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Passing Films and the Illusion of Racial Equality

Author(s): Karen M. Bowdre

Source: Black Camera, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring 2014), pp. 21-43
Published by: Indiana University Press
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Accessed: 30-08-2016 09:43 UTC

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Passing Films and the Illusion of Racial

K ar e n M. B owd r e

This essay considers prominent films, including Imitation of Life (1934, 1959) and
Lost Boundaries (1949), that examine the topic of passing. Social problem films deal-
ing with race were often viewed as progressive and thought to tackle the issue of rac-
ism. However, I argue that in its focus on passing, Hollywood made an empty gesture
toward racial equality. The majority of Blacks cannot pass as White, so examining this
issue was superficial. Moreover, passing narratives did not challenge the racial hier-
archy in the United States but encouraged those at the bottom to stay in their place. In-
dustry practices such as casting decisions also played an important role in these films.
While ostensibly these movies should have provided opportunities for more Black actors
and actresses, except for the casting of Fredi Washington in 1934 in Imitation of Life,
Hollywood continued to cast White actors exclusively in Black roles. In fact the Produc-
tion Code Administration (PCA) was so alarmed about Washingtons appearance and
real-life ability to pass that I posit subsequent passing films avoided any PCA censor-
ship problems by not casting Blacks. Through an examination of the PCA files on these
films, I argue that industry practices of racial exclusion from lead roles as well as the use
of passing films continue to shore up the centrality of whiteness in Hollywood cinema.

I n film studies, the advent of social problem films of the 1940smovies

focusing on sensitive topics such as mental illness, racism, and anti-
Semitismis generally regarded as a progressive moment in Hollywood.1
The studios, both major and minor, are viewed as finally having attempted to
grapple with the issue of race. Yet the movies examining race often focused
on the concept of passing, a Black character claiming his or her White heri-
tage while denying any African ancestry.2 While passing does expose the
artificial and fictional nature of race, most written narratives regarding the
practice encourage its Black readers to stay in his/her place.3 Hence, these
stories typically do not challenge racism but merely provide opportunities to
register the problem. Also, as Thomas Cripps remarks when examining Lost

Karen M. Bowdre, Passing Films and the Illusion of Racial Equality. Black Camera, An
International Film Journal, Vol. 5 No. 2 (Spring 2014), 2143.

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Boundaries (1949), passing films focus[ed] on passing rather than race

and placed the Black characters on the rim of the action.4 Thus, in choos-
ing these dramas Hollywood could appear to address race but in actuality
focused on personal stories with melodramatic elements.5
Though passing films could have provided an opportunity for more Black
performers to become part of Hollywood, hiring practices did not change.6
With the exception of Fredi Washington in John Stahls version of Imitation
of Life (1934), White actors and actresses continued to be selected to play
Black people. Moreover, since these stories privilege whiteness, the charac-
ters, especially the Black roles, often re-enforced the U.S. racial hierarchy
with simple dichotomies of Black performers being dangerous or violent and
good Blacks loving perpetual servitude and remaining in their place. Black
characters in these films were often contrasted with their White counterparts
in ways that framed the former as lacking. Moreover, selecting this particular
type of drama allowed filmmakers to draw upon a well-known stereotype
the tragic mulatta.7
Finally, these films were disingenuous in purporting to deal with race
because passing was not an option for most Blacks. The majority of Blacks
can be identified visually, while Black people who pass can do so only be-
cause their visible racial status is ambiguous. Since passing was a crime in
most states, secrecy was paramount to its success. Hence, these factors (se-
lecting passing narratives, creating dramas that replicated racial hierarchy
through performance, and industry practices) demonstrate how challeng-
ing it is to overcome whiteness and institutional practices. Though Holly-
wood ostensibly tried to address race and the changing racial attitudes after
World War II, other forces were also working to maintain the status quo. In
this essay, I map how the casting decisions made in Imitation of Life (1934,
1959), and Lost Boundaries (1949), movies with passing narratives, reflected
the centrality of whiteness by excluding most Black performers from central
roles, effectively preserving racial hierarchies. Through an examination of
the Production Code Administration (PCA) files on these films, I reveal that
the industry practice of racial exclusion in passing films shows that Holly-
wood had no desire to create racial equality in films or hiring practices.

Imitation of Life

Fresh off the success of Backstreet (1932) and Only Yesterday (1933), Stahl
desired to make a more ambitious melodrama, and he was willing to spare
no expense to create an excellent film.8 This desire was realized in Imitation
of Life. As the only director of Universal Studios prestige films, Stahls am-
bition to create a film that would set him apart from other directors made

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K a r e n M . B o w d r e / Passing Films and the Illusion of Racial Equalit y 23

