“It’s not a remake as such, it’s a new take.”
Michael Boughen, producer of the TV series, Tomorrow When the War Began 1

The subject here is Imitation of Life, but it’s important to be clear about one point from the start: any remake of a film or a TV drama is a “new take”. Ditto for any adaptation of a novel (or a play or a poem) to the screen, large or small. It cannot be any other way. Ever. And of crucial interest in any critical or historical study of the processes of adapting and remaking are the creative choices made by the various practitioners about what matters to a story, what doesn’t, and the different ways in which it can be told.

A bestseller when first published, Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel, Imitation of Life 2 has spawned two American adaptations. 3 The first was released the following year, directed by John Stahl, the second in 1959, directed by Douglas Sirk, his last production in Hollywood before he returned to Europe. 4

The plots of all three versions have much in common: they deal with broken families and follow the developing relationship between two mothers, both widows, one white, the other black. In each case, the latter not only serves as a nanny and live-in housekeeper for the white woman but also becomes a personal intimate and a professional colleague. And, despite their obvious differences, the two mothers are further linked by their struggle – often a contentious one – to do right by their offspring, daughters who live in the shadow of their parents’ fears and flaws as they venture out into the world around them.

At the same time, the three tellings of the tale are melodramas about race relations, echoing the structure and the thematic concerns of fictions as various as Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884 and adapted to the screen more than 20 times, Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958, remade as a telemovie in 1986), and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (2009, adapted to the screen in 2011). In each of these stories, a Caucasian and an African-American are emotionally, or even literally, handcuffed together and forced both to confront challenges as a unit and to deal with their differences.

Yet, while similarities between the three Imitation of Lifes are readily evident, they are arguably outweighed by their differences: primarily in their contrasting styles, in the shifting details of plot and characters, and in the overarching point of view brought to each incarnation of the story. And like my previous genealogy of Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, 5 this article focusses on how the three versions’ various intersections and divergences amount to an implicit dialogue, even a debate, between the novelist and the two filmmakers (and their other collaborators) about how best to tell this particular story.

Imitation of Life: The Novel

“Hope for the best, expect the worst. / You could be Tolstoy or Fannie Hurst.”
(from a song written by Mel Brooks for The Twelve Chairs, 1970) 6

Imitation of Life

Hurst’s shamefully undervalued novel first appeared in serial form in the women’s magazine, Pictorial Review, in November, 1932 (for which she was paid $45,000). Against her wishes, it was retitled Sugar House, although she fought successfully to have the original title restored when the book was published the following year.

It became a bestseller and received some positive responses in the mainstream press, although Hurst was used to having her work treated with condescension. “I am clearly aware,” she told The New York Times in 1942, “that I am not a darling of the critics. I have a vast popular audience – it warms me; it’s a furnace.” 7 There’s a clear parallel here between the way she was treated and the way in which Lloyd C. Douglas, the author of Magnificent Obsession, was regarded in literary circles.

African-American poet and literature professor Sterling Brown, a member of the Harlem Rennaissance of the post World War 1 era, with which Hurst was also involved, described the novel as “well-meaning, perhaps”, but panned it (and the Stahl film). He was especially hostile to Hurst’s original depiction of the black single-mother because of her dialogue (“too designedly picturesque”) and her character born of an offensive stereotype (“unintelligible. . . now infantile, now mature, now cataloguing folk beliefs of the Southern Negro, and now cracking contemporary witticisms”). 8 And poet and playwright Langston Hughes, a friend of Hurst’s and a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, concocted a one-act dramatic critique of the novel entitled Limitations of Life, in which the roles of the white woman and her black housekeeper are reversed. 9

More than 80 years on, however, the book has outlasted the criticism and the disavowals, suggesting that, beyond her role as a prolific source of screen adaptations, 10 Hurst deserves to be taken much more seriously as a writer than she has been, and that this novel is due for a wider reconsideration than it has so far received. 11 Indeed, most of the objections to Imitation of Life now seem more grounded in the condescension towards the genre in which she was working – the kind of “sentimental fiction” that, once adapted for the big screen, became known as a “women’s weepie” – than anything more substantial.

Notably, instead of close attention to the novel’s style, structure and tone – and its status as an epic tale designed to subvert both the classic Horatio Alger story and clichéd depictions of what it means to be female and living in the US in the early years of the 20th century – one finds persistent criticism of its alleged failure to accurately represent the realities of the lives of women and the race relations of the time. Such a view generally overlooks the implications of the dramas at the heart of the book and the literary qualities that make it much more than a straightforward documentation of the surface details of the era. And, by prioritising such a take on the details of character and circumstance, this kind of approach remains oblivious to how any text invites its reader/viewer to take a particular perspective on those details.

Almost universally overlooked in commentaries about Imitation of Life, for example, is the subtly nuanced way in which Hurst’s telling of her story makes the white protagonist, Bea Pullman (nee Beatrice Fay Chipley), its ruling consciousness. The novel isn’t written in the first person, but its prose still works hard to stress that events are being presented through Bea’s grasp of them. Thus it is underlined that what we’re reading is being filtered through the perceptions of a well-intentioned, upwardly mobile white woman, who is relatively naïve about the ways of the world.

The book begins and ends with a death that leaves Bea anguished and alone. In its first sentence, she’s a teenager grieving the loss of her mother and grappling with the fact of her absence. What follows is overshadowed by Bea’s sense of abandonment, as, without the counsel and guidance of the person who’d been closest to her, she tries to work out who she’s supposed to be. And, as she travels from her humble childhood home on Arctic Avenue in Atlantic City to the Manhattan mansion which comes to signify her success as a businesswoman, that anxiety persists.

In the book’s closing passages, which take place around 20 years later, Bea is distraught over the death of the African-American woman who began as her daughter’s nanny and her housekeeper and ended up as her business partner, along the way also serving as her surrogate mother. Delilah Cillah Johnston had been the force behind and the public face of Bea’s professional achievements, making waffles and maple-sugar hearts with “her great fluted white cap and great, fluted white smile on each box”, and, in the process, Aunt Jemimah-like, becoming “mammy to the world”. 12

She’d also always fussed over the things that had been lacking from Bea’s life, such as “man-lovin’” and, as she put it, having someone to light up her Christmas tree. She’d instinctively understood that this had been an absence even before Bea’s husband was killed in a train crash. When Delilah dies, Bea again becomes like a lost child, a ship without a rudder.

