Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Imitation of Life, Part I (John Stahl 1934)

(Click here for information on the 2013 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As three of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. First up, the June selection, Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life)


Fannie Hurst is one of those authors from the first half of the 20th century who was a wild commercial success in her day, yet has subsequently vanished from the public consciousness in the years since her death. She is probably best known to classic movie fans, and adaptations of her work give you the idea of the depth and breadth of her popularity; films include Humoresque (versions in 1920 and 1946), Four Daughters (1938, followed by two sequels and the 1954 remake Young at Heart), Back Street (versions in 1932, 1941 and 1961) and Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959).

While Hurst was popular with the public (reportedly she was the highest-paid short story writer of the interwar years), she was decidedly not a critical darling. “It happens every two years… the new novel by Fannie Hurst… Book critics moan. The public buys it like mad” reported Newsweek in 1944. If she has any reputation at all in the new millennium, it on the strengths (and the weaknesses) of the films, “women’s pictures”, melodramas, three-hankie weepies. The movies listed above mined Hurst’s stories for their sentiment, and usually discarded the gritty realism that is the dark side of those oceans of tears.

The three versions of Imitation of Life (the novel and the two movies) are all entirely different entities unto themselves. And they all have a lot going on. I am starting with the 1934 film, because it really does pare the story down to the essentials: two mothers, two daughters and a lot of maternal sacrifice.

The film opens with widow Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) struggling to balance caring for her young daughter while carrying on her late husband’s business as a maple syrup distributor. Relief arrives in the form of Delilah Johnson, a Black domestic who has mistakenly taken the wrong streetcar on her way to a job interview: Delilah instantly ingratiates herself into the struggling household, over Bea’s objections that she cannot afford a housekeeper, Delilah suggests that she can’t not afford to have one, especially once Bea’s daughter Jessie hits it off with her own daughter, Peola. Quickly glossed over by Delilah is the fact that White employers have been loath to keep her on, as Peola’s light complexion makes them nervous.

Delilah shares her secret pancake recipe with Bea, who has a brainstorm: despite her lack of capital, she wheels and deals her way into a piece of prime real estate on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, and she sets up shop and quickly becomes a local sensation. Delilah’s image becomes her Aunt Jemima-like logo.

Delilah Imitation of Life 1934

The years pass, the pancake recipe is packaged as a mix and the now-wealthy Bea moves into posh digs with her family, including her ever-faithful servant and business partner. While Bea is courted by the suave and urbane ichthyologist (!) Steven Archer (Warren William), things are not going as happily for Delilah and the college-aged Peola (Fredi Washington). Delilah receives word that Peola has left the southern teacher’s college she has been attending, prompting the two mothers to go in search of her. They finally find her working as a hostess in a café, having successfully “passed” as White. Peola is alarmed by the intrusion of the two women into her life and denies that she knows Delilah, let alone is her daughter. Delilah is heartbroken, but Peola insists that her mother forsake any claim to her, insisting she is going to keep running until her mother gives up searching for her.

Back in New York, Steven has followed Bea’s request to look after Jessie while she is home from college. While they wholesomely have dinner and take in some shows, Jessie has developed a hopeless crush on the older man, which scuttles Bea’s plans to announce their engagement upon her return. Bea sends Steven back to the bottom of the sea, explaining that Jessie will meet lots of age-appropriate boys when she returns to college and forget about her infatuation,  and then and only then can they be reunited.

In the meantime Delilah is inconsolable over her abandonment by Peola and becomes grievously ill, and eventually dies. Bea fulfills her life-long wish for an elaborate funeral, at which Peola appears, hysterical with remorse that she has “killed my own mother”. It is truly a scene that could wring tears from a stone.

While the basic elements of Hurst’s novel are all there, it lacks the depth of characterization of the novel. The biggest change is that the movie lops off the first third of the book, which describes Bea’s early life and marriage, and sets up her subsequent motivation that drives her business empire. Delilah doesn’t even show up until chapter 15, and the love interest gets his first mention in chapter 25.

Traumatized by the death of her mother as a teenager, Bea’s father arranges a marriage to their boarder, Mr. Pullman, to preserve a sense of decency in the community. Pullman runs what is repeatedly described as a “ketchup-and-relish concern” which involves giving demonstrations on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. As a sideline, he distributes maple syrup to the local restaurants and hotels. Tragedy strikes: first her father has a stroke, rendering him almost completely paralyzed, and then Mr. Pullman is killed in a train derailment. Newly pregnant and forced to support her invalid father, Bea is forced to face the question “What happened to girls thrown on their own resources?”

The answer comes when Bea discovers a box of her late husband’s business cards, which only carry his initial “B. Pullman”. Rationalizing that it’s not really lying in representing herself as B. Pullman, since that IS her name, she nonetheless starts practicing her signature in the style of her late husband’s handwriting.

Bea turns out to better at selling maple syrup than her husband ever was, and is able to eventually earn enough to hire help to care for her daughter and father. As Hurst economically puts it: “So, Delilah and Peola”.

