Imitation of Life (1934): Stahl Vs. Sirk

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The opening shot of Imitation of Life is memorable for its sheer novelty and the very simplicity of the space. It’s not an establishing shot of a place or a person. Instead, it’s of a rubber duck bobbing in the bathwater as a little girl whines about wanting her “Quack Quack” off-screen.

This is how we’re introduced to single mother Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her daughter. A moment later, an African-American woman, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) shows up on her doorstep having mixed up an address (in her defense I’ve mixed up some avenues too).

In a matter of minutes, they’ve decided to join forces. They both lack money and resources, but they gladly make do with what they have, happy to share one another’s company as they raise their daughters together.

Bea starts setting up a shop on the boardwalk armed by Delilah’s secret pancake recipe and her own ambition. One of the movie’s more troubling caveats is how Delilah has little ambition in life and proves herself to be perfectly content looking after Bea’s home as her friend gets all the credit for her family heirloom.

While Delilah remains content sinking into the periphery, with $19 to their names, Bea takes a risk on their venture. They have to rent out the space, get a fresh coat of paint up, and of course, you can’t have a restaurant without furnishings. She finagles her way into all sorts of deals and alliances — one of her newfound associates happens to be a typically jolly Alan Hale. However, it’s the nasal-voiced Ned Sparks who gives them the $100,000 idea: “box it.” Immediately their business takes off with a sustainable reach.

Auntie Delilah’s Pancake Shop is bustling with business. It has a certain antiquated charm to it. The image is a combination of Aunt Jemima and some of the more troubling images out of Jim Crow minstrel culture.

However, the most intriguing — and the most groundbreaking — aspect of Imitation of Life is how it grapples with questions of personal identity throughout its run. These are questions that still manage to challenge and perplex me to this day. My heart breaks for Peola. She is Delilah’s light-skinned daughter who is ashamed of both her race and her mother.

Even as Louise Beavers’s role is dubious at times, reminiscent of some of Hollywood’s worst portrayals, Fredi Washington represents the hardship for African-Americans trying to break out of the molds set out for them. There were rarely roles of strength for the likes of Josephine Baker, a Paul Robeson, a Lena Horne, or a Rex Ingram, parts that fully illuminated their talents.

As with the later adaptation, this becomes the most intriguing piece of commentary, particularly in this instance since Washington actually identified as black and was proud of her heritage never choosing to pass as white. Her real life played as the antithesis of her character even as it comments on the hallowed place being white had in American society in the 30s and beyond.

Their stake in the pancake game blows up and as the exulted mastermind, our heroine becomes the Claudette Colbert one might be more accustomed to, glamourous and good-humored as ever. Warren William makes his dashing entrance at the party, and they’re smitten at first sight. It’s a particularly amicable role for him beyond his typical hard-nosed Rockefellers, and he proves adept enough at the characterization even if it’s not too stretching.

The budding romance with the ichthyologist is amicable if the most humdrum part of the picture. As is the return of a precocious Jessie from school. She forms a crush on her mother’s beau and you can fill in the rest. More interesting still is Peola totally repudiating her mother and with it, her identity, foregoing a prestigious negro college by looking to pass as white and get work in everyday society.

These are the biggest issues on hand, and it’s all romance and family in line with much of Stahl’s melodrama. He is not Sirk after all. But what exactly does that mean? Because thanks to both Imitation of Life and then Magnificent Obsession, it feels like there’s a need to try and decipher the variations in John M. Stahl’s work compared to Douglas Sirk. If nothing else, it might help get him out of the other man’s shadow.

There are obvious distinct differences in content — Colbert’s pancakes instead of Turner’s acting — although many of the same narrative beats are present. Sirk obviously eclipses this drama through sheer decadence, color, and all manner of staging. He was the maestro of using near-trashy spectacle to subvert his material, making it burst with new ironies. However, his picture also feels updated to somehow fit so distinctly into the civil rights conversation of the ’50s and ’60s.

Stahl’s earlier version is more sedate and straight while still being imbued with its own burgeoning power. We have to take it more sincerely at face value. So in a sense, for 1934, the story certainly pushes boundaries, and Stahl is capable of drawing out the subtleties with the typically raw candor we might attribute to many of his movies from the period.

Certainly, Louise Beavers’ funeral doesn’t have the color nor a Mahalia Jackson dirge, but somehow, again, it fits into the context of the surrounding scenes. There’s still indubitable pomp and circumstance to the solemn occasion. We feel this intuitively. We witness the casket being brought out of the church and black men in uniform, armed with sabers, guiding the procession.

This image alone plays interference against all the images of Stephin Fetchit, Willie Best, Hattie McDaniel, and even Louise Beavers propagating stereotypes of mindless, weak, subservient blacks. It gives off this innate amount of dignity.

After you’ve seen Sirk’s version, of course, it’s difficult to go back — it’s true Stahl’s version pales in comparison — and yet you could say this is almost by design. It’s as if his predilection is toward anticlimax or at the very least cushioning the blows of melodrama in an arena where Sirk would lay it on thick for all its worth.

Thus, we end not on the hard-hitting tears of a daughter but gay reminisces of “Quack Quack.” It’s like we watched two completely different stories: The white family and then the black family. Maybe that’s the point.

3.5/5 Stars

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