Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Imitation of Life (1934)

Back in September 2008, I blogged about the 1959 Lana Turner movie Imitation of Life. I mentioned that it was a remake of a 1934 movie also called Imitation of Life, and that both versions were based on a novel. The original is airing tonight at 10:30 PM on TCM and, if you've never had the chance to see it before, is well worth watching.

The basic plot isn't too much different from the 1959 version. Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), a white widow with a child who's having difficulty making ends meet, meets Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) when Johnson accidentally shows up at the wrong house to apply for a housekeeper's job. It's clear that they both need each other, so they wind up living together. Delilah, like Bea, also has a fatherless daughter. The only thing is, the daughter is mixed race. Bea discovers that Delilah makes fabulous pancakes, so to make ends meet, the two go into business together first with a short-order diner selling the pancakes, and then boxing the pancake mix, a move which pays off handsomely.

Would that all this money also make everybody happy. Fast forward quite a few years until the children are both around 18. Bea is living in a big house in the city with Delilah still serving as her housekeeper, even though she ought to be wealthy enough to do whatever she wants. Bea's fallen in love with Steve Archer, a renowned ichthyologist. (Look it up in the dictionary; a comic scene in the movie involves Bea's daughter pretending to know what an ichthyologist is but running off to look it up when nobody's around.) Bea doesn't know, however, that her daughter (Rochelle Hudson) has also fallen for Archer, although the daughter doesn't realize it's an unrequited love. For Delilah, the problems are much bigger. Her daughter Peola (Fredi Washington), despite being mixed race, is light-skinned enough to pass as a white woman. And dammit, that's what Peola's going to try to do, to the point of not wanting her mother around at all since that would make people realize Peola is mixed-race, which in the 1930s meant she was black and subject to all the discrimination that non-whites faced.

One of the joys of self-editing is that you can make typos and never notice them. When I wrote about the 1959 version, I had a concluding paragraph discussing the 1934 version in which I stated I thought the remake was better. In fact, I prefer the 1934 version, something that probably should have been obvious when I wrote about the Rochelle Hudson character, played by Sandra Dee in the remake, "Susie, played by Sandra Dee, Gidgets her way through the movie being a self-centered you-know-what who doesn't understand the rest of the world". The character is necessary to the plot because her existence makes her mother think she understands what the black woman is going through with her daughter, but the character is much too big in the 1959 version. Claudette Colbert also comes across as more genuine than Lana Turner in her concern for her housekeeper.

The TCM shop has a special edition DVD with both versions of the movie.

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