Imitation of Life (1934)


A black woman and a white woman learn to lean on each other while the white woman exploits the black woman’s secret recipe for flapjack flour. Having watched and reviewed the remake Sirk made of this movie in 1959, I was expecting heightened emotions and insane social commentary. What I got instead was a lack luster movie that plays into every stereotype imaginable.

Like in the remake, there are plot lines that deal with a young black woman passing for white and the trouble that ensues, single motherhood and the trouble that ensues and the life of a career woman and the trouble that also ensues. But what is the main difference between the two becomes apparent almost from the get go. Whereas Annie Johnson is a fully fleshed out character in the remake, Delilah Johnson is a collection of black stereotypes in the original. At one point in the movie, after they have started to do very well for themselves, Delilah is offered a considerable amount of money and given a chance to live on her own with her daughter. She doesn’t accept it because she is worried that she won’t be able to take care of the white woman and her kid anymore. She is content just being a second string person in life even though her recipe, likeness and ingenuity are what made them this money. The white woman (named Bea Pullman and played by Claudette Colbert in a role I don’t think she was ready for yet) brushes this comment off with her version of “Oh, Delilah.” It is infuriating to see her pushed off to the side so much.

In the remake there was a strong subplot involving the daughter of the black maid. Whereas Annie (the black maid) looked even at first glance to be fully African-American, her daughter did not. As she grew older, she became aware that the little white girl she was always with has more opportunities than she does. So the black daughter starts to “pass” or pretend she is white in order to feel like a full citizen in this segregated country. Annie and her daughter go back and forth about it but it becomes obvious that her daughter is not budging from her life choices. This plot line was given significant air time in order to flush out the idiosyncrasies and the social implications of “passing.” However just like Delilah was pushed aside for her more conventional pretty partner, so is her daughter. The issue is still raised and the daughter still runs off producing a couple melodramatic scenes, but we don’t really get to fully understand why she believes “passing” is the only way to survive in this world. Nobody is mean to her once they found out she is black and nobody really makes it a thing until they need to inject some dramatic moment. Instead we focused on Bea Pullman’s uncanny ability to exploit African-Americans in order to land a great fiance just so she can finally reject him over her love for her child. The rejection of the “passing” subplot in favor for this milquetoast main plot makes this film instantly less interesting and fulfilling.

It wasn’t until I watched this movie did I truly understand how much of a genius Douglas Sirk was. He may not be remembered today as such, but he is. He was able to make a diamond out of sticks and mud. He was able to turn a rote melodrama into something that resembles high art while also saying something about the time and place he lived in. He was also able to treat the black actresses like they were human beings by giving them more material with which to work. He didn’t shy away from showing a perspective on life, something that did not happen in this film. While this movie lay flat on the screen thanks to uninspired plot lines and boring performances, the remake shined. Watch the 1959 version and skip this one completely. You won’t be sorry.


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