Based on the 1933 best-selling novel, Imitation of Life is one of the most beloved and respected stories of all-time. This emotionally charged drama chronicles the lives of two widows and their troubled daughters as they struggle to find true happiness in a world plagued by racism. The Imitation of Life 2-Movie Collection includes both versions of the film, the original 1934 Best Picture nominee starring Claudette Colbert and the 1959 masterpiece starring Lana Turner. With storylines tackling racism, romance, family, success and tragedy, Imitation of Life is a powerful story that still resonates with audiences today.
Hollywood often shied away from material with racial overtones during its golden era, opting to maintain the status quo and keep the lines between blacks and whites firmly drawn. Yet on the rare occasions when the movie industry did wade into racial waters, the films it produced often concerned the very real and heartbreaking issue of "passing," whereby light-skinned blacks would try to pass themselves off as white, so they could enjoy the freedoms and privileges our bigoted society denied them. Movies such as ‘Pinky,’ ‘Lost Boundaries,’ and ‘I Passed for White’ examine this phenomenon, but without question the most famous film in this mini-genre is ‘Imitation of Life,’ which was first produced in 1934 and later remade in 1959. Both versions focus intently on the identity crisis of a young black woman who seeks to deny her race (much to the dismay and disappointment of her devoted mother), but each also explores a number of other potent themes, which help these adaptations of Fannie Hurst’s bestseller rise above more mainstream and trivial human dramas.
Motherhood, feminism, romance, and ambition also figure prominently in ‘Imitation of Life,’ making it a prime example of the popular “woman’s picture” that raked in millions for movie studios during the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Strong female characters dominate this emotional tale, yet both film versions avoid wallowing in sentimentality, thanks to honest, sincere portrayals and sensitive, astute direction. ‘Imitation of Life’ certainly wrings its share of tears, but its substantive nature helps us excuse its clichéd manipulations.
In addition to shedding light on the issue of passing, the 1934 version (which received a Best Picture Oscar nomination) broke significant ground in its depiction of a deep friendship and business partnership between a white and black woman, and by affording a black character almost as much screen time as the film’s white star. Society’s color barrier certainly constricts each woman’s actions and habits within the story's framework (and director John M. Stahl doesn’t shrink from subtly pointing out the injustices), but it never interferes with their intimacy, which is both natural and touching. A few cringe-inducing moments of racial insensitivity do crop up, but it’s important to remember both movies reflect the time period in which they were made, and we must view them from that perspective, however uncomfortable it may be.
In the 1934 version, which faithfully follows the original novel, widowed mother Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert), who makes a meager living peddling her late husband’s table syrup, takes in the homeless Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers), a spirited and nurturing black woman, and her (very) light-skinned daughter Peola to help with domestic chores and look after her daughter Jessie. The two women quickly forge a deep bond (as do the little girls), and when Bea tastes Delilah’s scrumptious secret-recipe pancakes, she smells a marketing bonanza. Though Bea lacks any business experience, she rents a ramshackle storefront on the local boardwalk, renovates it, opens a restaurant, and before anyone can say Aunt Jemima, she and Delilah have a gold mine. Yet as the years pass, their dizzying success becomes tempered by Peola’s rejection of both her race and her mother, whom she blames for continually thwarting her attempts to pass for white, and Jessie’s infatuation with Bea’s boyfriend, Stephen Archer (Warren William). Both women try to do what’s best for their daughters, but their decisions yield plenty of stress and heartache.
Colbert files a disarmingly unaffected and beautifully modulated performance that carries the film. 1934 proved to be a big year for the actress, who also played the title role in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic ‘Cleopatra’ and won an Oscar for the classic romantic comedy ‘It Happened One Night.’ Yet despite Colbert’s vibrant and endearing presence, Beavers and Fredi Washington, who plays the grown-up Peola, steal the picture. Each contributes a flawlessly etched character portrait, full of heart and pathos. Like many black actresses of the era, Beavers spent the bulk of her career playing domestics (“I’d rather play a maid than be one,” she famously quipped when criticized for accepting subservient roles), yet here she’s on equal footing with Colbert, and she seizes the moment. Washington is equally good and, in a strange twist, lived the part of Peola in reverse off screen. Several movie moguls guaranteed Washington the same type of major stardom Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo enjoyed if she would only pass herself off as white, but she steadfastly refused to denounce her heritage. As a result, her career slowly fizzled, largely because she wasn’t considered black enough to be cast in traditional African-American roles.
