Friday, February 5, 2010

Review: First "Imitation of Life" is Less Attractive Over Time

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 59 (of 2004) by Leroy Douresseaux

Imitation of Life (1934) B&W
Running time: 111 minutes
DIRECTOR: John M. Stahl
WRITER: William Hulburt (from a novel by Fannie Hurst)
PRODUCER: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
EDITORS: Philip Cahn and Maurice Wright
Academy Award nominee


Starring: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, Juanita Quigley, Sebie Hendricks, Marilyn Knowlden, Dorothy Black, Wyndham Standing, Henry Armetta, and Alan Hale

Although the 1959 color version directed by Douglas Sirk is better known, the 1934 version of Imitation of Life earned three Oscar nominations including one for Best Picture. If you’ve seen Sirk’s Technicolor cult classic of high melodrama, you really don’t need to see the older film (which covers the same themes), other than for the sake of curiosity.

In this black and white version, Beatrice “Bea” Pullman (Claudette Colbert) is a widowed, single mother of two-year old Jessie (Juanita Quigley). By chance and opportunity, she befriends a coloured domestic, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers), and her high yellow/mulatto daughter Peola (Sebie Hendricks). Delilah becomes Bea’s housekeeper and friend, and together they start a successful pancake restaurant (and later boxed pancake mix empire) that takes them from poverty to wealth.

But wealth doesn’t bring happiness. The adult Peola (Fredi Washington) comes to hate that she can’t pass for white because her dark-skinned mother has an irritating way of being part of her daughter’s life, so she eventually abandons Delilah, her “mammy.” Bea doesn’t have a man in her life, but when she finally meets Stephen “Steve” Archer (Warren William), teenage Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falls in love with him.

The film is typical old school Hollywood drama replete with gorgeous art direction, sets, and costumes. The meat and bones of the story are, however, weak. The acting is suspect and lame, not because of technique or skill, but because of effort. The entire cast (except for the brassy Ned Sparks as Bea’s manager Elmer Smith) seems to be half stepping, as if they’re not really into it. They may have given their all, but appearances and results say otherwise. A melodrama needs intense and/or over-the-top performances; that makes the drama palatable. The filmmakers just don’t give that here. There is one thing they do with a passion: Ms. Beavers’ Delilah is a hideous stereotype that is so awful and stomach turning that I could almost believe the KKK financed this film.

3 of 10

Academy Awards 1935: 3 nominations: “Best Picture,” “Best Assistant Director” (Scott R. Beal), and “Best Sound, Recording” (Theodore Soderberg, sound director)


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