Imitation of Life


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Melodrama master John M. Stahl brings his exquisite restraint and almost spiritually pure visual style to this devastating, enduringly relevant story of mothers and daughters. Imitation of Life explores the friendship between two struggling single mothers: one (Claudette Colbert) a working-class white woman who ascends to the top of the business world, the other (Louise Beavers) her Black housekeeper, whose life is shattered by the rejection of her rebellious, white-passing daughter (Fredi Washington). It is this latter relationship—attuned to America’s bitter racial realities and heartbreakingly enacted by trailblazing Black performers Beavers and Washington—that lends the film its transcendent emotional power. This first adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s best-selling novel boldly confronts the complexities and contradictions of racial identity, economic exploitation, and the limits of the American dream.

Picture 8/10

The Criterion Collection presents John M. Stahl’s Imitation of Life on Blu-ray, delivering the film in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode has been sourced from a 4K restoration performed by Universal Pictures, taken from a scan of a 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain.

Considering how Criterion is going out of their way to release their own edition featuring Stahl's film all by its lonesome I was expecting this to be an all-new restoration, yet it becomes immediately clear that this presentation is from the same restoration/master Universal used for their own Blu-ray edition (that also features Douglas Sirk’s 1959 remake). It appears Criterion has performed further restoration (as the notes point out), removing some of the minor marks that were found on Universal's presentation. A number of minor imperfections do remain in the form of slight flickering, minor scratches and wear along the sides of the frame, but these blemishes are easy to ignore are certainly to be expected considering the age of the film. I’d say despite these ultimately minor “issues” still existing the film comes out looking remarkable, all things considered.

That further work is all well and good, though I don't know if I can say that alone adds up to a major improvement over the old Blu-ray when all is said and done. If there is one area where I do find Criterion's new presentation improves notably over Universal's it is in the area of the encode. Criterion affords the film a larger file size since it now has the whole disc to itself, Criterion’s file size running about 32GB whereas Universal’s runs about 21GB, and I’d have to think that plays a little into how both presentations turn out. When it comes to Universal’s presentation it can come off incredibly noisy due to what I can only assume is bad compression, the grain suffering most from it, looking digital and blocky much of the time. Criterion’s presentation cleans this up a significant amount, things no longer coming off off as buzzy. Criterion’s encode still isn’t perfect mind you, showing some noise in a few areas, but it’s possible this is baked into Universal’s master since that disc still shows the same thing, if worse. And even if Criterion’s isn't perfect it still manages to clean up other artifacts present on the old disc. For example, minor shimmering artifacts that appear in tighter patterns (like a polka dot dress worn by Louise Beavers) on Universal’s disc no longer show up here. I also found contrast to also look a little better in this presentation, opening up the range in the grays, even if just by a little.

Though those digital improvements are all nice and lead to a cleaner image it all still doesn't lead to a meaningful boost when it comes to detail within the picture: it still has plenty of fuzzy shots and the finer details rarely pop. That said, this has more to do with the original photography, the condition of the film elements, or a combination of both, than anything caused by the encode.

All said even if Criterion is using the same restoration Universal did the improvements found here deliver a visibly cleaner image that comes out looking a bit less digital and more like a film in comparison to the old disc.

Audio 6/10

The film’s monaural audio, offered in lossless single-channel PCM, is a product of the film’s age but comes out sounding reasonable enough. There is a background hiss that can get quite heavy at times, coming off more like a crackle in places, but there are no obvious pops or drops even if the music can come off a bit distorted and edgy in here and there. Dialogue on the other hand sounds surprisingly sharp and clean for the most part, and there is some remarkable range to be found thanks to the fact it doesn’t sound as though any heavy filtering has been applied.

It is what it is but it still sounds surprisingly good.

Extras 6/10

Even if Universal’s release isn’t the comprehensive edition it could have been this new one feels like an odd one for Criterion to put out, especially since it doesn’t really best Universal’s edition all that much. I also must admit in finding it odd Criterion would release Stahl’s version over Sirk’s more popular take of the same material (or over releasing both together as Universal did), even if some, like Pauline Kael, prefer Stahl’s over Sirk’s. But, as suggested by a new introduction featuring Imogen Sara Smith, it could be due to Criterion feeling that Stahl needs a bit of a reassessment on his own, despite Leave Her to Heaven, and they felt it was best to devote the disc solely to his film and leave Sirk out.