The novel is, in fact, haunted by death, most forcefully exemplified by Delilah’s constant obsessing over what awaits her. “When I drives up to dem pearly gates,” she tells Bea, “Saint Peter’s gwina say, here comes Delilah payin’ glory to de Lawd who she served on earth an’ will serve in heaven. Dat’s me, Miss honey-Bea, as I sees mahself every night of mah life when I lays dis here hulk down to sleep. Ridin’ up to heaven in a snow-white hearse wid de Lawd leanin’ out when he hears de trumpets blowin’ to see if I’s comin’ in a white satin casket pulled by six white horses.” 13

Hurst’s Imitation of Life is, then, a tale of two women which condenses the world around Bea and Delilah into their actions, reactions and interactions. In her eventual realisation that she can enter a world that she’d thought was forbidden to her, Bea finds herself becoming an embodiment of the New Woman of the times. But there’s no missionary zeal in her aspirations or her struggle, just a determination to make ends meet for her daughter and her ailing father, who lives with them.

Bea’s takeover of her late husband Benjamin’s maple-syrup delivery business is enabled simply because his business cards conceal the gender of their bearer: “B. Pullman”. After her rise to fame and The Wall Street Journal’s report that B. Pullman is a woman, Bea is surprised that “she, who had scarcely been aware of the woman-suffrage movement as it came to fruition (is now) importuned on all sides to address business and professional groups of her sex, eager to take cue from her”. 14

At the same time, she discovers how difficult it is for a professional woman to satisfy the wider demands made of her and, perhaps most difficult of all, her expectations of herself. She has Delilah on hand to watch over her daughter, Jessie – playing mother to Bea’s working husband role according to the traditional structure of the nuclear family – but is struggling to find a personal life away from her business activities. When she eventually comes to recognise this as a significant absence, she sees her business manager, Frank Flake, who is eight years her junior, as her Prince Charming. Hurst’s representation of her feelings for him stresses her naivety and lends a strategic ambiguity to her yearnings. But then Bea’s dreams are shattered when she discovers that, while remaining loyal to her, he and the now-adult Jessie have fallen in love with each other.

On the other hand, Delilah pays little heed to business matters. Defining herself primarily according to her roles as a nurturer – to her own daughter, Peola, a mulatto whose late father Delilah refers to as “a white nigger… that you’d never think would have had truck with the likes of me”, 15 to Jessie, and indeed to Bea – she is just as much a product of her times and particular social circumstances as her employer. The fact that an entrepreneurial white woman is able to build her success on the foundations Delilah has provided remains as irrelevant to her as forging new frontiers for a woman is to Bea.

Hurst creates an impeccable dramatic logic by linking Bea’s youthful dream of a domestic haven to the diners selling Delilah’s delights: the mood created by these is “akin to the kennel warmth and brightness she so passionately wanted to pour around herself and (the) little family in the house on Arctic Avenue”. 16 At the same time, though, she laces this logic with a brutal irony. Bea’s escape from the home is both real and illusory, and her professional relationship with Delilah is a benign variation on the way her race has routinely exploited black labour.

Hurst embraces Delilah as an enormously sympathetic character trapped in a world that is not of her own making and, through her, offers a critique of the Aunt Jemima/“Black Mammy” stereotype. 17 Delilah’s tragedy is that she mistakes the racist society that has spawned her for God’s will. “Every day of my life,” she tells Bea, “I’s gonna rear mah young un to know de glory of bein’ born one of de Lawd’s lowdown ones.”

For her, paradise is always linked to whiteness – there are countless examples in the book – and her skin colour is the cross He’s given her to bear. Peola grows up in the shadow of this well-meaning mother who has internalised the sense of inferiority inflicted on her race. She has become a witness to the oppression born of such a self-hatred. As Hurst puts it, in one of many examples, for Delilah “in every matter of precedence, including teeth, was the priority of Bea’s child most punctiliously observed. The duet of their howling might bring her running intuitively to her own, but the switch was without hesitancy to the white child, every labor of service adhering rigidly to that order”. 18

In order to escape the invisible chains that shackle her, Peola seizes the passport provided by her white skin and, rejecting her African-American roots, sets out to pass herself off as white. The consequences for her and for her relationship with her mother are harrowing. At the same time, her “passing” links her to Bea, whose entry into the business world of the 1930s, where a woman is routinely regarded as an Other, has only been enabled by the disguise she has adopted, the “B. Pullman” on her business card concealing her gender.

Hurst never lets us forget the wider context in which these personal dramas unfold. Pointing to the parallel between Peola’s identity crisis and Bea’s ongoing anxieties about who she is, Itzkovitz rightly draws attention to the novel’s “interest in the broad implications of American ‘self-making’, heretofore generally a male domain”, and to how, as “the novel’s central figure of rebellion against an oppressive social order, Peola attempts to find a way, like Bea, to transcend the identity into which she is born”. 19 Doubtless, the Jewish Hurst’s own upbringing in America gave her special insight into how an individual’s craving for social assimilation can lead to an attempt to abandon the outward signs of difference.

One strand of the negative criticism that has been directed against the novel argues that it is “punishing” the characters by denying them success in their strivings. “In today’s terms, both mothers suffer unjustly,” writes Freda Freiberg in an otherwise perceptive commentary on the book, “The novel seems to punish working mothers and to suggest that they cannot mother properly if they work full time.” 20 And even Itzkovitz’s admiring introduction allows that “the novel’s grim finale might easily be read as a punishment for Bea’s ultimate choice of ambition over motherhood”. 21

Yet such approaches entirely miss the significance of Hurst’s social commentary and the perspective that she’s able to bring to the characters and the world they inhabit, ignoring the ways in which readers’ sympathies can be used to provide the foundations for a social critique. While the novel certainly pivots on the personal strivings of its four central characters, it also presents them as prisoners of the ideology of their times. And Imitation of Life no more punishes mothers for working than it punishes Delilah and Peola for being black.

Rather than providing them with a fairy-tale ending that ignores the social realities all around, it invites us to be angry about those realities on the characters’ behalf. And, as we turn the final page, it leaves us with a question: if the world it has shown us is an “imitation of life”, what might the real thing look like?

Imitation of Life: the 1934 adaptation, directed by John M. Stahl

“The stentorian sobbing of the ladies in the Roxy mezzanine yesterday seemed to suggest that Imitation of Life held a vast appeal for the matinee trade as well as for Miss Hurst’s large and commercially attractive public. On the whole the audience seemed to find it a gripping and powerful if slightly diffuse drama which discussed the mother love question, the race question, the business woman question, the mother and daughter question and the love renunciation question.” (from The New York Times review of Imitation of Life by Andre Sennwald, November 24, 1934) 22

Despite snooty-nosed reviews like this, Stahl’s adaptation was a box-office hit, although it might never have been made if the Production Code Administration (PCA), set up by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), had got its way. Early in 1934, Joseph Breen, the PCA’s recently appointed chief, refused to register the project because of the character of Peola: as a mulatto, she signified the occurrence of miscegenation somewhere in her family background and, since her genetic make-up “is founded upon the results of sex association between the white and black race, (the submitted screenplay) not only violates the Production Code but is very dangerous from the standpoint both of industry and public policy”. 23 Apparently, Breen was not only concerned to protect audiences from the harmful contemplation of taboo sexual activity but also wished to prevent Universal Pictures from alienating potential paying customers.

