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Images of Blacks on Film

Monday, January 22, 1979
7:30 p.m. Imitation of Life
John M. Stahl (USA,1934)

Director John Stahl transforms Fannie Hurst’s warhorse tear-jerker into a serious and original statement on the sexual self-containment and child-absorption of a certain species of American womanhood, by-products of Depression independence. The story tells of a black maid (Louise Beavers) and a white widow (Claudette Colbert) whose lives intersect in a scheme to manufacture pancake batter, and whose common bond is a self-manufactured suffering at the hands of their daughters. Miss Colbert’s hypocritical self-sacrifice is presented with amazing objectivity; and the drama of Miss Beavers’ light-skinned daughter who tries to pass for white has a valid desperation that passes by racial stereotypes of the era. From the opening re-creation of a 1919 Atlantic City boardwalk (period solidity is a Stahl specialty) to the unexpectedly uncompromising ending, Imitation Of Life preserves a unity of tone and emotional consistency that are truly remarkable for its genre, and serve as confirmations of the individualistic talent of its unfortunately little-known director.

• Directed by John M. Stahl. Screenplay by William Hurlbut from the novel by Fannie Hurst. Photographed by Merritt Gerstad. With Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Ned Sparks, Louise Beavers, Rochelle Hudson, Fredi Washington. (1934, 106 mins, Print Courtesy of Universal 16)