John M. Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934) is unashamedly a soap opera, but it’s not only an excellent example of that too easily dismissed form—it’s a soap opera with an agenda. It is, in fact, one of the very few films of its era to tackle racism head-on with its story of two women—one white, Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), one black, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers)—who found a pancake empire. At its center, however, is the conflict between Delilah and her light-skinned daughter (Fredi Washington) who desires nothing less than to disown her mother and pass for white. Strong stuff in 1934 and still powerful now.
In the 1930s, Universal Pictures only had two “star” directors: James Whale and John M. Stahl. Occasionally, a director of note would make a single film there, but most of Universal’s movies were—at best—made by craftsmen. Of the staff directors, only Whale and Stahl qualified as filmmakers. Today, Whale (whom they billed as “the ace of Universal”) is much better remembered, while Stahl has sadly slipped through the cracks—mostly because his most famous works—this, Magnificent Obsession (1935), When Tomorrow Comes (1939)—were remade in the 1950s by Douglas Sirk, who, for reasons I will never understand, has come to be viewed as a major filmmaker. Sirk’s take on the soap opera was to subvert it by making it slyly ridiculous in a self-aware postmodernist manner, suggesting a contempt for the material.
Stahl respected the material and handled it that way. Naive? Perhaps, but there’s something to be said for his sincerity—especially in Imitation of Life, which I’d call his masterpiece. It—along with Magnificent Obsession—was certainly instrumental in helping keep the studio afloat after it changed hands in 1936. The re-release of Imitation of Life in the late ‘30s was one of their bigger moneymakers. (Unfortunately, that re-issue is the reason the main title credit is still a replacement one today, since they appear to have lost or destroyed the original.)
The film was one of Universal’s biggest productions, which the sets and costumes attest to—as does the importation of Claudette Colbert as the star. But it’s really the sensitive handling of the story—even as concerns the slightly absurd romantic trials of Bea’s grown daughter, Jessie (Rochelle Hudson), falling in love with Bea’s own love interest, Steven Archer (Warren William)—and the wit of William Hurlbut’s screenplay that makes the film work. There’s never any question that Stahl takes it all very seriously—devoting care to every aspect of the film from its social consciousness to its romance.
It’s easy today to find some of the racial aspects of the film a little quaint and even condescending, but looked at in historical perspective, it’s something else again—as is the fact that, unlike the Sirk remake, that a black woman, Fredi Washington, was cast as the light-skinned Peola. And, frankly, I’m not at all sure that the film is all that quaint. It certainly makes no bones about the dichotomy that exists between Bea and Delilah—especially in that it’s Bea who benefits more from the riches that are generated from a secret pancake recipe belonging to Delilah. Much is suggested here without being said. Stahl is subtle like that.
Of course, what makes all of this work is the fact that it’s all emotionally effective. Regardless of how dated—or unconsciously segregated—some aspects of the film might seem, the power of the funeral remains undiluted (I defy anyone to sit through it dry-eyed), as does the tragedy of the situation between Delilah and Peola. Louise Beavers truly should have received an Oscar for her performance. But don’t sell the rest of the cast short. It takes an actress of true greatness and charisma to bring a lump to your throat with a line like “I want my quack-quack,” and Colbert manages it.