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antoniacarlotta

Imitation of Life

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My newest video is on Imitation of Life! The 1934 version to be exact. This has long been one of my favorite old Universal films, and I reference it a lot in my videos ... but I was surprised to learn that as progressive as people often say it is - even in 1934 there were some aspects of the movie that weren't so progressive. 

So I'm actually going to make a second video about Imitation of Life. This first one here is all about the making of the movie and its initial reception. Later this week I'm going to put up another video that dives deeper into the problems with the film, and I'll add it to this thread. 

What do you all think of this film? How about in comparison to the 1959 version?

(Also I'm just about to head out to the Dodger game here in LA, but will be back on here to read/respond tomorrow!)

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You gotta love a movie with an ichthyologist as a main character.

The 1959 version is one of the great comedies.

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Given a choice, I prefer watching the original version. Ned Sparks' deadpan is maybe the greatest thing about it. While the Delilah/Peola storyline is given a prominence and gravitas unusual for African-American characters of the era - and there's even a little zinger when Peola indicates the jazz band hired for the big party plays pretty well "for white boys"! - there are indeed some not-so-progressive moments about it. Delilah certainly doesn't seem to want for anything, but why she shouldn't be a full partner on something that was her invention doesn't sit right with me. And the bits where we're meant to laugh at her for not being very bright about certain things don't come across so well with the benefit of hindsight. And what is up with that scene of Claudette Colbert berating her daughter for saying out loud that Peola is black, that it's a terrible, awful thing to say?

Maybe most troubling to me is Delilah's insistence that Peola's efforts to "pass" are something that Peola should be ashamed of and are maybe even some kind of affront to God, born of a hubris to be something more than what God intended her to be. I've seen this idea also touched on in Show Boat and one or two other films I'm not remembering right now. It was certainly easy enough for white writers to put those words into the mouths of black actors. But it's unacknowledged that "passing" led to better lives for a lot of people. Many years after his death, it was discovered that George Herriman, the cartoonist who created Krazy Kat, was a black man who passed as white from adolescence on. There was a wonderful biography about him recently. This may have been a poorly kept secret among his colleagues in the newspaper business, who appear to have known or at least suspected the truth, and while never calling him out on it, endlessly teased him about his kinky hair (he wore a hat constantly in public to hide it), but in general, almost no one, probably not even his wife and children, knew the truth. He had financial success and career opportunities that would have been denied him if his ethnicity was common knowledge.

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Yes! I agree with so much you have to say. Bea offering 20% stake to Delilah, and Delilah not even wanting to accept for fear Bea is "sending her away" and doesn't want her anymore. Bea berating her daughter for calling her black, as you said. Even Delilah rubbing Bea's feet after the party. (Not to mention Louise Beavers was raised in Pasadena but had to put on a stereotypical accent for the role.) 

I also have a lot of issues with the way the film was marketed. I found ad after ad after ad naming Claudette Colbert, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks, Warren William, and even all the children - and then somehow entirely excluding Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington. It was also often just marketed as a romance / love triangle and nothing more.

For me, the final straw when I knew I had to make a second video about this film, was when I found multiple articles/letters written by black groups and black individuals who named ways they felt this film reinforced negative black stereotypes. And Fannie Hurst responded to them by simply saying they didn't understand her story. 

Some of the controversy around Imitation of Life reminded me of the Green Book controversy this year, and it was a little disheartening to see some things haven't changed in 85 years...

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Certainly one of the jarring things I've noticed in my many years of watching TCM is that in the classic movie era, actors and actresses who were not white, and especially ones who were black, are almost always listed waaaaayyy down in the credits, regardless of the size of their roles. Look at how many names you have to get through before you find Dooley Wilson in Casablanca or Hattie McDaniel in pretty much anything she was in, if she got listed at all.

Fredi Washington's peformance is amazing, and it's unfortunate the character (renamed Sarah Jane) was played by a half European-Jewish/half-Mexican actress in the remake. Similar to Jeanne Crain playing a black woman passing for white in Pinky, powerful as I think her performance was. 

