as she tries to escape the limitations of a racist society. Ironically, Washington, herself a staunch civil rights activist, had earlier refused to further her career by trying to pass for white.

Dir. John M. Stahl

In attendance: Donald Bogle