The 1959 version, which would prove to be the final Hollywood film directed by melodrama master Douglas Sirk, changes the story considerably and adds a thick coat of gloss (a trademark of producer Ross Hunter) to the presentation. Instead of an entrepreneur, the lead character - renamed Lora Meredith and played by Lana Turner - is a struggling stage actress, and her dear African-American friend Annie (Juanita Moore) sadly never rises above her domestic status. All the professional success is Lora’s - the pancake angle is dropped - though the story of Annie and her light-skinned daughter Susie (Susan Kohner) receives more screen time in this adaptation. (This version adds an incendiary scene in which Susie’s boyfriend [Troy Donahue] shouts a racial epithet and abuses Susie physically when he learns she’s not white.) Both Moore and Kohner received Oscar nominations in the supporting category for their excellent portrayals, but despite their fine work, an undue amount of artifice and affectation weighs the film down. Some of it is intentional - after all, the title is ‘Imitation of Life,’ and Sirk strives to prove all of us do a fair amount of imitating in our own lives, whether we admit it or not - but it becomes excessive over time and makes us long for the simple sincerity that pervades and distinguishes the far less histrionic earlier treatment.
‘Imitation of Life’ marked Turner’s return to the screen after the shocking self-defense slaying of her mobster lover Johnny Stompanato by her teenage daughter Cheryl Crane - a scandal that rocked Hollywood and threatened to destroy her career. Turner’s role as an ambitious, self-absorbed actress who must deal with a neglected and troubled adolescent daughter (Sandra Dee) closely mirrored her own personal situation at the time, and the almost comical irony was not lost on the public, which flocked to theaters in droves and made ‘Imitation of Life’ the year’s fourth highest grossing movie.
In this era of pride and acceptance, both versions of ‘Imitation of Life’ seem antiquated, yet despite their soap opera trimmings they remain important historical documents of a specific period when a large segment of the American population didn’t respect the word “equality.” The term “Black pride” wasn’t coined until the 1960s, but it’s hard not to think Fannie Hurst’s story - in some small way - helped lay the groundwork for the movement. Though neither the 1934 nor 1959 adaptations are great films, they make important points, and for that reason - as well as their substantial entertainment value - both deserve to be seen, compared, and discussed. Rating for the 1934 version: 4 stars; Rating for the 1959 version: 3 stars
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Both the 1934 and 1959 versions of 'Imitation of Life' arrive on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case and reside on a single BD50 dual-layer disc. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it. Special features can only be accessed by pressing the pop-up menu button on your remote during playback of either movie.
Both versions of 'Imitation of Life' reside on a single BD50 dual-layer disc, but image quality doesn't seem to be compromised. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers from Universal honor the films well, with obvious care taken to present a faithful, vibrant picture. The 1934 edition flaunts a lovely grain structure that replicates the feel of celluloid, but never appears overly textured. Contrast and clarity are excellent, and any age-related marks or scratches have been meticulously scrubbed away, leaving a practically pristine image that's a joy to watch from beginning to end. Black levels are rich and deep, whites are bright yet stable, and a nicely varied gray scale enhances details and depth. Close-ups are appropriately lush and glamorous, especially those of the beautiful Colbert, and no artificial sharpening or noise reduction could be detected. Rating for the 1934 version: 4-1/2 stars
The 1959 version was shot in sumptuous color, but fluctuating grains levels prevent the image from achieving a maximum degree of impact. Some scenes are stunningly crisp, with excellent contrast enhancing the sense of depth, but others exude too much texture and look flat and a tad drab. Unfortunately, the enhanced clarity of high definition makes rear projection work all too noticeable and calls attention to artificial elements, such as the fake snow that clings to Annie’s jacket, yet Russell Metty’s typically lush cinematography still manages to shine in many key scenes. Colors are bold and vibrant, blacks are rich, whites pop, flesh tones remain natural and stable throughout, and close-ups are smooth but well defined. The source material is free of marks, and any digital tinkering escapes notice. Rating for the 1959 version: 3-1/2 stars
Neither transfer is perfect, but both films look better than ever, and Universal should be commended for lavishing so much care on these two beloved classics.