Green Book has been pigeonholed by certain groups as a "white savior" movie, in which one or more black characters are dependent on a white character for some sort of self-validation or redemption. Everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to Dangerous Minds to The Blind Side to Dances with Wolves has been labeled a "white savior" movie over the years, and regardless of the quality of any of those films on an individual basis, there's a backlash against the idea that any movie of this type should ever be made again by a very vocal portion of society. 

I don't know how true Green Book was to real life. I do know there are contradictory reports about its accuracy depending on whom you listen to. The son of the white character was one of the co-writers of the screenplay, I believe, and presented things differently than the family of the black character believed they happened. The great director Spike Lee, who already felt he suffered indignity when Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture in the same year he put out Do the Right Thing, felt doubly wounded when another race-mix chauffeur movie (albiet one with the roles reversed) took home Best Picture when his movie BlacKKKlansman was also up for consideration. I believe he said something like it was the wrong movie to win Best Picture in these times.

I don't want to turn this thread political. Just repeating some of the things I've heard or read. I like looking at old (and new) films, flaws and all, as part of the way we want to tell stories in certain ways in certain eras.

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Sewhite, Delilah not having a full partnership in the pancake business was HER idea.  It was how the character was shaped.  Remember, her "share" of the profits were put in trust for the future. And too, that "for white guys" line about the party band's musicians is a favorite of mine too.

And white-black race relations in movies seems to be a "no-win" situation.  For decades, white film makers were criticized for how black people were portrayed and/or treated in Hollywood movies.  And now, decades later(and over that time) white film makers are still being criticized when white characters treat black characters decently or assist them out of situations of oppression with all that "white savior" swill. 

As soon as ALL people realize that simply existing doesn't entitle them to anything, it'll be a better world to live in.

Sepiatone

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Last version...1959.  It's 60 years old and no remake yet.  Someone must be slipping. :P

(everything else on Earth is remade :wacko:)

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It's been awhile since I've watched both films. The 1959 version is the one I first was exposed to on the old AMC, around 1990. My grandparents were very racist (and I mean VERY racist) so I was surprised they'd be willing to sit down and watch. I watched it with them and while it seemed dated (in the early 90s), I was drawn into the story.

I didn't glimpse the 1934 original until about ten years later, and I liked it better. The relationship between the two women seems more realistic to me in the first version. It doesn't matter if they are starting a pancake business or selling shoes, I just feel they are in sync and that whatever they put their minds to, they're bound to be a success. The Sirk production has Turner's character as the more successful one out of the gate, and the black woman is almost more of a hanger-on. So that aspect doesn't work for me in the remake. I feel the women are more equal in the first picture.

Also, despite the story with Colbert's character and the man played by Warren William, I feel as if Colbert's soul mate is really Beavers. I am not saying there is a lesbian undercurrent per se, but I really don't think they need a man. They have each other, their daughters, and their business. So it makes the story a bit more daring and potent. And when Beavers dies, I feel the loss of the character a bit more, because it's not so much about a disapproving daughter who lost her mother, but it's about a grown woman who's lost her best friend and life companion.

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3 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

It's been awhile since I've watched both films. The 1959 version is the one I first was exposed to on the old AMC, around 1990. My grandparents were very racist (and I mean VERY racist) so I was surprised they'd be willing to sit down and watch. I watched it with them and while it seemed dated (in the early 90s), I was drawn into the story.

 

They hated the '59 remake because it was a colored version? ;):P

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7 minutes ago, hamradio said:

They hated the '59 remake because it was a colored version? ;):P

They didn't hate the film. That's what surprised me. They would never have black people into their home. Yet, they watched that film and enjoyed it. But I think the 1959 version upholds a lot of stereotypes, which made it easier for them to like. My theory.

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3 hours ago, Sepiatone said:

Sewhite, Delilah not having a full partnership in the pancake business was HER idea.  It was how the character was shaped.  Remember, her "share" of the profits were put in trust for the future. 

