AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Imitation of Life
Director: John M. Stahl (Dir)
Release Date:   26 Nov 1934
Production Date:   27 Jun--11 Sep 1934
Duration (in mins):   111 or 116
Duration (in reels):   12
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Cast:   Claudette Colbert (Beatrice Pullman)  
    Warren William (Stephen Archer)  
    Rochelle Hudson (Jessie Pullman)  
    Ned Sparks (Elmer Smith)  
    Louise Beavers (Delilah [Johnson])  
    Fredi Washington (Peola [Johnson])  
    Baby Jane (Baby Jessie)  
    Alan Hale ([Martin,] the furniture man)  
    Henry Armetta (The painter)  
    Wyndham Standing (The butler)  
    Marilyn Knowlden (Jessie Pullman, aged 8)  
    Sebie Hendricks (Peola Johnson, aged 4)  
    Dorothy Black (Peola Johnson, aged 9)  
    Clarence Hummel Wilson (Landlord)  
    Henry Kolker (Doctor Preston)  
    G. P. Huntley Jr. (James)  
    Paul Porcasi (Cafe manager)  
    Paullyn Garner (Mrs. Ramsey)  
    Alice Ardell (French maid)  
    Walter Walker (Hugh)  
    Noel Francis (Mrs. Eden)  
    Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Carven)  
    Tyler Brooke (Tipsy man)  
    William Austin (Englishman)  
    Edgar Norton (Butler)  
    Alma Tell (Mrs. Carven)  
    Lenita Lane (Mrs. Dale)  
    Barry Norton (Young man)  
    Joyce Compton (Young woman)  
    Reverend Gregg (Black minister)  
    Edna Bowdoin (Black secretary)  
    Daisy Bufford (Black waitress)  
    Ethel Sykes (Party woman)  
    Monya Andre (Party woman)  
    Curry Lee (Black chauffeur)  
    Claire McDowell (Teacher)  
    Norma Drew (Teacher)  
    Madame Sul-Te-Wan (Black cook)  
    Stuart Johnston (Black undertaker)  
    Fred Toones (Person at funeral)  
    Hattie McDaniel (Person at funeral)  
    Hayes Robinson (Person at funeral)  
    Martin Turner (Person at funeral)  
    Libby Taylor (Person at funeral)  
    Elizabeth Jones (Person at funeral)  
    Bessie Lyle (Person at funeral)  
    Julius Molnar (Footman)  
    William B. Davidson    
    Gay Seabrook    
    Bruce Warren    

Summary: After her husband's death, Beatrice Pullman continues his maple syrup business and hires Delilah Johnson to take care of her home and daughter Jessie. Delilah moves in with her daughter Peola, who, although she is light-skinned, is black like her mother. After tasting Delilah's delicious pancakes, made from a family recipe, Bea uses her gumption and ingenuity to open Aunt Delilah's Pancake House. The restaurant is a success and they are finally able to live comfortably, but Peola grows up resenting her heritage, as she feels it separates her from the rest of society. On the suggestion of vagrant Elmer Smith, Bea boxes the pancake mix, and hires Elmer as her manager. Bea prints Delilah's likeness on every box, and the business becomes a multimillion dollar corporation. Although she makes twenty percent of the profits, Delilah chooses to stay on as Bea's maid. At a party celebrating the tenth anniversary of the business, Bea meets ichthyologist Stephen Archer, who is a friend of Elmer. Bea and Stephen fall in love and make plans to marry, but decide to wait until Jessie meets him. Jessie returns home for a vacation from college, but Bea asks Stephen to look after her as she is compelled to go to Virginia with Delilah to find Peola, who has run away from college. In Virginia, Delilah finds Peola working at a restaurant that prohibits black customers. Peola bitterly denies knowing Delilah, and runs out of the restaurant. She returns home briefly, however, where she disowns Delilah so that she can lead a non-segregated life. In the meantime, Jessie has fallen in love with Stephen, although he has given her no encouragement, and thinks of her as a mere child. Peola's departure proves too much for Delilah, who becomes gravely ill. On her deathbed, Delilah asks Bea to take care of Peola should she ever return. Peola attends Delilah's funeral, and becomes overwhelmed by her own selfishness and the loss of her mother. Bea takes her home, and in time Peola agrees to return to college. Acknowledging Jessie's love for Stephen, Bea postpones their wedding indefinitely until Jessie no longer loves him, so that there will be no obstacles. Stephen promises to wait, and Bea and Jessie reminisce about the time when their beloved Delilah first arrived. 

