Whenever the film “Imitation of Life” is recycled on cable television or is part of retrospective of Black cinema, it is usually the 1959 version starring Lana Turner with Juanita Moore as her Black co-star. But the other day on TCM, the older version, produced in 1934 with Claudette Colbert in the lead role showed her accompanied by Louise Beavers. No matter the version you see, the stereotypes abound, and the Black women do the best they can with the roles they have chosen. It had been some years since I had seen the earlier version, but my views remained the same, although it did provide me an opportunity here to examine Beavers’ film career. Some years ago, I profiled Ms. Moore.
Beavers was born on March 8, 1902, in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was eleven when her family moved to the Los Angeles area. Her mother was a voice teacher and when Beavers enrolled at Pasadena High School, joining the choir at her church was inevitable. However, it wasn’t so inevitable that the classically trained young singer would eventually become part of an all-female group called the “Lady Minstrels” with performances on the vaudeville circuit. Her addiction to the stage soon outran her earlier interest in becoming a nurse.
Along with her occasional appearances on stage, Beavers was supplementing her income as a maid and was soon employed as the personal maid and assistant to Paramount star Leatrice Joy and subsequently to actress Lilyan Tashman. These chores put her in easy proximity to movie productions and during several of these she was able to secure walk-on parts or cameo roles. It was during one of these roles that she was spotted by a talent agent and offered a more visible role in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1927. Other opportunities followed, though in a very limited capacity and hardly removed from the background scenery.
Beavers, as was outrageously showcased in one scene from “Imitation of Life,” possessed a sunny disposition and was able to present a smile a mile wide that never failed to endear her to photographers and producers. This rosy outlook proved infectious and earned her roles in a succession of films with such luminaries as Mary Pickford in “Coquette” in 1929; Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong” in 1933; and with Jean Harlow in “Bombshell,” also 1933. In each of these films there was at least one scene in which she was absolutely dominating, and this set the stage for her outstanding portrayal of a grieving and then dying mother in “Imitation of Life.”
A year after her stints with Harlow and West, Beavers got the part of Delilah, the housekeeper in “Imitation of Life” that would accelerate her career, even as it anchored in a number of servile, obsequious parts. She was Fredi Washington’s darker-skinned mother, and, in effect, continued a pattern of the tragic mulatto scenario, if it didn’t entirely establish it. The film chocked with a plethora of heartbreaking moments where the tension between mother and daughter is unrelieved. None of the scenes are more gripping and memorable than when she arrives at school to fetch her daughter to discover she had been passing as white. From this first harrowing moment it was easy to see that the path ahead wasn’t going to improve but get worse.
Beavers’ prolonged deathbed scene is one that is most commented on by critics, and many believed she deserved an Oscar for it. The praise did not bring the awards or accolades that should have propelled her to greater opportunities, instead there was more of the same, more demeaning, less than respectful roles. But to survive, she had little choice other than to turn down the parts. Ironically, it would be her close friend Hattie McDaniel, in the role of a servant, who would become the first African American to earn an Oscar nomination and the award for Supporting Actor in “Gone With the Wind” in 1939.
Meanwhile, Beavers, the relentless trooper, was able to obtain parts that had a little more integrity to them, including sharing the screen with singer Bing Crosby in “Holiday Inn” in 1942 and later as Gussie with Cary Grant in “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” in 1948. She perhaps gained her greatest exposure to African American viewers in 1950 with her portrayal of Jackie Robinson’s mother in the biopic of the famed baseball immortal. If you missed her on screen, it was possible to catch her on television in the sitcom “Beulah” with Butterfly McQueen as Oriole. A recurring role in Disney’s “Swamp Fox,” kept a few checks in the mailbox.
In 1957, Beavers made her first appearance on stage in the play “Praise House” and her final films included “The Goddess” in 1958, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” in 1960, and with Bob Hope in “The Facts of Life” in 1960, none of which departed from the roles in which she had been typecast.
She ended her unmarried status in the 1950s but was unable to curb obesity and the onset of diabetes. On Oct. 26, 1962, she died following a heart attack. Beavers was posthumously inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1976.
Find Out More
Off the screen, Beavers was a very private person and to find out more about her early years is quite challenging.
More about her feelings and the roles she was forced to accept are other items worthy of discussion.
Place in Context
Her very productive life nearly stretched across the entire 20th century.
This Week in Black History
Dec. 20, 1860: South Carolina secedes from the Union, precipitating the U.S. Civil War.
Dec. 22 23, 1815: Eminent abolitionist, Henry Highland Garnet, is born in Kent County, Maryland.
Dec. 23: 1867: Madam C.J. Walker, the millionaire, was born in Delta, La.