 

Some might argue that this is another way to reinforce the power structure and make white people feel better about it. Like, "we give black people every opportunity, but see, they just don't want things like we do. They're happier as our housekeepers, etc." 

And TopBilled, I agree about Colbert and Beavers. No undertones, as you say, but one of the most progressive parts of the film is their friendship and having other priorities before a husband. 

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19 hours ago, TopBilled said:

They didn't hate the film. That's what surprised me. They would never have black people into their home. Yet, they watched that film and enjoyed it. But I think the 1959 version upholds a lot of stereotypes, which made it easier for them to like. My theory.

I understand your grandparents.  I have a WHOLE SIDE of family like that.  They even kind of ostracized me because I had a heated disagreement about their desire to, "Put 'em all on a boat and sink it, or just ship 'em back"  which was being voiced on a Christmas Eve gathering.  It wasn't bad enough (or just enough) to HATE African-Americans, but to feel the need to eliminate them, and express it on the eve of the celebration of the birth of the "prince of peace" just seemed so absurd to me I couldn't let it pass without saying something.  

Sepiatone

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1 hour ago, Sepiatone said:

I understand your grandparents.  I have a WHOLE SIDE of family like that.  They even kind of ostracized me because I had a heated disagreement about their desire to, "Put 'em all on a boat and sink it, or just ship 'em back"  which was being voiced on a Christmas Eve gathering.  It wasn't bad enough (or just enough) to HATE African-Americans, but to feel the need to eliminate them, and express it on the eve of the celebration of the birth of the "prince of peace" just seemed so absurd to me I couldn't let it pass without saying something.  

Sepiatone

Thanks. 

I found this note in the AFI catalog about the 1934 version, where the production code office tried to intervene and change the mixed ancestry aspect of the story:

Correspondence in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library reveal that the AMPP was reluctant to approve Universal's original script because they felt that "the main theme is founded upon the results of sex association between the white and black race (miscegenation), and as such, in our opinion, it not only violates the Production Code but is very dangerous from the standpoint both of industry and public policy."

Also objectionable was a lynching scene in the original script in which a young African-American man is nearly hanged for approaching a white woman whom he believed had given him an invitation. In a memorandum for the files, the AMPP noted that they met with Carl Laemmle, Jr. and Universal Assistant General Manager Harry H. Zehner, and "emphasized the dangers involved in treating this story as regards to the possibilities having to do with negroes. It was our contention that this part of the plot-the action of the negro girl appearing as white-has a definite connection with the problem of miscegenation.

We pointed out that not only from the picture point of view of the producer himself, but also from the point of view of the industry as a whole, this was an extremely dangerous subject and surely to prove troublesome, not only in the south, where it would be universally condemned, but everywhere else. The lynching scene in this story was discussed with the understanding if used at all, would be considerably modified. The producer suggested that to avoid the inference that the leading character was a descendant of a white ancestor, they would definitely establish that her white skin was due to a rare but scientific fact that such a child might come of a line of definitely negro strain.

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There is a line of dialogue in at least one of the two versions (maybe both?) indicating that Peola/Sarah Jane's father was extremely light-skinned. 

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I should mention this while the thought is with me.

In 1968, daytime television writer Agnes Nixon was trying to sell her concept for a new soap opera (to be called All My Children). ABC was not interested in it, though the network would change its mind two years later.

In order to get All My Children on the air, Agnes Nixon had to create another soap first, one that was more in line with what the network wanted. And that soap opera would be One Life to Live, which debuted in '68. This was at the height of the Civil Rights Era in America. So one of the main storylines had to focus on a young black character, in this case a female named Carla Gray.

As viewers found out during the show's initial year on the air, Carla's real name was Clara, and she was passing as white. Her mother was a dark-skinned woman who worked as a housekeeper for the town of Llanview's wealthy WASPy white family. 

