Imitation of Life & an Imitation of Imitation of LifeTravis LeBlanc
We live an age where no one wants to be white if they can help it. That’s why you have honkies like Robert “Beto” O’Rourke pretending be Hispanic, Shaun King pretending to be black, and Elizabeth Warren pretending to be Native American. But it was not so long ago when the opposite was true, and it was non-whites who, if possible, tried to pass themselves off as whites. Imitation of Life is a movie about the latter.
Imitation of Life is about a mulatto girl who is struggling with her ethnic identity in the era of racial segregation. She’s light enough that she can pass for white, but her charcoal-black mother keeps showing up and blowing her cover, causing much resentment and conflict. There are other subplots as well, but the one about the mulatto daughter is the one everyone remembers.
Imitation of Life was made twice: once in 1934 and again in 1959. They were produced in different eras of our racial history – and it shows. Despite having the same premise, they are very different movies and rely on different clichés and racial archetypes. In 1934, segregation was considered a simple fact of life, and people still saw nothing wrong with performing in blackface. As such, segregation is presented as morally neutral, and the black mother is portrayed as an innocent but simple-minded mammy type. Lots of “Yes’m,” “honey child,” and “I do declare.”
But in 1959, the Civil Rights battle was heating up and segregation’s legitimacy was being questioned by many. As a result, the 1959 version has a much stronger propaganda vibe to it and segregation is presented as indisputably malevolent, with the specter of white racism haunting it at every turn. Also, people had begun to turn against certain racial stereotypes, and so the black mother is portrayed as strong, wise, noble, and soulful. It’s every bit as much of a stereotype as “mammy” – and one that is still used today – but it is a positive stereotype.
Imitation of Life was originally a novel written by Frannie Hurst, a Jewess who specialized in novels about societal outsiders: immigrants, minorities, gays, and hookers with hearts of gold. That sort of thing. Hurst also never met a subversive movement that she didn’t like. She was a pioneering feminist, civil rights activist, and dabbled in Zionism later in life. She was also a Communist sympathizer (of course) and visited the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, where she was granted an audience with Leon Trotsky, who was apparently (along with Lenin) a big fan of her work.
Some suspension of disbelief is required when watching both movies, as there is a big strawman in both. In both movies, the black mother is far too dark to have a child as light-skinned as the one shown in the movie. Breeding with the palest Irish ginger would not produce a daughter as light-skinned as she is. And apparently, the mulatto girls’ father was not even white. In the 1934 version, he’s described as “high yella” (light-skinned black) and as “practically white” in the 1959 version. Thus, we’re expected to believe that this white-looking girl is the product of not one, but two blacks – or at least one jet-black and one mulatto. This girl just freakishly ended up as lighter-skinned than both her parents.
In the 1934 version, the young mulatto girl is played by Fredi Washington, the daughter of two mulattos. In reality, she was much darker than she appears, and heavy makeup was used to make her lighter – and presumably more relatable – to Depression-era white audiences.
Susan Kohner, who plays the mulatto in the 1959 version, was a Jewess without a drop of negro blood in her, and only a tiny sliver of POC. Kohner’s father was Paul Kohner, a Jewish movie producer active in the late silent and early talkie period, and her mother was Lupita Tovar, a Mexican-Irish actress most famous for appearing in the Spanish-language version of Dracula. So Susan Kohner was only a quarter POC – and even that quarter is part white.
Hollywood is playing tricks on us here. The theme is still worth examining, but the scenarios presented are rather ridiculous. It doesn’t completely ruin the movies, but it is definitely distracting.
The 1934 version is apparently closer to the original novel (which I will confess to not having read). The premise goes something like this: Claudette Colbert plays Bea Pullman, a white widowed single mother from Atlantic City. One day she gets a knock on the door from Delilah Johnson, a black widowed single mother who has come to answer a job for a live-in maid. But Delilah, being incredibly dumb (that’s not me being racist; she is deliberately presented as naïve and childlike), has arrived at the wrong address. But Bea takes pity on Delilah and hires her as a live-in maid anyway, and the two women’s daughters, Jessie and Peola, become fast friends.