Delilah proves an invaluable asset to Bea’s business, starting with taking a rejected batch of maple sugar and turning it into a profitable batch of candy, and then becoming the face of Bea’s expanded business, making waffles-to-order first at a church fair, and then in a restaurant on the Boardwalk.

Bea’s rise in the restaurant business in meteoric, as she expands into New York City, Philadelphia and Boston. The families move to Manhattan, first living in a modest apartment in Harlem, and then a tony residence on Central Park West.

Delilah is essential to Bea, both as a partner is her business (Delilah has become a beloved celebrity as the face of the restaurant chain) and as Bea’s only friend and confidante. Bea has never really gotten over the death of her mother, and her restaurants become her ceaseless attempt to recapture the domestic bliss of her parents’ marriage.

B. Pullman, the business, is in a state of constant expansion, as the restaurants begin opening across the country and Bea goes in on a real estate development project with cosmetics magnate Virginia Eden (read: Elizabeth Arden).

Delilah and Peola’s story is sidelined in favor of following Bea’s pioneering success as a business woman. The glimpses of the deteriorating relationship between mother and daughter are pretty brutal, however: when Jessie calls Peola the n-word, Bea is horrified that her daughter would use such language, but Delilah refuses the apology on Peola’s behalf, reasoning that she’s going to have face the world as it is.

As the girls grow up, Jessie is sent away to boarding school, as Bea is determined to give her daughter everything she never had. Peola initially enrolls at Howard University, but abruptly leaves and takes a job in Seattle. She becomes involved in a relationship with a white man and she returns only to beg her mother to cut all ties with her, assuring her that she’ll never hear from her again as she and her fiancé are moving to Bolivia.

Delilah is devastated by the loss of her daughter, and begins donating her considerable savings to Civil Rights organizations as “atonement”, causing the first rift in Bea and Delilah’s friendship: Bea is unable to comprehend that Delilah is waging a crusade to improve race relations to the point that her daughter will return to her, and she dies without seeing this dream fulfilled.

Bea is also distracted by the presence of Frank Flake, a man eight years her junior that she had hired on as a bookkeeper, but who has proved to be invaluable as her personal manager. Bea abruptly becomes infatuated with “young Flake” as he is referred to, and they begin a tentative courtship, although Flake’s intentions are clear only in Bea’s mind, leading her to plan on selling the business and finally building her dream house on the piece of real estate that has sat empty for so many years, as Jessie is finally due to return from her Swiss boarding school.

Hurst undercuts the melodrama of the final scene by giving away the ending before the actual dénouement: the reader is let in on the fact that it will be Jessie who marries Flake and moves in to the dream house, where Bea will be an infrequent visitor, constantly traveling as her restaurants continue to expand into Europe and the Orient.

Her long-absent daughter coldly explains the facts of life to her mother:

“He’s a terrible lover, Ma. Doesn’t know his own mind. Blows hot. Blows cold. In God’s mortal awe of you. Temperamental as a barber. Would escape if he could. Couldn’t if he would. Wouldn’t if he could. But I love him and he loves me. Relieve his terror, parent; give us the maternal blessing with caution or I may pass out of the pressure of too much happiness.”

That is some Veda Pierce-level of ingratitude!

Bea is rendered speechless, but makes the ultimate maternal sacrifice, only able to think

They were so young, standing there… so right…

Twenty-five years after John Stahl brought the novel to the screen, Douglas Sirk completely overhauled Hurst’s story (he was decidedly not a fan of the novel). In 1959 the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and despite the glossy production values, that fact is reflected in the second version of the film.

To Be Continued…

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5 Responses to Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Imitation of Life, Part I (John Stahl 1934)

  1. Carrie Laben says:

    Was “groundbreaking food-industry businesswoman with ingrate daughter” an entire subgenre, or is it just this and Mildred Pierce?

    • mondomolly says:

      I am really starting to wonder- I was totally not expecting this to be so similar to Mildred Pierce, but it is, right down to the scene where Bea/Mildred realizes that she has to start wearing a girdle to disguise her middle-age spread and keep Frank/Monty interested.

      Is there a restaurant in Stella Dallas? If there is I’m calling it a subgenre.

  2. Rachael says:

    I failed to finish this one. If I had been able to find it in paperback, maybe, but having downloaded it on Kindle I was pre-empted by a small child’s desire to play Angry Birds. Trying again with Coffee, Tea, or Me?

    • mondomolly says:

      Totally! Coffee Tea or Me is still in print, but any garage sale or thrift store usually has at least 8 copies.

      I could see how it would be difficult to get through in electronic form, Angry Birds aside. Lines like

      “True, it had repeatedly occurred to Bea to ask herself, following that day shortly after her fourteenth birthday when the physical fact of her coming of menstrual age had frightened her so terribly that she had sobbed all through her mother’s clumsy attempt at explanation, how on earth it was possible to even imagine two such people as her parents ever coming together in a way to conceive her, their child.”

      on the very first page make it essential to thumb ahead and see if the whole thing is going to be so overwrought.

      Also you should totes watch the 1959 movie 🙂

  3. ninyabruja says:

    Peola has a hysterectomy to ensure that she’s not discovered to be passing.

    Fannie Hurst was Zora Neale Hurston’s employer/patron.

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