The focus on Delilah and Peola’s circumstances and the sympathy evoked for them, Breen’s enforcers suggested, might be mistaken for a criticism of the policies of segregation operating in the south. The censors were also worried that Bea’s appropriation of Delilah’s recipes for her business enterprise might be perceived as an implicit criticism of the ways in which whites went about exploiting blacks in the US. 24 According to Bernard F. Dick’s biography of Claudette Colbert, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., by way of response, even went so far as to proffer the solution that, if it would ease the censor’s concerns, Peola’s skin condition could be attributed to a genetic disorder. 25

This kind of pressure perhaps goes some way towards explaining the number of people who ended up working on the screenplay. Official credit goes William Hurlbut (Only Yesterday, the original There’s Always Tomorrow, The Bride of Frankenstein), but, according to IMDb, there were also eight other writers involved. Among them were Preston Sturges (still six years away from directing his first film), Samuel Ornitz, the writer of Miracle on Main Street (1939) and Three Faces West (1940), who was later to become one of the “Hollywood 10”, and playwright Arthur Richman, whose work includes the 1922 play on which Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) is based as well as Only Yesterday (1933). 26

Four months of negotiations between the studio and the PCA and at least three revisions of the screenplay saw no change in the authorities’ view of the project. Even after the film had been shooting for two weeks, Universal was still awaiting approval of the script. The reasons for the eventual assent remain unclear and can only be implied from the finished film.

Made for $665,000 (of which Colbert received $90,000 for her role as Bea, lead actor Warren William was paid $25,000 and Louise Beavers a paltry $2,900 for playing Delilah 27) Imitation of Life earned three Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. But its place in history is assured for its bold introduction of a commentary about race relations into a realm of popular American cinema which, as the reaction of the PCA indicates, was unaccustomed to dealing with such matters. It’s one thing to look back at the film past the comforting barricades of contemporary sensibilities; it’s quite another to see it as a product of the time in which it was made and to reflect on the constraints under which its makers had to operate.

The process of adapting Hurst’s novel to the screen included a rigorous streamlining of the plot and reduction of its scope, as well as some revision of the characters. As the film begins, Bea is a widow, living in Atlantic City with three-year-old Jessie (Juanita Quigley) and dealing with the frustrations of being a working mother. “Mama’s so late and she’s got so much to do,” she tries to explain to her daughter, who’s vehemently protesting from the bathtub about having to go to day nursery. In the midst of the chaos, there’s a knock at the door, announcing the arrival of Delilah, who is to watch over Bea and Jessie for the next 15 years or so. Declining payment, she says that all she wants is accommodation for her and her four-year-old, Peola (Sebie Hendricks), whose white skin belies her racial heritage. “Her pappy was a very light-coloured man,” Delilah explains matter-of-factly.

In the novel, Bea meets Delilah “across the railway yards (in) the shanty district”, an encounter which takes place a quarter of the way into the book. 28 She’s gone there in desperation to search for a house-keeper to watch over her ailing father (who’s absent from the film) and her daughter while she’s out working. The film’s juxtaposition of the stresses Bea is enduring and Delilah’s entrance lends an air of magic to the visitor’s appearance on her doorstep, effectively a deus ex machina that casts Delilah as something of a fairy godmother or guardian angel whom destiny has assigned to help Bea and take care of Jessie.

Details from the novel about Bea’s past are compressed into her conversations with Delilah, who (as in the novel) instinctively identifies what’s missing from her employer’s life. “Y’oughta have a man takin’ care of you, yes’m,” she declares as she assumes her role as maidservant and foot-masseuse. With the pancakes she prepares for her charges’ breakfast, Delilah also inadvertently provides Bea with the key for an expansion of the maple syrup business she has taken over from her late husband.

Riding roughshod over any rights Delilah might have to the fruits of her labour, Bea goes about setting up a pancake business without ever consulting her employee. On the same day on which she comes up with the idea, part of her pitch to the landlord of a boardwalk shopfront (Clarence Wilson) is the claim that “I have a marvellous recipe for pancakes” (my emphasis). That evening, she announces to Delilah, “We’re going into business . . .,” at least acknowledging a collaboration, but also leaving no room for doubt about who’s going to be in charge.

Whether we’re meant to take this as an appropriate course of action for Bea or as a critique of her behaviour remains unclear. My inclination is towards the latter, largely because, throughout the film, attention appears to be drawn to her generally supportive but often thoughtless treatment of Delilah. Stahl and his team of screenwriters appear well aware of Bea’s oversights here, while the novel seems to slide past them.

Nonetheless, any initial uncertainty the viewer may feel is likely to be reinforced by the subsequent scene in which Bea tells Delilah to assume an Aunt Jemimah pose 29 by way of modelling for her sign painter (Henry Armetta), the extended medium close-up seeming to invite laughter. And, soon afterwards, the film opens itself to the charge of racism in the scene where Bea and her recently appointed business manager, Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks), try to persuade Delilah to lend her signature to the registration of the Aunt Delilah Corporation and thus to establish her right to a share of the profits.

Imitation of Life

The Aunt Jemimah syndrome: exploitation or satire?

“After all, it’s from your pancake flour,” Bea reminds her, offering her a 20 per cent share in the business and the chance for a home of her own. Delilah declines. “I’ll give it to ya, honey,” she says. “Makes you a present of it. Yo’s welcome.” She goes on to say that all she wants is for her life to stay the same. “Don’t send me away . . . How’m I goin’  to look after you and Miss Jessie?” To which, Elmer wise-cracks, “Once a pancake, always a pancake.” The comment provides a horrid punch-line to the sequence and seems to be, unequivocally, a deeply offensive racist putdown.

In her Glossary of Harlem Slang, 30 Fannie Hurst’s former secretary, African-American Zora Neale Hurston lists “pancake” as an idiomatic term for “a humble type of negro” – and, incidentally, “Pe-ola” as “a very white Negro girl”. The fact that the glossary wasn’t compiled until 1942 hints that the terms mightn’t have been slang at the time that the film was made but only became so afterwards, quite possibly as a result of their usage in the film (the “pancake” insult doesn’t appear in the novel, where Delilah’s specialties are waffles). And there seems to be little doubt that Elmer’s epithet is meant to signal his contempt for Delilah.