Shortly after moving in, the white mother learns that the black mother has an amazing pancake recipe, and so they start a pancake shop together. After a few years in business, a traveling salesman comes to the shop and persuades them to sell their pancake recipe by the box. He becomes their manager, arranges a deal with Megacorp to box the pancake mix, and the two become absurdly wealthy and move into a palatial mansion in New York City.
While the relationship between Bea and Delilah is one of mistress and maid, in practice it is something of a Boston marriage. Bea acts as the patriarch: She handles the business dealings and is the brains of the pancake operation, making sure the bills get paid on time, while Delilah acts as her assistant and takes care of Jessie and Peola, who are de facto stepsisters. In fact, even after they get rich, Delilah insists on continuing to live with Bea as her cook.
While all this is going on, things start getting rough for poor Peola. First, Jessie and Peola had a childish tiff in which Jessie calls Peola “black” as an insult. Peola is inconsolable, as up until then, she saw Jessie as her sister, but now Peola learns that Jessie sees her as an “other” – and a rather low-status one at that. “I’m not black! I won’t be black!” she cries.
Delilah seeks to comfort her by saying, “Now, now, now, Peola. Calm yourself, baby. You gotta learn to take it. You might just as well begin now.” Peola responds by blaming her mother for her situation “You! It’s ’cause you’re black. You made me black. I won’t! I won’t! I won’t be black!”
The other kids at school accept Peola as white, at least. That is until one rainy day when bubble-brained Delilah shows up at Peola’s school to give Peola her raincoat and rubber boots, not knowing that Peola had been successfully passing as white at school. But Delilah’s appearance blows Peola’s cover to her astonished class. One kid whispers “I didn’t know she was covered!”
The classroom scene is one of the few that is more or less the same in both versions, and if you want to understand the difference between the two films, it can be summed up by the difference in how the black mother responds to this scene. In the 1934 version, after returning home, Delilah feels regret, and says, “She was passin’, Miss Bea, and I give her away. She know I wouldn’t have done it on purpose.”
You have to wonder how Delilah could be so dumb as to not know – or to at least ask Peola if she didn’t. When Bea suggests sending Peola to a different school, Delilah responds, “I can’t keep sending her to different schools all her life, Miss Bea,” implying that similar situations have happened before.
In the 1959 version (we’re skipping ahead for a moment here), the wise and noble Annie Johnson blows her daughter’s cover and shows no remorse:
While the 1934 Delilah Johnson has some understanding as to why her daughter would want to pass as white, the 1959 Annie Johnson finds such a deception immoral. She says:
It’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are. It’s even worse to pretend, to lie. Sarah Jane has to learn that the Lord must have had his reasons for making some of us white and some of us black.
In the 1934 version, by the time Peloa is an adult, they are all fabulously wealthy and living in a mansion in New York. Bea has thrown a party full of wealthy New York socialites, which Delilah and Peola can only listen to from the basement. Peola is particularly irritated that she cannot join the party.
Peola: How long is this party gonna keep up, anyway?
Delilah: What’s the matter with my baby?
Peola: I’m sick and tired of it.
Delilah: What, the party?
Peola: No . . . not the party.
Delilah: What is it, baby? What’s my baby want?
Peola: I wanna be white like I look.
Peola: (looking into a mirror) Look at me. Am I not white? Isn’t that a white girl?
Delilah: Honey, we’s had this out so many times. Can’t you get it out of your head?
Peola: No, I can’t. You wouldn’t understand that, would you? Oh, what is there for me, anyway?
Bea and Delilah’s solution is to send Peola “”down South . . . to one of them high-toned colleges where only the high-toned goes.” Peola initially balks at going to “a negro school,” but eventually gets sent down there anyway. Shortly after arriving at the Southern negro college, Peola goes AWOL. Bea, being rich and resourceful, is able to track Peola down to a restaurant where she is passing for white and working under a fake name. When Delilah comes into the restaurant to bring her back, Peola pretends not to know her. Peola would rather be a white shop girl than the black daughter of a millionaire.