Smith, who also provided an introduction of sorts for Criterion’s release of Leave Her to Heaven (inexplicably the only feature on that disc outside of the trailer), covers some of the same ground here when she goes into his known background and early films, but her focus moves on to Imitation of Life and her feelings on it deserving a reassessment after being labeled as nothing more than a “women’s weepy” for so long. It’s here that she looks at the film’s story, characters and structure (bringing up the novel as well) before noting its more progressive attributes alongside its (many) problematic/dated aspects revolving around its depictions of race and identity, leading to other interesting topics in turn. The most interesting of these may be related to how Joseph Breen and the Production Code initially wouldn’t let the film be made due to the fact that the very existence of the character of Peola suggested that there had been an interracial relationship somewhere in the family’s lineage, which was a “no-no” (Smith points out that racial slurs were also not allowed by the Production Code, but it all came down to them not wanting to offend anybody, including racists). How Universal and Stahl eventually got around this is unknown.

Smith’s conversation then turns to Stahl’s style and signature touches, arguing that there is more to his work than most give credit, before turning briefly to Claudette Colbert and Sirk’s remake. As usual Smith serves up a lot of material despite the brief 24-minute runtime, but it’s a shame Criterion didn’t have her do a commentary instead (or any commentary for any of their titles yet for that matter).

Criterion then includes another new interview, this one with Miriam J. Petty, author of Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood, which runs 20-minutes. Petty does get briefly into what it meant to be a Black actor in early Hollywood and being limited to roles that were nothing more than stereotypes usually (she gets more into this in an interview found on Criterion’s High Sierra) and how this relates to Imitation of Life’s Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington. But the primary focus of this feature is more around what is essentially the film’s “B-plot” (which is far more interesting than the film’s main plot around a pancake empire that was gained through questionable means) involving Peola (Washington) “passing” as White, Petty comparing the reality of “passing” to how its depicted in the film. She points out the problematic aspects of the film’s portrayal (like the film suggesting Peola should be punished for wanting to be treated the same as any White citizen) alongside some positives in other areas, and I also appreciated her pointing out sequences that have always rung completely false, like the moment where Delilah (Beavers) naively goes marching into Peola’s classroom to pull her out. Petty branches out to related topics to offer up a fantastic portrait of the time, even touching on how Black audiences reacted to the film. This last part then leads her to talk a bit about Hollywood’s continuing insistence on framing Black stories around White characters, Greenbook being a recent example. I found it a very strong inclusion offering up more context around the film and the portrayal of its characters.

The disc then closes with the same trailer found on the Universal disc, which, as the included notes explain, was targeted towards Black audiences (I’m guessing the one targeting White audiences is lost). Petty then provides a lengthy essay on the film in the included insert, which is not a summarization or repeat of her on-disc interview, Petty focusing  on Stahl’s portrayal of gender, labor, and race in the film. It makes for a good read.

In all the new features are thoughtful and fair in their assessments of the film and Stahl’s handling of the material, Criterion mostly accomplishing what they intended, I’m sure. Yet I still couldn’t help but feel the edition is a bit of an oddity since it still pales in the face of Universal’s disc that features both films. The fact is the extras on this edition don’t even total 50-minutes and Criterion oddly leaves out Avery Clayton’s audio commentary found on Universal’s disc. The disc also mysteriously excludes one of Criterion’s staple features: the “Timeline.” They’ve excluded it on other titles, I assume at the director’s insistence (definitely the case for Lynch’s films, possibly for Baumbach’s Marriage Story), but I can’t see why they would exclude it here. It is a weird thing for me to get hung up on I confess, and its absence of course doesn’t negatively affect any other aspect of the release (it still has the option to resume from where you left off and still lists chapter stops), but it’s just such an odd thing to leave out and further lends the release a rushed feel.


Criterion’s edition is okay when taken on its own, yet I am still a bit puzzled around why they decided to release  a new edition only featuring Stahl’s when Universal’s also includes Douglas Sirk’s remake. Even if the presentation for the 1934 film does look moderately better when compared to Universal’s, Criterion is still using the same base restoration that Universal’s disc did, and the features, as good as they are, still leave one wanting. Despite this new disc's notable strengths and improvements I guess I feel the Universal release is the better deal.


Directed by: John M. Stahl
Year: 1934
Time: 110 min.
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1167
Licensor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Release Date: January 10 2023
MSRP: $39.95
1 Disc | BD-50
1.33:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 New interview with Miriam J. Petty, author of Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood, about the resonance of Louise Beavers’s and Fredi Washington’s performances   New interview with Imogen Sara Smith, contributor to The Call of the Heart: John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama, about director John M. Stahl and his work with actor Claudette Colbert and others   Trailer   An essay by Miriam J. Petty