It was serendipity that brought Delilah Johnson to the back door of widow Bea Pullman, responding to a notice in the newspaper asking for help but turning up at the wrong address just as Bea needed a friendly face and a helpful pair of hands on a bad morning, getting her reluctant daughter Jessie ready for school and trying to get to work herself distributing tins of maple syrup as her late husband had done.
An arrangement reached for housekeeping and modest rent in return for bed and board, Delilah and her daughter Peola move in with Bea and Jessie and become part of the family, a friendship which lasts across the years and miles as Bea’s determination and Delilah’s pancake recipe see them become wealthy, Bea a celebrated New York socialite and Delilah the face of their national brand.
Based on Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel of the same title, set in the 1910s and opening in Atlantic City though no location or date is confirmed in John M Stahl’s 1934 film version, Imitation of Life is a worthy addition to the Criterion Collection having been selected for the United States National Film Registry in respect of the material which would be nothing without the performances of Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers as Bea and Delilah, with Rochelle Hudson and Fredi Washington as Jessie and Peola in their teenage years.
Groundbreaking for its time but frustrating for what is unspoken due to the production code of the time which prohibited the depiction of anything which might prompt unwelcome debate about race relations, positive or negative, since her schooldays Peola has been “passing” as white, her skin paler than that of her mother meaning she is not obviously black.
Delilah rightfully proud of her ancestry and hurt by her daughter’s rejection of it, this means Peola’s reasons for her choice, the prejudice she might be able to avoid, the doors it will open for her in her life and career, remain unspoken, Imitation of Life instead devoting itself to the romantic problems of Bea and Jessie and ichthyologist suitor Stephen Archer (Warren William).
Delilah wise and sensible, polite and proper and asking the right questions to prompt her prospective employer to open up on their first meeting just as Bea herself hustles a deal to secure premises for their operation, her blind spot towards Peola is a frustration which does not stand scrutiny other than as a clumsy necessity to push the film into the melodrama mode of a “women’s weepie” rather than allowing an understanding and compromise between mother and daughter.
Having embarrassed Peola as child by turning up unannounced at her school it is not a mistake Delilah would repeat as an adult, and nor does she have any ambition to raise herself from the dynamic of mistress and servant, the staircase in their shared Manhattan townhouse silently affirming the “upstairs/downstairs” nature of their relationship despite their warm friendship; unlike Bea, Delilah is never seen in any situation other than her domestic role and despite ostensibly being the second lead Beavers is unjustly listed fifth in the cast behind her white co-stars.
These are not criticisms of the film, however, so much as hallmarks of the restrictive circumstances in which it was made, Criterion’s new edition of Imitation of Life carrying discussions by experts Miriam J Petty and Imogen Sara Smith on the careers of Stahl, Beavers, Washington and Colbert and the obligations which were levied on the production, the screenplay requiring numerous revisions in order to be deemed acceptable to the audiences and now serving as a magnificently restored but obviously whitewashed document of another time.
Imitation of Life is available on Blu-ray from Criterion now