Butlers & Maids Blogathon – Imitation of Life (1934)

Most of the time those who serve are over looked and underappreciated. This is true in both life and art. So, I am thrilled that for once characters in service are getting the attention they deserve thanks to Paddy of Caftan Woman and Rich of Wide Screen World who are hosting the Butlers & Maids Blogathon.

It’s not very often that butlers or maids are more than a background character in film. Such is not the case with Imitation of Life which explores topics of race and gender through the prism of relationships. In the friendship between a white businesswoman and her talented black maid as well as the relationships between the two women and their daughters we see how these issues impact each character differently.

ORIGINS

Adapted from a book written by Fanny Hurst, and eventually remade in 1959, this first cinematic version is the best, in my opinion. As much as I love Lana Turner, the soapy feel of the remake dilutes the important exploration of the topics introduced in Hurst’s novel. Hurst was a very successful novelist in her time who was passionately involved in the same issues she raised in her work, namely social justice causes like class, feminism, racial equality and the like.

ABOUT THE FILM

Both Bea Pullman and Delilah Johnson are young widows with daughters to raise when they meet. Bea has gumption and business savvy while Delilah has the talent and touch which help them build a thriving pancake empire. The love between the two women is obvious, though why they love each other seems to be influenced by their roles and places in society. Still it is sincere.

Bea’s charming determination to forge a path in a man’s world makes her the driving force of the film. Her insistence benefits both women and their girls. Delilah’s only motivation is to provide a good home for her daughter. She seems happy to let Bea call the shots for all of them. So, it takes a while to realize that Delilah is actually the heart of this story.

MY THOUGHTS

Imitation of Life is interesting in that it shows Bea as a strong white woman who is undaunted by the challenges of succeeding in business. It ignores completely any prejudices she might face as a working woman and entrepreneur in a male dominated world.

By contrast, Delilah is portrayed as someone who doesn’t have the awareness to realize that her friend/employer is capitalizing off of Delilah’s secret family recipe. Delilah’s easy generosity sometimes seems more like a lack of care and interest which allows Bea to take advantage of her. Though I doubt Bea is consciously choosing to do so.

Supposedly, these women are friends and partners, but they certainly aren’t equals. Nowhere is this truth more starkly shown then in one particular scene. After a large party Bea has hosted at their home with guests in formal dress, she asks Delilah to talk over the evening with her. When the ladies say goodnight, Bea ascends the stairs to her room in a fancy gown, while Delilah heads down those same stairs to her own quarters.

If Delilah comes off less than wise in her interactions with Bea, no one can fault her love and commitment as a mother. Perhaps one of the worst things that could have happened to her daughter Peola is the day Delilah accepts Bea’s offer of employment. Peola is raised right along side Bea’s daughter Jessie. This leads to the film’s ultimate tragedy and conflict. Because Peola is light skinned. The deepest desire of her heart is to live and pass as a white woman.

In a home where she sees Bea succeeding in a man’s world, while her mother remains subservient, no one can blame her. However, it causes her to be ashamed of her mother, the only person who loves her unconditionally, simply because Delilah is black and a testament to Peola’s heritage that she can’t hide. Time and time again Peola’s personal ambition, wounds her mother. Still Delilah assigns no blame and accepts the pain her daughter causes. Because Delilah may not know or care to know how to run a business, or handle money, allowing others manage her life, but she does know how to love well. She proves it time and again with both Bea and Peola, giving her trust, making sacrifices and subverting her own desires for theirs. Ultimately, one can even say she dies for love after crying that she isn’t strong enough. And yet the legacy she leaves behind is built on the strength of that love. Delilah is not defined by the way the people in her life treat her, but by the ways she treats them. She is not just a maid and an embarrassment to her daughter, but a loyal, selfless friend and a devoted, forgiving mother.

The performances of Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers as the women in this film, give Imitation of Life great depth of emotion and impact. These women inhabit cliches and wring truth out of them so that the viewer understands the injustice of a broken system which allows a white woman the opportunity to succeed but inhibits a black woman from dreaming of anything more than a home for her daughter.

In the hands of anyone other than Colbert, Bea would have been unsympathetic, even cruel. But Colbert gives us a woman who seems unaware of the inequities between herself and Delilah, but who also shares her success as equally as possible with her. Bea is ignorant, yes, but not uncaring.

Louise Beavers gives one of the most heart-breaking performances I’ve ever seen. She holds the weight of the world in her eyes and bears the brunt of injustice without even seeming to be aware of it. Her quiet dignity is a lesson in self-mastery.

Imitation of Life is the type of movie which proves that classic film is still relevant in our modern era. Even though some classics truly are dated, many address issues that we still wrestle with today. Although we’ve made progress in many ways in the areas of class, race and gender, it’s clear when watching this, that there are some who still have the same negative attitudes and beliefs that are exhibited in Imitation of Life. But it’s also encouraging that women like Bea and Delilah not only refuse to accept these strictures, but also refuse to become bitter towards those whose ignorance leads them to act in hateful ways. Ignorance will always be with us, but so will love and forgiveness and that is our hope for the future.

Please make sure to check out the other entries for this blogathon for thoughtful reviews on those who serve.

 

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6 Replies to “Butlers & Maids Blogathon – Imitation of Life (1934)”

  1. I’m black (not that it matters), and this was one of those old movies I always avoided because I had believed it trafficked in cringe-worthy stereotypes. I’m still not sure if I’m ready to give it a look, but you’ve given me more to think about, at least, so thanks for that.

    1. It certainly does portray those old racist stereotypes, but more in circumstances. The characters are anything but. If you decide to give this one a chance I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  2. Your insights into the telling of this story in 1934 struck a chord with me. As a fan of Louise Beavers, the Hurst character gave her a wonderful opportunity to show the depth of her talent. I agree that anyone but Claudette would have a hard time making us like Bea.

    So much in that film goes right to your heart and your gut without the fuss that surrounds the 1959 movie – which can still move me to tears.

  3. What a great review! I loved what you wrote about Delilah, in special this bit: “Delilah is not defined by the way the people in her life treat her, but by the ways she treats them”. I agree this is the superior version, and the remake is too melodramatic. I’m also glad you mentioned the stairs scene, one that impressed me and one I’ll never forget.
    Cheers!

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