The Carla Gray storyline, which was groundbreaking for daytime television, was clearly a ripoff of the IMITATION OF LIFE plot. Actress Ellen Holly, who played Carla/Clara on the soap from 1968 to 1985, sat down and did an interview with the Television Academy Foundation.

In the interview Ms. Holly discusses the early stages of the story, and how she felt she and the other African American cast members were being used as a sort of circus freak show with this storyline. She alleges it was done to exploit the Civil Rights movement and garner ratings that would help Nixon sell the show she was more interested in doing (All My Children). She likens it to a classic case of bait and switch. She didn't feel as if they were able to tell the kinds of stories about mixed ancestry that should have been presented. Basically it was all a big stunt/gimmick.

https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/ellen-holly

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I don't know about the first version, but it's mentioned very early in the 1959 version when Annie and Lora first meet at the beach.  Lora is surprised that Annie is Sarah Jane's mother, thinking she was the nanny

Lora/Lana:  "Sarah Jane is (gasp) your child?'

and Annie explains:

"Sarah Jane favors her daddy.  He was practically white."

"He left before she was born."

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1 hour ago, sewhite2000 said:

There is a line of dialogue in at least one of the two versions (maybe both?) indicating that Peola/Sarah Jane's father was extremely light-skinned. 

I remember it in the second version.

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1 hour ago, TopBilled said:

Thanks. 

I found this note in the AFI catalog about the 1934 version, where the production code office tried to intervene and change the mixed ancestry aspect of the story:

Correspondence in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library reveal that the AMPP was reluctant to approve Universal's original script because they felt that "the main theme is founded upon the results of sex association between the white and black race (miscegenation), and as such, in our opinion, it not only violates the Production Code but is very dangerous from the standpoint both of industry and public policy."

Also objectionable was a lynching scene in the original script in which a young African-American man is nearly hanged for approaching a white woman whom he believed had given him an invitation. In a memorandum for the files, the AMPP noted that they met with Carl Laemmle, Jr. and Universal Assistant General Manager Harry H. Zehner, and "emphasized the dangers involved in treating this story as regards to the possibilities having to do with negroes. It was our contention that this part of the plot-the action of the negro girl appearing as white-has a definite connection with the problem of miscegenation.

We pointed out that not only from the picture point of view of the producer himself, but also from the point of view of the industry as a whole, this was an extremely dangerous subject and surely to prove troublesome, not only in the south, where it would be universally condemned, but everywhere else. The lynching scene in this story was discussed with the understanding if used at all, would be considerably modified. The producer suggested that to avoid the inference that the leading character was a descendant of a white ancestor, they would definitely establish that her white skin was due to a rare but scientific fact that such a child might come of a line of definitely negro strain.

MIND BOGGLING! :(

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1 hour ago, TopBilled said:

I should mention this while the thought is with me.

In 1968, daytime television writer Agnes Nixon was trying to sell her concept for a new soap opera (to be called All My Children). ABC was not interested in it, though the network would change its mind two years later.

In order to get All My Children on the air, Agnes Nixon had to create another soap first, one that was more in line with what the network wanted. And that soap opera would be One Life to Live, which debuted in '68. This was at the height of the Civil Rights Era in America. So one of the main storylines had to focus on a young black character, in this case a female named Carla Gray.

As viewers found out during the show's initial year on the air, Carla's real name was Clara, and she was passing as white. Her mother was a dark-skinned woman who worked as a housekeeper for the town of Llanview's wealthy WASPy white family. 

The Carla Gray storyline, which was groundbreaking for daytime television, was clearly a ripoff of the IMITATION OF LIFE plot. Actress Ellen Holly, who played Carla/Clara on the soap from 1968 to 1985, sat down and did an interview with the Television Academy Foundation.

In the interview Ms. Holly discusses the early stages of the story, and how she felt she and the other African American cast members were being used as a sort of circus freak show with this storyline. She alleges it was done to exploit the Civil Rights movement and garner ratings that would help Nixon sell the show she was more interested in doing (All My Children). She likens it to a classic case of bait and switch. She didn't feel as if they were able to tell the kinds of stories about mixed ancestry that should have been presented. Basically it was all a big stunt/gimmick.

https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/ellen-holly

Was Clara in All My Children or One Life to Live?