The crucial question, however, is the perspective Imitation of Life invites us to take on Elmer’s line. Are we to take it as endorsing him here or, as, arguably, was the case earlier with Bea, inviting us to see what he says as a sign of his limitations as a human being?

His chief responsibility in the film appears to be the provision of comic relief, although he remains distinctly unfunny throughout. Sullen of demeanour and scathing in his observations about the world in general, he’s a curious presence, a refugee from the Great Depression who becomes helpful to Bea in her business dealings, but is hopeless at anything else. Whereas Delilah advises Bea to lighten up and enjoy life more, he doesn’t seem to understand anything beyond what needs to be done to make the business work smoothly, which is one of the reasons why he can’t make sense of Delilah, or anyone else, for whom making money doesn’t matter. 31

There’s no equivalent for Elmer in the novel. The role there of Bea’s empathetic business manager, Frank Flake, whom she comes to fancy, here appears to have been split between Elmer and Stephen Archer (Warren William). Stephen is an old friend of Elmer’s (inexplicably!) with whom Bea falls in love the moment she lays eyes on him (equally inexplicably!). By the time he appears on the scene, she’s become a successful businesswoman, her home a New York mansion looking out over the Hudson and the 59th St. Bridge. The film bestows on him the profession of an ichthyologist (no, really), but his appearance and demeanour identify him as the kind of playboy who regularly turns up in 1930s screwball comedies. 32 “She’s got no time for romance,” sourpuss Elmer warns him when he shows an interest in her, although Stephen knows better.

Their affair moves the film in a very different direction from the one taken by the novel. By the time that Jessie (played as an 18-year-old by Rochelle Hudson) returns home from boarding school in Switzerland, Bea and Stephen are talking marriage. Their affair has run very smoothly to this point, although the problems aren’t far away. On Bea’s instructions, he doesn’t mention their plans to Jessie. She has to be given time to get to know him first, Bea has decreed. But then Jessie proclaims her love for him, inadvertently driving a wedge between her and her mother. He sympathetically declines her advances, but the damage has been done.

Imitation of Life

Love triangle: Stephen Archer, Jessie & Bea

The novel ends with Bea left alone and desolate, watching Jessie and Frank move towards their future. “They were so young, standing there . . . so right . . .” 33 The film ends poised somewhere between Stella Dallas (1925, 1937, 1990) and Now, Voyager (1942), as Bea turns down Stephen’s proposal of marriage in order to avoid the perceived disruption which it would represent in her daughter’s life. “To me, she’s the beginning and the end of everything,” she tells him. Over his very sensible objection that Jessie simply has a girlhood crush on him and will quickly forget about it, she insists that she’s right: “You must see how impossible it is.”

While the novel begins with Bea’s mother’s death and ends by returning Bea to a state of isolation, Stahl’s film deploys Bea’s relationship with Jessie as a narrative frame for Delilah’s with Peola. It begins with Bea giving little Jessie her morning bath and ends – in a classic “lost paradise” moment – with her reminiscing over the routine they used to share with the toddler’s rubber ducky. But in both cases, it’s Delilah and Peola’s relationship which lies at the emotional heart of the film, as it did the novel, even when its attention is officially elsewhere.

Their situation is the stuff of a modern tragedy, divided by a mother’s laudable wish for her child to be true to herself – in this case, to accept her racial identity – and the child’s natural wish to be free to make her own choices about how she’s going to live her life. And the force which creates this tragedy is nothing less than an American way of life, a national ideology that asserts that those whose skin is black are automatically inferior to those who are white. It should come as no surprise to find the PCA raising objections to a work whose emotional power stems primarily from a critique of this.

So, whatever the ambiguities pervading particular sequences, there is no question about where the film’s overall sympathies lie, politically and emotionally. Music is often a key indicator and Stahl’s use of it here is unusually sparing for a melodrama of this kind, 34 which makes the orchestrated snippets from “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” accompanying the opening credits, and then more fully elaborated as Delilah lies on her deathbed, especially telling.

Imitation of Life

Delilah’s deathbed scene in the 1934 version

The film’s depiction of the relationship between Delilah and Peola (played as a 19-year-old by Fredi Washington) is unambiguously heart-wrenching. While the plot structure might foreground Bea’s rags-to-riches story and the bittersweet ending that separates her from Stephen but unites her with Jessie, what one takes away from the film is Delilah’s heartbreak and Peola’s existential crisis. 35

Even as they react differently to the situation, both are presented as victims of history, trapped by the ideology of their times. Through them, the film charts its irresistible social critique. As John Flaus points out in his commentary on Stahl’s Back Street (1932), based on Hurst’s 1931 novel, “The characters of melodrama are signifiers of social forces; these latter are the proper subject of the audience’s deduction and hypothesising. In melodrama the characters are templates for the tracing of society’s invisible or ideologically dissembled ministers of power, while the narrative unwinds the psychological machinery of their enforcement. Personality becomes the crucible of the culture’s contradictions.” 36

Delilah’s acceptance of the subservient role for which she believes she has been born and her insistence that Peola should live according to the same assumptions about the workings of the world expose the devastating impact racism has on the individual consciousness and place this mother and daughter on a collision course from which – within the world the film has created – there is no escape.

Twice Delilah attempts to impose her will on her daughter by publicly “outing” her, repeat viewings making both scenes increasingly painful to watch. The first takes place in Peola’s all-white classroom at school, the second when Delilah and Bea track her down after she has run away from an all-black boarding school and taken a job as a cashier at a café in Virginia. The first scene appears in the novel, 37 the second is the film’s invention.

“I just can’t be separated from Peola, no matter what happens,” Delilah tells Bea during the film’s opening sequence, but her embrace of her daughter in all that follows is as claustrophobic as it is loving. As Laurent Berlant points out, 38 Delilah’s attempt to make sense of her daughter’s situation has her uttering “the film’s most political sentences”: “It ain’t her fault, Miss Bea. It ain’t yourn, and it ain’t mine. I don’t know rightly where the blame lies. It can’t be our Lord’s. Got me puzzled.” But these lines also point to Delilah’s lack of awareness, to her inability to see beyond the personal to the political, something which the film ensures that we come to understand.

At the same time as Delilah’s pursuit of her perceived responsibilities as a mother fractures her relationship with her daughter, it also serves as an example against which Bea measures her own mothering activities. She is a regular witness to the drama unfolding in her own home, always empathising with Delilah, sometimes silently watching on from the sidelines, sometimes intruding with advice for Peola.

