Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Social Critic's Dream

In every women's studies class I took in college, the film Imitation of Life came up -- a remarkable achievement for a film that was over 40 years old at the time. I still haven't seen either version (there were two: one with Lana Turner and one with Claudette Colbert), but when I found the book the movies were based on, by Fannie Hurst, at a library used book sale, I snapped it up.

I finished it earlier today, and am curious to see the movie now, although the book wasn't all that great. The book tells the tale of Bea Pullman, to whom tragedy visited early and often. Bea grew up in Atlantic City, and the warmth of her nuclear family was shattered at 17, when her mother died. Her father decided that she should marry their lodger, Mr. Pullman, because it "wouldn't look right otherwise" (in the first of many holes in the story, since having lodgers was a common practice in their community). The marriage lasts about eight months before Mr. Pullman is killed in a railway accident, just long enough for Bea to get pregnant and for her father to have a debilitating stroke. Forced into supporting her family, she hits upon the idea of continuing to operate her late husband's maple-syrup sales business.

It is at this point that she meets Delilah, who she hires to take care of her baby and her father. Delilah's story mirrors Bea's: roughly the same age, widowed with a young daughter. The key difference, of course, is that Delilah is black. Delilah moves in, and their business takes off and becomes a national corporation. The two find material success, but (as is the point of the book, I guess) never happiness.

Social critics could not dream up a better character than Delilah in discussing stereotypes of black women. She is one through and through. She knows her place (we know this because she tells Bea over and over again that she knows her place). She puts the needs of Bea's daughter before her own. She works hard, but declines all earthly rewards, even though Bea offers again and again. Even when the company is raking in millions of dollars, she won't even accept a raise from her original salary. Her rewards, as she says over and over, will come in the afterlife.

Delilah's saintliness is rewarded by her own daughter disowning her. This is another aspect of the movie that the social critics love, although it's played down in the book (the story truly belongs to Bea). The back of the book promises that Delilah's daughter "turns bad, runs away from home, passes for white and breaks her mother's heart." The last two, definitely. But she doesn't "run", she's sent away for tutoring and elects not to return. She becomes a librarian and marries a white man who is a mining engineer, hardly anyone's definition of "turning bad", now or in 1933.

I guess the title of the book refers to Bea's life (although with the minimal returns Delilah got for her work, it could also refer to hers). Although Bea has an acquaintance who is both a successful businesswoman and attractive, Bea does not keep herself up. She has no true friends and does not attend social functions. When she does finally fall in love, it takes her weeks to make her awkward pass at the man in question, who rebuffs her. But at the same time, it's hard to see what choice Bea had. As a teenager, she'd always intended to marry and have children as social norms dictated. The alternative was thrust upon her by circumstance, and as the book noted repeatedly, success has its own momentum. Once she got started, she couldn't really stop. But you're not encouraged to admire Bea's hard work, or her ingenuity. You're supposed to feel sorry for this wealthy, successful woman, because she does not have a husband.

I would never go so far as to say I regret reading a book, but I wouldn't really recommend this one. It probably filmed very well (and I suspect they made substantial changes which made the story better). As it is, the book is very slow-moving, with the tale of Bea not really cranking up until around page 70 or so (in a 280-page book). It's also not terribly well-written. I suspect it was sort of the Valley of the Dolls of its day, and it hasn't aged terribly well. I like the idea behind the project, of reissuing long-out-of-print books that classic films were based on. But in this case, this rare case, the movie is probably better.

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