Peola eventually returns to New York, but only to tell her mother that she never wants to see her again. She wants to be white, can be white, and is tired of having her mom repeatedly blowing her cover. So she instructs her mother that should she ever see Peloa on the street, to pretend not to recognize her.
After this, Delilah become ill and finally dies with a picture of Peola at her bedside. It is implied that Delilah has died from the proverbial broken heart. Having been rejected by her only child, she loses the will to live.
However, Bea throws a lavish funeral for Delilah, and Peola returns and begins crying and wailing uncontrollably over her mother’s casket, saying “I killed you!” and “I killed my own mother! . . . She worked for me, slaved for me. Always thought of me first, never of herself.”
There is another subplot involving a love triangle between Bea, her scientist/socialite suitor Steven Archer (played by John Barrymore), and Bea’s now-teenaged daughter Jessie. Archer and Bea are planning to marry when they learn that Jessie has a huge crush on Archer, and so Bea has to call things off so as to not strain her relationship with her daughter. It’s not nearly as compelling as the subplot regarding Delilah and Peola.
The 1959 remake is a mixed bag. On one hand, it comes off as a little too Hollywood. It replaces the pre-code grit with the 1950s gloss of the studio system at the height of its powers. The characters are a little too glamorous and too good-looking, with some trashy, Valley of the Dolls-style unintentional camp. You are very aware that you are watching a big-budget Hollywood movie, which takes something away from the immersive experience. That said, the characters here are a bit more complex and there is some snappy dialogue. It’s a better-written movie despite taking its creative liberties.
A curious aspect of it is that it is a much more gentile-centered affair despite being more anti-white. The 1934 version was produced and directed by (((Carl Laemmle, Jr.))) and (((John M. Stahl))), while the 1959 version was produced by (((Ross Hunter))). It was directed by Douglas Sirk, who was of Danish parentage, and the screenwriters were Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, who were both of Irish stock.
The 1959 version also changes the plot in some significant ways. Instead of getting rich by starting a pancake shop with her black maid, in this version, the white widow (played by Lana Turner), who is at first a struggling out-of-work actress, becomes a wildly successful Broadway star. This change was probably made to accommodate the star Lana Turner, a very glamorous woman of limited acting range. You can’t make a movie with Lana Turner in it and not have her wearing extravagant gowns, and no one is going to believe Lana Turner as some genius businesswoman who starts a pancake empire.
And in this version, the two mothers start out already living in New York, and meet by chance on a Coney Island beach after their two daughters (in this version named Susie and Sarah Jane) start playing with each other. One thing leads to another, and this broke, out-of-work actress lets this strange black woman and her child move in with her. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but whatever – it’s just a movie.
These alterations change the dynamics a great deal. Instead of the two mothers becoming successful together, here the white mother achieves fame and wealth alone, while the black mother remains a simple maid. Despite the fact that she goes from being a low-status maid to an unemployed actress to a high-status maid to a celebrity actress is definitely an upgrade, the fact is that she’s still a simple housekeeper. This makes the mulatto girl’s running away more understandable because she’s not leaving as much behind, as in the 1934 version.
The Broadway subplot introduces the character of Allen Loomis, the unapologetically sleazy Broadway agent played by Robert Alda (Alan Alda’s father), who has some of the best dialogue in the movie, such as, “I haven’t been seen with a girl without a mink since the heat wave of 1939.” After Lana Turner rejects one of his advances, he says, “Oh, and you’re decent, too. No doubt possess some fine principles. Well, me, I’m a man of very few principles, and they’re all open to revision.” Later, he says “I, for one, can’t keep my beady eyes open.” Is this his way of telling us he’s Jewish?