A crucial factor in laying the foundations for her decision to separate from Stephen at the end is that she is present in the earlier scene when Peola comes home to tell her mother that she’s leaving, never to return. Immediately afterwards, she encounters Jessie coming downstairs, greets her with an urgent embrace and tells her, “Oh, darling. If anything should ever come between us, it would kill me.”

There’s a harrowing inevitability to the final exchange between Delilah and Peola. In the novel, agonisingly, Peola never returns. In the film, she does, but only after Delilah’s death, for which she holds herself responsible. “I killed my own mother,” she wails. In their depictions of Peola’s plight, both the novel and the film create a situation for which no happy outcome is possible, short of the civil rights uprising that was still decades away. The film’s ending poses a resolution of sorts with Bea noting Peola’s agreement to return to the college she’d earlier fled, but whether this represents a sign of Peola’s surrender to the oppressive order of race relations or a triumphant reassertion of her identity is left as a question for another day, and another film.

Imitation of Life: the 1959 adaptation, directed by Douglas Sirk

“I am suspicious of people who don’t really produce art except if they are ‘committed’ one way or another, because at that point their commitment takes the place of style.”   (Douglas Sirk) 39

Producer Ross Hunter’s initial plan for an Imitation of Life remake was to turn it into a musical. He’d acquired the rights to the novel in 1956 and, according to The Hollywood Reporter, had wanted Shirley Booth (Oscar-winner for 1953’s Come Back, Little Sheba) to play Claudette Colbert’s role and Ethel Waters (Oscar-nominated in 1950 for Elia Kazan’s Pinky) the Louise Beavers one. 40 As planning progressed, Pearl Bailey replaced Waters in Hunter’s proposed scenario, and then, when she turned out to be unavailable, Mahalia Jackson was pencilled in. When she declined, Juanita Moore was offered the part. After which, Hunter brought Sirk on board, the director having recently completed filming on A Time to Love and A Time to Die (1958).

Imitation of Life

Ross Hunter, Lana Turner & Sirk pose for a publicity shot on the set of the 1959 film

In interviews, Sirk appears to know nothing of this background. He told Jon Halliday that he thought Hunter gave him Hurst’s novel, but that he didn’t get far with it. “After a few pages I had the feeling this kind of American novel would definitely disillusion me,” he says. “The style, the words, the narrative attitude would be in the way of my getting enthusiastic.” 41 Hunter then gave him an outline based on Stahl’s adaptation and work began in earnest on the screenplay. Sirk didn’t see Stahl’s film until after he’d finished his version. “I liked it, I thought it was very good, but it belonged to the previous generation,” he remembered to Halliday. 42

The director believed that an update of the material was necessary in order to make it relevant to 1950s audiences, 43 an era which had witnessed the birth of the Civil Rights movement: the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the struggle over desegregation in Little Rock, sit-ins planned by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the first stirrings of the “black is beautiful” movement.

Beginning in 1947, Sirk’s version retains the four female characters at the heart of both the novel and Stahl’s adaptation, but changes their names and the profession in which the white mother builds her career. Bea becomes Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), an aspiring actress living in New York, her daughter becomes Susie (played as a six-year-old by Terry Burnham and then as a teenager by Sandra Dee); Delilah becomes Annie (Moore), and her mulatto daughter is Sarah-Jane (played as an eight-year-old by Karin Dicker and as an 18-year-old by Susan Kohner).

Imitation of Life

Sirk (centre) directing Karin Dicker for the opening scene of the 1959 version; Lana Turner to right
of frame

Lora’s rise to Broadway acclaim parallels Bea’s success as a pancake entrepreneur, with Annie serving as her nanny, personal confidante and personal assistant (looking after the books, answering the phone the way it’s supposed to be answered – “Miss Meredith’s residence!”). In a neat variation on the nice girl/vamp opposition in evidence elsewhere in American cinema (especially), Lora’s love-life is divided between a nice guy, the kind of man a gal would marry (if her mind wasn’t focussed elsewhere), and two men whose primary appeal for Lora lies in the professional power they wield. Sharing his name with Bea’s beau in the Stahl version, the photographer Lora meets in the opening sequence, Steve Archer (John Gavin), represents the former, while agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda) and playwright David Edwards (Dan O’Herlihy) become means-to-an-end in Lora’s quest to become a star.

The family tensions that pervade both Hurst’s novel and the 1934 film remain: Sarah-Jane’s resentment of her mother (“… because you keep telling the world I’m your daughter”) and her wish to be seen as white (“She can’t help her colour, but I can and I will”); Annie’s anguish at her daughter’s rejection (“Tell her… if I loved her too much, I’m sorry, but I didn’t mean to cause her any trouble. She was all I had”); and Susie’s Electra complex (although it’s established and resolved differently in each of the versions of the story).

Without any acknowledgement of the earlier adaptation, the official screenwriting credit for Sirk’s Imitation of Life goes to Eleanore Griffin (A Man Called Peter, the 1961 version of Back Street) and Allan Scott (a regular writer on the Astaire-Rogers musicals and a contributor to the Dr. Hudson’s Secret Journal TV series, which served as a prequel to but was made after Magnificent Obsession). Sam Staggs also suggests that Sy Gomberg (The Toast of New Orleans, Summer Stock) did a final polish on the screenplay. 44

By this time, the power of the Production Code had been considerably reduced, Breen had retired and been replaced by the more liberal Geoffrey Shurlock, and the miscegenation matter that had plagued Stahl in the early 1930s was no longer perceived as an issue. Still, given that Sirk’s version also grapples with questions of racial identity and the relations between white and black America, there was the inevitable concern at Universal about how best to market the $2-million film since, according to a studio executive at the time, “white Southerners avoid films that are advertised as dealing with the race problem”. 45

It would appear, however, that such concerns were beside the point, since – despite generally unfavourable reviews – Imitation of Life brought in more than $6 million at the US box-office and became Universal’s top-grossing film of 1959. 46

Both the 36-year-old Moore, who only received seventh billing, and the 22-year-old Kohner (later the mother of filmmakers Chris and Paul Weitz) were nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 1960 Oscars. And today, more than half a century later, Sirk’s film is widely acclaimed.

While its telling of the story adheres relatively closely to the courses followed by its predecessors, Sirk’s approach is very different in substance, emphasis and tone. Like Stahl’s adaptation, Sirk’s begins by bringing together the two mothers and their daughters, but minus the impression that Annie’s appearance is any kind of a deus ex machina. The setting is a packed Coney Island beach, Lora has lost sight of Susie, crosses paths with a camera-wielding Steve and eventually finds her daughter playing with Sarah-Jane as Annie calmly watches over them.