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1 hour ago, Hibi said:

Was Clara in All My Children or One Life to Live?

The character of Carla/Clara (portrayed by Ellen Holly) was an original legacy character on One Life to Live. I am not aware of any crossovers she made on All My Children

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Ellen Holly's memoir makes interesting reading for those who remember her from One Life to Live. Her family knew they were descendants of a Carolina plantation owner. She makes a point of emphasizing the importance of the black middle class as it existed during the time of segregation. Her family members were much better educated than mine, that's for sure.

I'm not a fan of the 1959 Imitation of Life, which seems one of the weaker Douglas Sirk films. Lana Turner and John Gavin are much less interesting than Claudette Colbert and Warren William. Susan Kohner does her best, but the authenticity of Fredi Washington counts for more. Hollywood simply didn't know what to do with Fredi Washington, but at least she had the one great role.

 

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7 hours ago, TopBilled said:

Thanks. 

I found this note in the AFI catalog about the 1934 version, where the production code office tried to intervene and change the mixed ancestry aspect of the story:

Correspondence in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library reveal that the AMPP was reluctant to approve Universal's original script because they felt that "the main theme is founded upon the results of sex association between the white and black race (miscegenation), and as such, in our opinion, it not only violates the Production Code but is very dangerous from the standpoint both of industry and public policy."

Also objectionable was a lynching scene in the original script in which a young African-American man is nearly hanged for approaching a white woman whom he believed had given him an invitation. In a memorandum for the files, the AMPP noted that they met with Carl Laemmle, Jr. and Universal Assistant General Manager Harry H. Zehner, and "emphasized the dangers involved in treating this story as regards to the possibilities having to do with negroes. It was our contention that this part of the plot-the action of the negro girl appearing as white-has a definite connection with the problem of miscegenation.

We pointed out that not only from the picture point of view of the producer himself, but also from the point of view of the industry as a whole, this was an extremely dangerous subject and surely to prove troublesome, not only in the south, where it would be universally condemned, but everywhere else. The lynching scene in this story was discussed with the understanding if used at all, would be considerably modified. The producer suggested that to avoid the inference that the leading character was a descendant of a white ancestor, they would definitely establish that her white skin was due to a rare but scientific fact that such a child might come of a line of definitely negro strain.

WOW. I had read something of a lynching scene but never knew what it entailed nor about the actual meeting with Junior. I'm a little confused exactly what the statement means though/I can't quite decode it: "emphasized the dangers involved in treating this story as regards to the possibilities having to do with negroes." What does this mean in regards to the lynching scene?

And they absolutely do make a point to say that Peola's father was light-skinned too, but I still think that just reinforces that at some point a child was born of a black and white parent. How would that statement change that?

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10 minutes ago, antoniacarlotta said:

WOW. I had read something of a lynching scene but never knew what it entailed nor about the actual meeting with Junior. I'm a little confused exactly what the statement means though/I can't quite decode it: "emphasized the dangers involved in treating this story as regards to the possibilities having to do with negroes." What does this mean in regards to the lynching scene?

And they absolutely do make a point to say that Peola's father was light-skinned too, but I still think that just reinforces that at some point a child was born of a black and white parent. How would that statement change that?

Trying not to misinterpret, especially since I have not read the original script...but I would think they objected to the lynching scene because it would cause the audience to sympathize too much with the black characters in the movie. Plus it would "justify" why Peola felt she had to hide being black, if she associated with whites in a friendly manner-- because she too could become a victim of a hate crime. 

In terms of the so-called dangers of depicting these scenarios on screen, the production code office appears to be afraid this would open up a national discussion about the treatment of blacks in America. Seems to me they went out of their way to eliminate these scenes to prevent an open dialogue about race relations. Am I interpreting this fairly? 

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