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

Lady For a Day (1933)

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Apple Annie (May Robson) is one of the many impoverished individuals on the streets of New York City trying to eke by in the pits of the Depression. She makes a meager living as a fruit vendor. But appearances can be deceiving and Annie has long corresponded with and paid for her daughter Louise to grow up in Spain.

There her girl can receive breeding and make a better life for herself. However, she has never been made aware of her mother’s lot. Annie has never found the need to tell her. Instead, she’s painted a vivid picture of grandeur for herself as a society matron who resides at the Hotel Marberry. Of course, this could not be farther from the truth. But she wants Louise not to worry.

The kicker is that said daughter is making an impromptu visit, and Annie knows she will be caught in her ignominy. She’s so small and unimportant; it seems like a horrible situation. She must make a transformation if this whole masquerade is going to continue. Her last resort is Dave the Dude (Warren William), a local gambler and influential man who has always taken a liking to Apple Annie. She’s kind of his good luck charm.

So though he doesn’t have to do it, he decides to pay it forward and help her out as much as he possibly can. It starts with his girlfriend Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) giving the old gal a stunning makeover, then finding her a place to live more suitable for her image, and finally, a husband.

Where to find a man with enough class and eloquence to pull off such an endeavor? Look no further than the local pool hall. Guy Kibbee gives a veritably kingly performance as the theatrical pool shark who becomes Annie’s husband in a pinch. He’s a fantastic showman.

However, this is all only preliminary. The Dude must try and orchestrate this whole thing so it goes smoothly without a hitch. That means keeping nosy journalists away from the scene and never breaking the perfect illusion they have constructed. He’s got a capable staff of heavies to do his bidding. Happy (Ned Sparks) is an acerbic sidekick with garbled jargon and a sarcastic wit ready to duel with everyone. Comically, Shakespeare (Nat Pendleton) is the dumb lug who takes care of all the dirty work and messenger boy duties.

Best of all, young Louise is deliriously happy to see her mother and Annie has been allowed to maintain her dignity thus far. Almost everything has gone exquisitely. Guy Kibbee and Walter Connolly have a lovely scene together as they look to genially settle the issues of a dowry over the billiards table. The police are out for blood after a couple reporters mysteriously disappear and they believe The Dude is implicated.

He, on the other hand, is trying to get his gang of cronies and Missouri Martin’s floozies in shape for the going away gala that The Duke so kindly offered to host to send the Count  (Connolly) and his son off with. The rehearsal is a shambles that nearly makes The Dude tear his hair out. And the cops have caught wind of something fishy going down, so they’re about to close in the dragnet, threatening to end the charade for good.

However improbable, there’s a touch of sentimental fairy dust floating over the film. Serendipity or Providence. Whichever you prefer. With this band of actors, you really do get a sense that they are pulling a little magic out of their hats, because they aren’t necessarily well-known. For all intent and purposes, this could very easily be their world.

It’s true it does feel like a rather ragtag assortment of talent. By today’s standards, there’s no prominent star though Warren William was later labeled the “King of Pre-Code.” Most everyone else was a character actor, a stage performer, or an extra pulled off the streets of L.A. to provide some authentic color. And actually, it works very much to the picture’s benefit. Sure, it would have been lovely to have a William Powell, James Cagney, Marie Dressler or any number of other performers. No doubt what’s created in their absence is an unassuming charm.

Where everyone from the governor to the mayor, to the police department, and the journalists find it in their hearts to observe a little chivalry and goodwill. True, since the normal eight balls are leading the charge in the decency department the sentiment is laid on rather thick. But even if it’s a pipe dream, it’s a delight nevertheless.

I only recently discovered the picture One Way Passage (1931) and here I get the same sense of a dream being prolonged and realized beyond any human belief. Rather than the implausibility being a fault, it takes the film into a realm that only movies can take us. Where we can believe in wonderful things and therefore carry them back into our lives to hopefully brighten up reality in a similar manner. While not Capra at his finest, you can no doubt see the uplifting allure found within its frames.

3.5/5 Stars