The characters are also altered a bit. The black mother is made more sympathetic by being smarter and “black and proud,” while the mulatto daughter is made less sympathetic. She’s still obsessed with being white, but she’s made out to be kind of a stuck-up bitch. She not only longs to be white but frequently expresses contempt for blacks and her belief that she is better than them. When her mother asks Sarah Jane why she doesn’t find herself a nice black fellow, she derisively replies, “Busboys, cooks, chauffeurs!” She feels she deserves better. I can’t blame her. Sarah Jane is attractive enough to get a high status white, so why should she settle for less? She’s just being a bitch about it.
In the same scene, after being asked to accept her black heritage, Sarah Jane does so by carrying a dinner tray to the party guest on her head, and does an imitation of a stereotypical black: “Fetched y’all a mess of crawdads, Miss Lora, for you and yo’ friends.“ A dinner guest replies, “That’s quite a trick, Sarah Jane. Where did you learn it?” To which Sarah Jane responds, “Oh, no trick to totin’, Miss Lora. I learned it from my mammy, and she learned it from old massa ‘fore she belonged to you.”
Ironically, Sarah Jane’s “racist” negro impression sounds a lot like Delilah in the 1934 version. In fact, the line is vaguely similar to a line in it in which Delilah says, “Them pancakes is my grannie’s secret. She passed it down to my mammy, and my mammy told me.” But it shows that in the twenty-five years since the original, the old mammy archetype that Delilah was based on had become offensive.
White racism, which is all but absent in the 1934 version, is always looming in the 1959 one. At the beginning, Annie Johnson mentions, “Miss Lora, we just come from a place where, where my color deviled my baby” – meaning that the whole reason they ended up in New York was to escape bad, white racism.
There’s another early scene when Lana Turner discovers that Susie has cut her arm to prove her classmates wrong after they said that negro blood is different from white blood, by showing that indeed, “we all bleed red.” No doubt those kids also believe that chocolate milk comes from chocolate cows.
Sarah Jane is not just after the social rewards of being white, but also seeking to avoid the social penalties inflicted on blacks by sadistic white racists.
Sarah Jane elaborates on her feelings about race and her racial identity in a conversation with Susie. Susie has just caught Sarah Jane sneaking back into the house and asks her where she has been.
Sarah Jane: I’ve been out. With my boyfriend.
Susie: Boyfriend? I didn’t know you had a boyfriend! Where’s he from?
Sarah Jane: The Village.
Susie: Oh. Did you meet him in school?
Sarah Jane: School? No. There’s an ice cream parlor in The Village with a jukebox.
Sarah Jane: And he used to stand outside, and every time I’d walk by, he’d whistle! No kidding! But first I pretended he wasn’t on Earth.
Sarah Jane: But finally I had to laugh, and he followed me. And we started to talk. He’s cute. Really cute.
Susie: Is he a colored boy?
Sarah Jane: (offended) Why did you ask that?
Susie: Well, I don’t know. It just slipped out.
Sarah Jane: It was the first thing you thought of.
Susie: I told you, it just slipped out!
Sarah Jane: Well, he’s white. And if he ever finds out about me, I’ll kill myself.
Susie: But why?
Sarah Jane: Because I’m white, too. And if I have to be colored, then I want to die.
Susie: What are you saying?
Sarah Jane: I wanna have a chance in life. I don’t wanna have to come through back doors, feel lower than other people, or apologize for my mother’s color.
Susie: Don’t say that!
Sarah Jane: She can’t help her color, but I can. And I will.
Susie: But we’ve always talked things over. You never told me this before.
Sarah Jane: Because I’ve never had a boyfriend before. Because he wants to marry me someday. A white boy. Me. But how do you think he’d feel, or his folks, with a black in-law. What do you think people would say where we lived if they knew my mother . . . They’d spit at me. And my children.
Susie: Sarah Jane, you know that’s not true!
Sarah Jane: It is. That’s why he mustn’t know her. I don’t want anybody to know her.
Susie: What if he comes here?
Sarah Jane: He doesn’t even know where I live. I pretend I’m a . . . I’m a rich girl with strict parents.