Imitation of Life

Sarah-Jane, Annie, Susie (back of her head) & Lora at Coney Island also in the opening scene of the 1959 film

The sequence lays the groundwork for much that is to follow, binding the four characters together and introducing the tensions that are to simmer away through all that follows: Susie being “lost” to Lora, Annie taking charge when Lora is nowhere to be found, Steve attempting to infiltrate the family unit, Sarah-Jane moving away from under her mother’s wing towards Lora and Susie and whiteness.

Lora is at the centre of what happens, but Annie is its dramatic focal point from the beginning of the film as she reveals to Lora that she’s not Sarah-Jane’s nanny, but her mother. “Sarah-Jane favours her daddy,” Annie says, looking directly at Lora. Then, looking away as if momentarily lost in a reverie, she adds, almost breathlessly, “He was practically white” [(her emphasis), as if his skin colour was a quality rather than just a detail. Moore’s delivery of the line makes it clear from the start that, whatever Annie might go on say to her daughter about how “it’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are”, she is yet to discover that black is beautiful, to free herself of the sense of inferiority for which she’s chiding her daughter.

Annie is a prisoner of the mindset of her times. Like her equivalent in the novel, she even wants a funeral in white, “a white coffin pulled by white horses. . . like I was goin’ to glory”. The changes wrought on the black consciousness by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s still remain more than a decade away.

The limitations of her belief that she was “born to be hurt” because of her race and her acceptance of that, because “the Lord must’ve had his reasons for making some of us white and some of us black”, are implicit in her character’s equivalents in Hurst’s novel and Stahl’s film. But Sirk sharpens the focus on them with an unprecedented force and clarity. Annie’s attempt to impose her will on Sarah-Jane, insisting that she should not live her life as an imitation, is both well-intentioned and claustrophobic, a destructive force that shatters the mother-daughter love that is their right. 47

Moore’s beautiful, heart-breaking performance and Sirk’s depiction of the soul-destroying situation in which Annie finds herself not only move the character from a supporting role to the heart of the film’s network of mother-daughter/surrogate mother-surrogate daughter stories, but also make her one of the cinema’s great tragic heroines.

Sirk makes the idea of performance central to Imitation of Life. For Lora, it is literally a way of life, whether she’s trying to make an impression as an actress or do her duty as a mother. Her professional associates expect this of her – they know the rules of the game they’re playing – but her intimates want more. Near the end, after Annie has told her that Susie is in love with Steve, she melodramatically tells her daughter that she’s willing to give him up, if that’s what it takes. But an exasperated Susie sees right through her: “Oh, mother, stop acting,” she says. “Stop trying to shift people around as if they were pawns on a stage.”

This exchange between mother and daughter recalls the penultimate scene in Stahl’s version, where Bea tells Steve that they can’t be together because of Jessie’s feelings for him. But Sirk proposes a very different reading of the situation, implicitly refuting Stahl’s. And Lora’s response to Susie’s accusation simply proves her daughter’s case, her tears drawing an apology from Susie – “Oh, mama, I’m sorry I didn’t want to hurt you” – who then kneels at Lora’s feet and rests her head in her lap, adopting the role of dutiful daughter. Like mother, like daughter.

For Sarah-Jane too, life becomes a stage on which she passes for white and there’s a potent irony in the fact that, when she leaves home to find a job, it’s as a torch singer at a men’s nightclub in Manhattan. Recalling the rejection scene in Stahl’s film where Delilah finds Peola working at a café in Virginia, Annie bursts in on Sarah-Jane who pretends that she doesn’t know the intruder. The confrontation is replayed with significant variations in a subsequent scene after Sarah-Jane flees to the other side of the country to find work as a showgirl at the Moulin Rouge in Hollywood and, in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Annie again hunts her down, this time to tell her that she’s too tired to keep pursuing her and to say goodbye.

The devastating exchange is mostly played out in front of the dancer (Ann Robinson) who is sharing Sarah-Jane’s dressing-room, both mother and daughter hiding their real relationship as Annie pretends to be Sarah-Jane’s nanny. “So, honey chil’, you had a mammy,” the dancer asks rhetorically after Annie has left, not unkindly but with the kind of gently mocking condescension that cuts to the heart of American racism. “Yes. All of my life,” Sarah-Jane weeps in reply. The scene is a heart-rending reversal of the one on the beach at the start, where Annie had proudly told Lora that this white-skinned little girl was her daughter.

Imitations are everywhere in the film. Expanding on the possibilities of the title, virtually every scene has somebody engaged in one, adopting roles and helping others to play theirs according to the situations in which they find themselves. Sirk’s compositions persistently suggest the everyday as a form of theatre, the characters’ surroundings deployed as frames for their performances – cinematographer Russell Metty’s imagery observing them through doorways, against windows, in front of mirrors, on landings and stairways, and so on – as if to underline the artifice of their exchanges. The same effect is achieved by having peripheral characters looking on as they unfold, a built-in audience.

Imitation of Life

Competing for attention, mirrors everywhere: Sarah-Jane, Annie, Susie & Lora (reflected and direct)

Sirk’s adaptation casts all of the characters as actors, individuals whose role-playing becomes their means of grappling with the nature of their existence. “No sin in looking prosperous,” Annie tells Lora who’s been trying to make an impression in the theatre world. When the aspiring actress first meets Loomis, the man who is to become her agent, she pretends to have been sent to him by a Hollywood producer. And then, after her act for his benefit has fallen apart, impressed by her chutzpah, he invites her to accompany him to a showbiz party, offers her a mink to wear and some advice about how she should act when she gets there.

Later in the film, by way of protest, a furious Sarah-Jane plays out a brutal caricature of a black maidservant after Lora asks her to help her mother serve food to guests. And when the now-successful Lora rejects a script from playwright/director/lover Edwards, he dramatically tosses it into the fire which is burning in the hearth of her plush residence. Annie is shocked, but Lora remains unmoved. She knows that he always makes multiple copies.

Imitation of Life

Sarah-Jane caricaturing a black maid

Often the nature of the performance isn’t as obvious as this, and the fine line between characters’ pretences and their felt responses becomes blurry, leaving us and them unaware of which side of that line they’re on. In fact, most of Sirk’s films are populated by characters who simply don’t know what to make of their lives, who are driven by a sense that “something’s missing”, their performances becoming a means of filling that gap. Their imitations of life, their representations of themselves, amount to survival techniques that – in this film’s supreme irony – leave them dissatisfied, deny them all the kind of comfort that they’re seeking.