Production Company: Universal Pictures Corp.  
Production Text: A John M. Stahl Production
Distribution Company: Universal Pictures Corp.  
Director: John M. Stahl (Dir)
  Scott Beal (Asst dir)
  Fred Frank (Asst dir)
Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr. (Prod)
  Henry Henigson (Assoc prod)
Writer: William Hurlbut (Scr)
  Victor Heerman (Addl dial)
  Finley Peter Dunne Jr. (Addl dial)
  Arthur Richman (Contr wrt)
  Preston Sturges (Contr wrt)
  William Hurlbut (Contr wrt)
  Walter Ferris (Contr wrt)
  Bianca Gilchrist (Contr wrt)
  Victor Heerman (Contr wrt)
  Samuel Ornitz (Contr wrt)
  Finley Peter Dunne Jr. (Contr wrt)
  Sarah Y. Mason (Contr to trmt)
Photography: Merritt Gerstad (Photog)
  Alan Jones (2d cam)
  Paul Hill (Asst cam)
  Warren Munroe (Gaffer)
  Murray Rock (Best boy)
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall (Art dir)
Film Editor: Philip Cahn (Film ed)
  Maurice Wright (Film ed)
  Maurice Pivar (Supv film ed)
Music: Heinz Roemheld (Mus dir)
Sound: Gilbert Kurland (Sd supv)
  Joe Lapis (Mixer)
  Jack Bolger (Mike man)
Special Effects: John P. Fulton (Spec eff)
Make Up: Jane Romaine (Hair)
  William Ely (Makeup)
Production Misc: Archie Hall (Tech dir)
  M. F. Murphy (Prod mgr)
  Fred Buckley (Grip)
  Jerry Vernon (Grip)
  George Schuman (Grip)
  Ernest M. Smith (Props)
  Cora Palmatier (Scr clerk)
  Bernice Boone (Secy)
  Mary West (Children's welfare worker)
Stand In: Etta McDaniel (Stand-in for Louise Beavers)
  Emily Bolman (Stand-in for Rochelle Hudson)
  Alma Johnson (Stand-in for Sebie Hendricks)
  Alameda Johnson (Stand-in for Sebie Hendricks)
  Barbara Boone (Stand-in for Juanita Quigley)
Country: United States

Source Text: Based on the novel Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst (New York, 1933).
Authors: Fannie Hurst

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Universal Pictures Corp. 22/11/1934 dd/mm/yyyy LP5115

PCA NO: 412
Physical Properties: b&w:
  Sd: Western Electric Noiseless Recording

 
Genre: Melodrama
 
Subjects (Major): Maids
  Mothers and daughters
  Racial impersonation
  Racism
  Self-sacrifice
  Women in business
 
Subjects (Minor): Death by shock
  Engagements
  Funerals
  Generation gap
  Ichthyologists
  Maturation
  Parties
  Restaurateurs
  Runaways
  Schoolteachers
  Self-reliance
  Vagabonds
  Wealth
  Widows

Note: 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."
       On 22 Mar 1934, AMPP director Joseph I. Breen sent a memo to Will H. Hays at the MPPDA updating him on Imitation of Life , and informing him that the studio was considering dropping the story. Breen sent the script to Maurice McKenzie, Executive Assistant to Hays, who, in addition to noting problems with words and phrases such as "nigger," "Mah Lo'dy" and "Lo'd help," disagreed that the film dealt with miscegenation as "the act of miscegenation has occurred so remotely in the ancestry of the characters that it need not concern us." Nonetheless, he continued that "We here share your concern over the attempt to discuss a racial problem of this nature on the screen, and it is our earnest hope that you will be able to persuade the company to abandon its plans for production." A 3 Jul memo reveals that Dr. James C. Wingate of the AMPP met again with Harry Zehner and John Stahl, who requested written approval of the script. Wingate demurred, as the AMPP still had not received a complete script and they felt that "the real problem involved in the script occurs in the last part of the story." He further noted that he "discussed with Mr. Stahl the word 'nigger.' He advised me he would not use the word, 'nigger,' with the possible exception of one or two places in the script, and there he will be fully protected. He intends to use the terms 'black'--'colored'--'darky'--and 'negro.'" Although by 17 Jul the picture had been shooting for two weeks, Breen continued to refuse to approve the script, stating that "it is our conviction that any picture which raises and elaborates such an inflammable racial question as that raised by this picture, is fraught with grave danger to the industry, and hence is one which we, in the dispensation of our responsibilities under the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation of the Production Code, may be obliged to reject."
       Baby Jane changed her name to Juanita Quigley during production. According to a news item in DV , Paul Lukas was originally wanted for the role of "Stephen Archer," but Warren William was borrowed from Warner Bros. instead. A news item in HR noted that the film was doing a "stand-out business" at the Roxy theatre in New York, where "the Sunday jam resulted in a call for the police and fire departments to keep the waiting crowd in order." The Var review stated that the "most arresting part of the picture and overshadowing the conventional romance...is the tragedy of Aunt Delilah's girl born to a white skin and Negro blood. This subject has never been treated upon the screen before....It seems very probable the picture may make some slight contribution to the cause of greater tolerance and humanity in the racial question." The Literary Digest review notes that "In Imitation of Life , the screen is extremely careful to avoid its most dramatic theme, obviously because it fears its social implications....The real story [is]...that of the beautiful and rebellious daughter of the loyal negro friend....Obviously she is the most interesting person in the cast. They [the producers] appear to be fond of her mother, because she is of the meek type of old-fashioned Negro that, as they say, 'knows his place,' but the daughter is too bitter and lacking in resignation for them." Imitation of Life was nominated for Best Picture at the 1934 Academy Awards. Modern sources report that the African-American press viewed this film unfavorably, and that Louise Beavers was assisted by the NAACP in influencing the filmmakers to delete the word "nigger" from the screenplay. A modern source includes Dennis O'Keefe (then known as Bud Flanagan) as a dance extra. Universal released a remake in 1959 based on the same source, directed by Douglas Sirk, and starring Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner (see below). 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Daily Variety   24 Jul 34   p. 1.
Daily Variety   7 Aug 34   p. 1.
Daily Variety   13 Sep 34   p. 6.
Daily Variety   3 Nov 34   p. 3.
Daily Variety   22 Nov 1934.   
Film Daily   23 Nov 34   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   7 Jul 34   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Sep 34   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   27 Nov 1934.   
Motion Picture Herald   1 Dec 34   p. 39, 42.
MPSI   Feb 35   p. 27.
New York Times   24 Nov 34   p. 19.
Variety   27 Nov 34   p. 15.

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