Susie: Well, he’s bound to find out . . .
Sarah Jane: How? I’m going to be everything he thinks I am. I look it, and that’s all that matters.
Unfortunately for Sarah Jane, her boyfriend finds out about her racial identity, and the next time they meet, he beats her up to the sound of hot jazz music.
The music in that scene is what I’m talking about when I referred to “unintentional camp.” Whatever emotional impact it could have had is undermined by the musical selection.
Sarah Jane’s first attempt at living a white girl’s life fails because her boyfriend finds out about her mom. She then makes another go at it. She tells her mother that she got a job at a library, when in reality, she got hired as a dancer in a shady burlesque club. Sarah Jane would rather be a white stripper than the black daughter of a high-status maid. Her mother tracks her down to the club and threatens to call the police if they don’t fire her (she is presumably underage).
Sarah Jane is furious with her mother, who has ruined her white alter ego once again. She runs away from home. Lana Turner hires a private investigator, who manages to find Sarah Jane working as a showgirl in Hollywood. Unlike in the 1934 version, where Peola just wants to be a normal white girl, the 1959 Sarah Jane is willing to be a trashy white girl if it means she can also be white. It presented her quest to be white as leading her down a dark path.
Annie Johnson goes to Hollywood and meets with her daughter one last time – not to bring her back, but to say goodbye. She finally accepts that living as a white girl is the only thing that will make her daughter happy, and tells Sarah Jane that she does not intend to interfere with her life any longer. Letting go is Annie’s final, ultimate act of love for her daughter.
In the 1934 version, Delilah understood her daughter’s drive to be white, but never quite fully accepted it. Later, when Annie becomes ill and is on her deathbed, she makes a last request to Lana Turner: “Miss Lora, just tell her . . . Tell her I know I was selfish, and if I loved her too much, I’m sorry. But I didn’t mean to cause her any trouble. She was all I had. Tell her, Miss Lora.”
From then, the movie plays out in the same way as the original: The black lady dies of a broken heart and her daughter shows up at her funeral, sobbing uncontrollably and realizing only too late what her mother meant to her.
As anti-segregation propaganda, both movies fail, but it does make you wonder if Single Drop laws were perhaps a tad excessive. Even though they were conceived as Leftist propaganda, I still find them to be interesting meditations on what it means to be white. I have no intention of accepting black mothers into my ingroup, but what about the Peolas and Sarah Janes? Are they white? What is white, anyway?
My stock answer to “Who is white?” is that there are three components to identity:
- Does the person see him- or herself as being part of Group X?
- Do other people in Group X see that person as being part of their group?
- Do people outside of Group X see that person as belonging to Group X?
If someone meets all three conditions, it’s really irrelevant if someone has twelve percent Cherokee ancestry. Jews are not white because while they may meet the second and third criteria, most of the time (even j-woke minorities see Jews as a kind of white person) Jews do not meet the first condition: They do not see themselves as white. Is that standard perfect? Of course not. But it’s an adequate rule of thumb when dealing with most edge cases.
By that standard, I would be inclined to accept Peola and Sarah Jane into my ingroup (but not the actresses who played them, who are indisputably non-white). The 1959 version Sarah Jane was very explicit that she did not merely look white, but that she was white. (“Jesus was white. Like me.”)
But then again, I am writing this in 2019, when whites are an endangered species. When the revolution comes, we’re going to need everyone we can get, and frankly, it’s refreshing to see someone like Sarah Jane, who is not only proud of her whiteness but in fact quite enthusiastic about it. I hate to be one of those “I’d rather live next door to Thomas Sowell . . .” types, but yeah, I’d rather have Sarah Jane Johnson on my side, as a highly ethnocentric slightly off-white, than Justin Trudeau.
 Hollywood briefly experimented with filming Spanish- and English-language versions of movies simultaneously, producing the English version in the day and the Spanish version at night using the same sets and costumes. Tovar began as part of Universal’s Spanish team, but was later “promoted” to doing English-language movies.