“Don’t you ever get the feeling that you’re tired of what you’re doing, that it isn’t what you’ve really wanted?” Steve asks Lora late in the film. When she’d met him in the opening sequence, he was a freelance photographer who’d been making ends meet by selling his work to advertising agencies. Now, he’s climbed the ladder of corporate success on Madison Avenue but is yearning to have his work on exhibition. Meanwhile, Lora’s trajectory is a classic star-is-born arc, 48 although, having achieved professional success, she’s come to recognise what she hasn’t achieved both as a mother and a lover.

Given that all of the characters’ grasps of their realities have been shown to be, at best, blinkered, whether these realisations are going to lead to any changes in the ways they’ve been pursuing their lives remains a moot question. The lost child situation of the opening sequence has become a motif applying to all of them.

What is clear is that any suggestion that the film’s ending is a happy one, that a new family has come together in the wake of Annie’s funeral, is flying in the face of the ongoing cycle of hurt and reunion that has driven all that has gone before and that afflicts everyone in the film. It’s preceded by the bleak finality of Sarah-Jane’s return, publicly seeking forgiveness from her mother, as she clutches desperately at the white-robed, white-flowered coffin in the hearse outside the church.

Imitation of Life

Like Peola in the Stahl version, Sarah-Jane blames herself for her mother’s death: “I killed my mother,” she cries in desperation. But whereas Stahl lends some credence to Peola’s claim, Delilah’s sudden deterioration coinciding with her despair at her daughter’s abandonment of her, Sirk calls Sarah-Jane’s self-blame into question. Much earlier in the film, not long after they’ve moved into much more salubrious surroundings, Lora’s question to Annie about “those spells you’ve been getting” points to an ongoing illness. Sirk’s point isn’t that Sarah-Jane’s actions have led to Annie’s death but that Sarah-Jane thinks they have. Hers is a guilt that isn’t easily assuaged.

And the notion that the semblance of order restored in the film’s closing shots – as Steve, Susie and Lora comfort a shattered Sarah-Jane in the long, black limousine following Annie’s horse-drawn hearse – is to ignore the lack of resolution to all of the previously-established problems the characters have been dealing with and the cycles of dissatisfaction and disillusionment that have ruled their lives. As Sirk told Halliday, “(Y)ou don’t believe the happy end, and you’re not really supposed to”. 49

Peola disappears from the 1934 film after the funeral, and it seems as if Stahl and his writers understood all too well that to have her return would only underline the fact that her existential anguish cannot be so simply alleviated and that the trauma of her relationship with her mother would render the problems that have arisen between Bea and Jessie mere trivialities in comparison. But Sarah-Jane’s plight and the death of her mother remain to the fore as the curtains close on Sirk’s version.

Over the years, even sympathetic commentary about the film has repeatedly referred to the ways in which it is yet another example of the director being able “to redeem his material”. In the original edition of Sirk on Sirk, Halliday refers to how the director was able “to use his command over ‘style’ to transform the awful story”. 50. In his book on Sirk, Michael Stern reflects on how “Imitation of Life ushers us into the comfortable and generically reassuring parlor of the women’s film”. 51

Yet there is to be absolutely no justification for this kind of condescension to stories about the pressures of motherhood or women’s struggles with their circumstances (whether they’re labelled as “soap operas”, “women’s films” or “chickflicks”). No generic category is worthwhile or worthless per se, no kinds of plotting or groups of characters can be regarded as automatically superior to any other. What matters is how well a story is told, not the genre to which it belongs. Sirk doesn’t “redeem his material” in Imitation of Life. As Hurst’s novel and Stahl’s first adaptation attest, it was powerful to begin with. Sirk’s achievement is not that he has transcended his material but that he has fashioned from it an American masterpiece.


