Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Imitation of Life
The story is look at early 20th century American race relations. Bea Pullman and her daughter Jessie take in housekeeper Delilah Johnson and her daughter Peola, in exchange for room and board. In a short amount of time, Delilah and Peola become family to Jessie and Bea. They particularly enjoy Delilah's pancakes, made from a special family recipe. Bea decides to start a pancake restaurant and later a pancake flour corporation, marketing Delilah as an Aunt Jemima-like figure.
As a result, Bea becomes a wealthy business woman, but all is not well. Jessie falls in love with her mother's boyfriend, Steven Archer, who is unaware at first of her affections. Peola, ashamed of her African American heritage, attempts to pass as white, breaking her mother Delilah's heart. Peola eventually runs away from home, and Delilah falls ill and eventually dies. Delilah's only wish was for a large, grand funeral, which Bea provides for her, complete with a marching band and a horse-drawn hearse. Just before the processional begins, however, a remorseful, crying, and apologetic Peola appears, begging her mother to forgive her for her shame and finally acknowledging in public that she is in fact black.
The 1934 film version of Imitation of Life starred Claudette Colbert as Bea, Rochelle Hudson as Jessie, Louise Beavers as Delilah, Fredi Washington as Peola, and Warren William as Steven Archer. Directed by John M. Stahl and adapted from the novel by William Hurlbut, it was released by Universal on November 26, 1934, and later re-issued in 1936.
This Imitation of Life film was more or less a direct adaptation of Hurst's novel, and marked the first time in cinema history that a black woman's problems were given major emotional weight in a major Hollywood motion picture. The film was nominated for the 1935 Academy Award for Best Picture and assistant director Scott Beal was nominated for Best Assistant Director.
Universal remade Imitation of Life in 1959 as a vehicle for Lana Turner. The story was altered so that the black housekeeper helped her white employer achieve fame, instead of the other way around. This version of Imitation of Life was director Douglas Sirk's final major film, and is considered one of his best.
Turner plays Lora Meredith, a struggling widow with plans to become a famous Broadway actress. She takes in Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), so that Annie can take care of Meredith's daughter Suzie (Sandra Dee). Meredith becomes an sensational star, but at the cost of a true relationship with her daughter, who as a teenagers falls for her mother's boyfriend, Steve Archer (John Gavin). Meanwhile, Annie has her own problems with Sarah Jane, who wants to pass for white and runs away from home to do so, causing Annie to fall ill and eventually die of a broken heart. As in the original film, a remorseful Sarah Jane resurfaces during the processional for Anie's lavish funeral, begging her deceased mother to forgive her.
Release and critical reaction
Sirk's Imitation of Life premiered in New York City on April 17, 1959, and Universal put the film into general release on April 30. Both Moore and Kohner were nominated for the 1960 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
- Fredi Washington, the actress who plays the light-skinned daughter Peola in the 1934 film, was an actual light-skinned African American, who was noted for turning down a number of offers by Hollywood agents to pass for white and become a star. Although many African Americans were screen-tested for the Sarah Jane role in the 1959 remake, Susan Kohner, of Mexican and Caucasian decent, won the role.
- In the 1959 film, Sirk depicted the Annie/Sarah Jane relationship with even more melodrama than the original versions of the story, and some critics commented that Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner stole the film from Turner. Sirk later admitted that he had deliberately and subversively undercut Turner, whose wardrobe for the film was, at a cost of over $1.078 million, one of the most expensive in cinema history at that time.
- The 1959 Imitation of Life has been a staple of both the American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies cable television networks. Both versions of the film are currently available in on a double-sided DVD from Universal Home Entertainment.
- Handzo, Steven. Imitations of Lifelessness: Sirk's Ironic Melodrama. Bright Lights Film Journal].
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