|Imitation of Life|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John M. Stahl|
|Produced by||Carl Laemmle Jr.|
|Written by||William Hurlbut
Finley Peter Dunne
Sarah Y. Mason
|Music by||Heinz Roemheld (uncredited)|
|Cinematography||Merritt B. Gerstad|
|Editing by||Philip Cahn
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Release date(s)||November 26, 1934|
|Running time||111 minutes|
Imitation of Life is a 1934 American drama film directed by John M. Stahl. The screenplay by William Hurlbut, based on Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel of the same name, was augmented by eight additional uncredited writers, including Preston Sturges and Finley Peter Dunne. The film stars Claudette Colbert, Warren William and Rochelle Hudson and features Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington.
White widow Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her daughter Jessie (Juanita Quigley as a toddler, Marilyn Knowlden as an eight-year-old) take in black housekeeper Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her daughter, light-complexioned Peola (Fredi Washington) — exchanging room and board for work, even though Bea is struggling to make ends meet herself. Delilah and Peola quickly become like family to Jessie and Bea. They particularly enjoy Delilah's pancakes, made from a special family recipe.
When Bea is unable to make a living selling pancake syrup (as her husband had done), she comes up with the idea to open a pancake restaurant on the boardwalk (with Delilah cooking in the front window). Later, at the suggestion of Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks), she sets up an even more successful pancake flour corporation, marketing Delilah as an Aunt Jemima-like figure.
As a result, Bea becomes a wealthy business woman, but all is not found to be well as the story advances fifteen years. Eighteen-year-old Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falls in love with her mother's boyfriend, Steven Archer (Warren William), who is unaware at first of her affections. Meanwhile, Peola (Fredi Washington), ashamed of her African-American heritage, attempts to pass as white, breaking Delilah's heart.
Peola eventually runs away from home. While she is away, Delilah falls ill and dies. With her part of the business profits, Delilah had set aside money for a large, grand funeral, complete with a marching band and a horse-drawn hearse. Just before the processional begins, a remorseful, crying Peola appears, begging her mother to forgive her. The film ends with Bea breaking her engagement with Steven because of the situation with Jessie.
Fannie Hurst's inspiration in writing her novel Imitation of Life was a road trip to Canada she took with her friend, the black short-story writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. The novel was originally to be called Sugar House but was changed just before publication.
Universal borrowed Warren William from Warner Bros. for the male lead, but the studio had first wanted Paul Lukas for the part. The actress playing "Jessie" as a baby changed her name from "Baby Jane" to "Juanita Quigley" during production of the film.
Universal had difficulty receiving approval from the censors at the Hays Office for the original script they submitted for Imitation of Life. Joseph I. Breen objected to the elements of miscegenation in the story, which "not only violates the Production Code but is very dangerous from the standpoint both of industry and public policy." They also objected to some language in the script, and a scene where a black boy is nearly lynched for approaching a white woman who he believed had invited his attention. Breen continued to refuse to approve the script even up to July 17, when the film had already been shooting for two weeks.
Imitation of Life was in production from June 27 to September 11 1934, and was released on November 26 of that year.
All versions of Imitation of Life issued by Universal after 1938, including TV, VHS and DVD versions, feature re-done title cards in place of the originals. Missing from all of these prints is a title card with a short prologue that apparently was included in the original release. It reads:
Atlantic City, in 1919, was not just a boardwalk, rolling-chairs and expensive hotels where bridal couples spent their honeymoons. A few blocks from the gaiety of the famous boardwalk, permanent citizens of the town lived and worked and reared families just like people in less glamorous cities.
The scene in which Elmer approaches Bea with the idea to sell Delilah's pancake mix to consumers refers to a legend about the origins of Coca-Cola's success, and has been credited with solidifying into popular consciousness the (untrue) secret of Coke's success — that is, to "bottle it".
In 2005, Imitation of Life was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, and it was named by Time in 2007 as one of The 25 Most Important Films on Race, as part of the magazine's celebration of Black History Month