  1. Karl Quinn, “When the war began . . . again,” The Sunday Age, October 18, 2015, p. 24.
  2. Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life, P. F. Collier & Son, First Edition, 1933. Page references in this article refer to the 2004 Duke University Press reprinting, edited by Daniel Itzkovitz, who also contributes an excellent introduction.
  3. There’s also a further adaptation/extension of Hurst’s novel, Joselito Rodriguez’s Angelitos Negros /Little Black Angels (Mexico, 1948), which was based on a play by Felix B. Caignet but also acknowledges a debt to Imitation of Life. In turn, Rodriguez’s film was remade in 1970 in Mexico as a “telenovela” (effectively a TV mini-series), directed by Antulio Jiminez Pons, and then again as El alma no tiene color/The Soul Has No Colour (1997), co-directed by Pons and Otto Sirgo. Furthermore, according to IMDb, both the Brazilian TV series, Imaticao da Vida (1960) and the Turkish film, Anneler ve kizlari (1972), were also based on Imitation of Life.For further commentary on Angelitos Negros, see Hiram Perez, “Alma Latina: The American Hemisphere’s Racial Melodramas”, The Scholar and Feminist Online, Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 2009 http://sfonline.barnard.edu/africana/print_perez.htm. Also see Lucy Fischer, “Modernity and Postmaternity: High Heels and Imitation of Life”, in eds. Andrew Horton and Stuart Y. McDougal, Play It Again, Sam – Retakes on Remakes, University of California Press, 1998.
  4. Both films are available in a single DVD package available in Australia through Madman Films.
  5. “Obsessions, Imitations & Subversions, Part One – on Magnificent Obsession”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 73, December 2014.
  6. Cited in Richard Corliss, Mom in the Movies, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014, p. 82. Corliss also offers insightful comment about Angelitos Negros (1948), pp. 88 – 89.
  7. Robert van Gelder, “An Interview with Fannie Hurst”, The New York Times Book Review, January 25, 1942. Cited in Itzkovitz’s introduction to the Hurst novel.
  8. Sterling A. Brown, “Imitation of Life: Once a Pancake”, Opportunity 13, March, 1935.
  9. As recorded in Doris Witt, Black Hunger – Food and the Politics of US Identity, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, Limitations of Life was set in Harlem and first performed at Hughes’s Harlem Suitcase Theatre. “… The skit has three main characters, whose names parody those of the actors in Stahl’s film. Audette Aubert (after Claudette Colbert) is a “pretty blonde maid”; Mammy Weavers (after Louise Beavers) is “a colored lady, in trailing evening gown, with tiara and large Metropolitan Opera program, speaking perfect English with an Oxford accent.” (p. 43).
  10. Hurst (1889 – 1968) wrote 18 novels and more than 100 short stories. There have been at least 30 films and TV series based on her writings.
  11. See Lori Harrison-Kahan’s brilliant commentary on the novel in The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy and the Black-Jewish Imaginary, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, USA, 2011, pp. 96 – 142.
  12. Hurst, op. cit., p. 86.
  13. Ibid, p. 143. The phonetic renderings of Delilah’s speech patterns and rhythms are one aspect of how Hurst characterises her. They point to her personal history – a mammy who speaks in a Southern dialect – while what happens to and around her also makes her a tragic figure rather than the Southern mammy of cliché.
  14. Ibid, pp. 180 – 181.
  15. Ibid, p. 75.
  16. Ibid, p. 124.
  17. Itzkovitz points out in his introduction that “Aunt Jemima products were advertised regularly in Pictorial Review”, p. xx.
  18. Hurst, op. cit., p. 83.
  19. Itzkovitz op. cit., pp. xxiv – xxv.
  20. Freda Freiberg, “Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life”, Screening the Past 20, 2006.
  21. Itzkovitz in Hurst, op. cit., p. xix.
  22. http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9A03E7D71430E033A25757C2A9679D946594D6CF
  23. Cited in Judith Weisenfeld, Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929 – 1949, University of California Press, USA, 2007, p. 217.
  24. Matthew H. Bernstein, Dana F. White, “Imitation of Life in a segregated Atlanta: its promotion, distribution and reception”, Film History, April 1, 2007. http://business.highbeam.com/138317/article-1G1-166945659/imitation-life-segregated-atlanta-its-promotion-distribution
  25. Bernard F. Dick, She Walked in Beauty, The University Press of Mississippi, USA, 2008, p. 95.
  26. The others were journalist Finley Peter Dunne (who also worked uncredited on Stahl’s Magnificent Obsession), Walter Ferris (Under Two Flags, A Yank at Oxford), Bianca Gilchrist, Victor Heerman (the director of Animal Crackers, who also worked on Magnificent Obsession, Little Women and Stella Dallas) and Sarah Y. Mason (Magnificent Obsession, Little Women, Stella Dallas).
  27. Dick, op. cit., p. 88.
  28. Hurst, op. cit., pp. 74 – 75.
  29. An iconic 19th-century minstrel show figure who became the face of a famous pancake mix and who, in her subservience, has become the female equivalent of the Uncle Tom archetype.
  30. http://aalbc.com/authors/harlemslang.htm
  31. In “Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959): Style and the Domestic Melodrama”, an article originally published in Jump Cut, No. 32 (April 1987) and reprinted in Lucy Fischer, editor, Imitation of Life, Rutgers, USA, 1991, p. 292, Jeremy G. Butler presumes otherwise, proposing that “… the film ridicules Delilah’s inability to grasp financial matters”.
  32. In the book, Frank is eight years younger than Bea. Here Stephen is 37, roughly the same age as Bea (Colbert was 30 at the time of shooting and William, in a part originally slated for Paul Lukas, was 40, although he looks old enough to be her father).
  33. Hurst, op. cit., p. 292.
  34. The same is true for a number of Stahl’s other romantic melodramas, including Magnificent Obsession (1935) and When Tomorrow Comes (1939), both of which were also subsequently remade by Douglas Sirk, as well as Back Street, his adaptation of another Fannie Hurst novel (published in 1931). Elsewhere in his work, though, the  scores are deployed far more conventionally.
  35. Fredi Washington (1903 – 1994) was a light-skinned African-American who explained her view of being a mulatto to journalist Earl Conrad in 1945: “I can’t for the life of me find any valid reason why anyone should lie about their origin . . . Frankly, I do not ascribe to the stupid theory of white supremacy and to try to hide the fact that I am a Negro for economic or any other reasons would make me inferior and (indicate) that I have swallowed whole hog all of the propaganda dished out by fascist-minded white citizens.” (The Chicago Defender, June 16, 1945) After her short-lived screen career, she became a writer and a civil rights activist. When Imitation of Life was made, she was 31, while Louise Beavers, who plays her screen mother, was 32.
  36. John Flaus, “Back Street (John. M. Stahl, 1932)”, Senses of Cinema, No. 20, May 2002.
  37. Hurst, op. cit., pp. 184 – 185.
  38. Lauren Berlant, “National Brands/National Body: Imitation of Life”, in  Bruce Robbins, ed., The Phantom Public Sphere, University of Minnesota Press, USA, 1993, p. 192.
  39. Serge Daney and Jean-Louis Noames, “Entretien avec Douglas Sirk”, Cahiers du Cinema, No. 189, April 1967, p. 70 (translation by Virginia Soukup). This interview is incorrectly ascribed to Jean-Louis Comolli in Michael Stern’s Douglas Sirk, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1979, pp. 203 & 205.
  40. Cited in Sam Staggs, Born to be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Life, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2009, p. 15.
  41. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk (new and revised edition), Faber and Faber, London, 1997, p. 148.
  42. Ibid, p. 148.
  43. Ibid, pp. 148 – 151.
  44. Staggs, op. cit., p. 248 – 251.
  45.  http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/79029/Imitation-of-Life/notes.html
  46. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/79029/Imitation-of-Life/articles.html Turner is reported to have accepted a lower fee in return for half of the film’s profits, which eventually earned her in excess of $2 million.
  47. It is astonishing how many commentators see Annie as an idealised mother figure rather than a lost soul, trying to do the right thing but just as trapped within the maze of mirrors and reflections as all of the other characters. The notes that come with Madman’s DVD release package describe her as a character “who has a clear perspective” on the events unfolding around her. Freiberg, op. cit., accuses Sirk of “heroinizing” her. Marina Heung’s thoroughly misguided commentary on the film in Fischer, op. cit., asserts that “(t)hrough Annie, the film celebrates a specific maternal ideal” (p. 306).
  48. The scene in which Lora and playwright David Loomis look out over Broadway and see it as a kingdom they’ve conquered is reminiscent of the one in Sirk’s Interlude (1957) in which his central couple (June Allyson and Rosanno Brazzi) go driving to Salzburg and their longings  become enmeshed within their romantic surroundings as a fairytale delusion. As Imitation of Life’s title song – sung by Earl Grant, written by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster – puts it, “It’s a false creation, an imitation/Of life.” The scene between Lora and Loomis also has a Faustian edge, inasmuch as she has sold her soul for this kind of success.
  49. Halliday, op., cit., p. 151.
  50. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk, Secker & Warburg, London, 1972, p. 10
  51. Stern, op. cit., p. 193.

About The Author

Tom Ryan’s most recent book is The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions (2019), published by the University Press of Mississippi. His Alan J. Pakula: Interviews will be published in September this year.

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