Both films feature DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks that provide clear, well-modulated sound. Though some faint surface noise occasionally can be detected during quieter moments in the 1934 version, no hiss, pops, or crackles ever intrude upon the narrative. A few bits of dialogue are difficult to make out, but most exchanges are easy to understand, and Heinz Roemheld's sparingly employed score lacks the tinny overtones that often afflict music in antiquated films. Ambient effects, such as rain, are nicely integrated into the track, and the dynamic scale is wide enough to keep any hints of distortion at bay. Rating for the 1934 version: 4 stars
The 1959 version sounds more robust, with lush overtones and increased fidelity heightening the track’s clarity and presence. Frank Skinner’s string-laden score, punctuated by harsh jazz infusions during intense scenes, fills the room with ease, and dialogue is both well prioritized and comprehendible. Once again, no age-related imperfections rear their ugly heads, and wide dynamic range gives the track plenty of room to breathe. Mahalia Jackson’s vocals sound especially pure and crystalline, and her stirring rendition of ‘Trouble of the World’ remains one of the film’s most memorable moments. Rating for the 1959 version: 4 stars
Though neither track will knock anyone’s socks off, both are quite serviceable, especially when one considers their vintage nature.
A few noteworthy supplements enhance this two-movie collection.
Audio Commentaries - Insightful, interesting commentaries accompany both films, and their different areas of concentration make both worthwhile. African-American cultural scholar Avery Clayton examines the 1934 version largely from the standpoint of race, and his discussion raises many relevant points. He calls 'Imitation of Life' "an important milestone in American filmmaking" and "an important milestone in the African-American community," because it was the first motion picture to depict the emotional lives of African-American characters and explore their psychological dilemmas. Clayton admits the movie is a product of its time and the attitudes that pervaded it, and that it's largely a "white fantasy of black people." The black characters, he says, were written to put white audiences at ease, and he notes that Beavers exaggerated her dialect to "sound more black." Clayton also dissects the differences between white and black society and how it affects the relationship between Bea and Delilah, and looks at the challenges African-American actresses faced as they tried to forge careers during Hollywood's Golden Age. Though several gaps litter the track, the information presented is strong enough to maintain our attention.
Film historian Foster Hirsch tackles the duties for the 1959 version, which he examines almost exclusively from a cinematic standpoint. Hirsch begins by pronouncing 'Imitation of Life' "the greatest melodrama ever made in Hollywood" and praising how it reflects the "racial realities of its time period." He also outlines the changes made to the story and deems them an improvement upon the 1934 film and original novel by Fannie Hurst (I disagree). Hirsch spends the bulk of the commentary analyzing director Douglas Sirk's distinctive style - his careful and symbolic framing, use of mirrors and reflective surfaces to show artificiality and "imitation," attraction to recurring color schemes, and sensitivity working with actresses - but also talks about interpretive disagreements between Sirk and producer Ross Hunter, the off-screen support and camaraderie between Turner and Moore, and how the film's stature has risen over time (despite its tremendous box office reception, the picture was critically dismissed as soap opera drivel at the time of its release). Sometimes Hirsch's enthusiasm crosses the line into gushing, but his cogent comments will certainly intrigue the film's fans.
Documentary: "Lasting Legacy - An Imitation of Life" (HD, 32 minutes) - This excellent retrospective showcases both movies and features lively and heartfelt comments by Moore, as well as an abundance of film clips and production stills. The documentary terms both pictures period pieces in their respective eras that provoked universal emotional reactions that crossed color barriers, and it analyzes racial stereotypes and how they affected audiences of the day in both positive and negative ways. We learn about the censorship issues both films faced, how Sirk approached the material, the fascinating story of Fredi Washington and tragic tale of Sandra Dee, and how black audiences reacted to the narrative. Moore praises Sirk, fondly recalls her relationship with Turner and Kohner, and talks about the nerves that plagued her throughout the production. Though a tad lengthy, anyone who appreciates these fine films will surely enjoy this well-made and entertaining documentary.
Theatrical Trailers (HD, 3 minutes) - Brief previews for both movies reside on the disc. Interestingly, the trailer included for the 1934 version must have been produced expressly for African-American audiences, as it concentrates exclusively on Beavers and Washington and the critical acclaim their performances received. No mention is made of Colbert or William, although Colbert does appear in a short clip.
Both the 1934 and 1959 versions of 'Imitation of Life' remain unabashedly sentimental, but this time-honored tale of two very different mothers, their complex relationships with their respective daughters, and devotion to each other possesses more depth than meets the eye, making thought-provoking statements about racial imbalance, identity crisis, feminism, and ambition, all while relentlessly tugging the heart strings. Though somewhat stymied by the constraints of its era, the 1934 version follows Fannie Hurst's novel more closely and engenders a stronger emotional reaction than its 1959 counterpart, which coats the story with a thick layer of gloss that often shrouds its central message. Claudette Colbert outshines Lana Turner, but Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, Juanita Moore, and Susan Kohner all file memorable portrayals that transcend the story's soapier aspects. Universal's Blu-ray presentation of both movies is stellar, with strong audio and video transfers and absorbing supplements helping this vintage double feature earn a solid recommendation.