cinematic history. His casting of Fredi Washington, a Black actress (as well
as two child actresses), was the first time a Black actress was selected to play
the role of a passing character. It was also the last time it happened in a Holly-
wood studio film.
Imitation of Life was also the first time Hollywood movie audiences were
exposed to a drama involving passing.9 Directed by Stahl from William Hurl-
buts screenplay based on Fannie Hursts best-selling novel, the film centers
on the relationship between two women, Bea Pullman and Delilah Johnson,
who enter into business together and are White and Black respectively. Both
women have daughters, and the actions of their children significantly impact
their lives. Beas daughter Jessie falls in love with the formers fianc, while
Delilahs daughter, Peola, tries to pass as White.
Though most 1934 audience members were probably familiar with stories
about mulatta or mixed raced women, Peolas journey to the screen was
fraught with tension because it alarmed leaders of the PCA, an organization
created by the film industry to enforce a moral and racial code of conduct
concerning film content.10 Their point of contention with Universal was the
part of the plot involving the action of the negro girl appearing white.11 The
PCA was not just concerned about Peola passing, which was illegal in most
states, but also equally anxious (if not more so) about this white looking
character who had a Black mother. Her physical body (and by extension the
bodies of other Blacks who are not easily discernible racially) was central to
the PCAs anxiety regarding this film. Moreover, this apprehension regarding
passing was heightened on another dimension because the actress playing
Peola was Black.
Since the silent era, White actors and actresses were cast in movie roles
portraying Blacks. This problematic practice not only enabled Whites to
perpetuate Black caricatures but also continued the institutional practice of
avoiding hiring people who were not White. Thus, Stahls decision to cast
Blacks in Peolas part (two young girls and a woman) was unusual. As Jean-
Pierre Coursodon in his study of American directors observes, Stahls selec-
tion of Washington made him unique in Hollywood. Since he had been the
sole director of prestigious motion pictures with large budgets and impor-
tant starts (A films) at Universal Studios and had recent box office success,
Stahl was granted a large budget for this film.12 Some of those expenditures
included the casting call to find not only Fredi Washingtons Peola (she was
selected from a group of three hundred women) but also the actresses to por-
tray the character at the ages of three and seven.13 The search for the seven-
year-old Peola took about three months and the studio was said to have been
combing the town for the right looking young girl.14 Dorothy Black landed
the role of seven-year-old Peola and Sebe Hendricks played the character at
three.15 His decision to cast Blacks in these roles could be attributed to Stahls

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aspiration to add realism to his film. It also demonstrated that Black talent
existed, a fact Hollywood (and other industries) continue to ignore.
Washingtons role may have been viewed as that of a tragic mulatta, a
Hollywood stereotype, but casting her in the role complicated how the char-
acter of Peola was read. Anna Everett notes that many Black audiences re-
sponded so favorably to the fair-skinned Washington because the actresss
own racial identity imbued the character with an authenticating aura unavail-
able to a Caucasian actress attempting to pass for Black attempting to pass
for white.16 Further contributing to understanding Peola as a Black woman
demanding equality was Washingtons real-life outspokenness about racial
bias in Hollywood.17 While those involved in the production of the film may
not have viewed the character as anything more than a stereotype, the PCAs
concerns about the film (and more specifically Peola) almost prevented it
from being made.
It is revealing that the Production Code administrators did not cite
Peolas fair-skinned body or passing as problems keeping the film from be-
ing made, though there was concern about the latter issue. Throughout the
various letters and memos in the voluminous PCA file on Imitation of Life,
the word most often used to declare the PCAs discomfort about the film
was miscegenation. The Code defined miscegenation as a sex relationship
between the white and black races, and its depiction was forbidden at this
time.18 While there were no scenes involving miscegenation in Fannie Hursts
1933 novel or Stahls film, and Peolas father was described in both the novel
and film as a light-skinned Black man, it seems that Joseph Breen and oth-
ers in the PCA understood Peola as being the result of miscegenation and
would have had to reject the film if picturized.19 In her own analysis of the
correspondence between the PCA and the studio, Susan Courtney astutely
observes that Peola threatened to rupture the constellation of discourses
that work to construct the fiction that race is a natural category as well as
the films attempt to visually contain her.20 Part of this visual containment
involves Peolas limited screen time, a change from the original conception
of the role; I argue that this was consistent with casting practices and char-
acter development, which minimized the presence of Black performers. This
analysis will also expose why actresses cast to play mulattas both prior to and
after this film were White.
Valerie Smiths discussion of the mulatta succinctly captures some of the
PCAs apprehension concerning Peolas racially ambiguous body. She states
that the light-skinned black body thus both invokes and transgresses the
boundaries between the races and the sexes that structure the American so-
cial hierarchy. It indicates a contradiction between appearance and essential
racial identity within a system of racial distinctions based upon differences
presumed to be visible.21 Creating visual representations of Black people

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who were not obviously Black moves beyond the fantastic because of what
it disrupts not only on-screen but off-screen as well. While Peola the char-
acter is fiction, the actress who played her is real. And if women like this ac-
tually do exist, the PCA and the audiences they protected may have asked
how many other Black men and women look like this? Hence, Peolas body
troubled the PCA officials because it exposed how race is not fixed and de-
manded that specific historical questions about race that are often avoided,
specifically about light-skinned Blacks, be addressed.
Several PCA file memos reveal concerns about racial hierarchy and its
maintenance. In a March 9, 1934 memo detailing the conference between
leaders from the PCA and Universal, it was said that the script was an ex-
tremely dangerous subject and surely to prove troublesome, not only in the
South, where it would be universally condemned, but everywhere else.22
The danger, according to this memo, is how the presence of this negro girl
appearing as whitehas a definite connection with the problem of misce-
genation.23 Since, according to the Code, miscegenation does not occur in
this screenplay, it is her White appearance, the fact that she is passing, and
an actress who can embody this woman that would disrupt discrete racial
categories. This issue clearly distressed the PCA. If race could not be easily
detected, then relations between Blacks and Whites would not only be af-
fected in the South but throughout the nation.24 The power of the visual also
necessitates an explanation for this character: How or why does she look the
way she does? Though fictional stories about mulattas/os circulated in the
United States and there was an awareness of how/why people could look like
Peola, confronting the reality of the actress who plays this character as well
as the racial issues that surround her were at the heart of the PCAs concern.
In another interoffice memo to Breen, J. B. Lewis stated that this script
is based wholly on the suggested intermingling of blacks and whites and, al-
though it has no actual case in point, the entire plot evolves on miscegena-
tion which is outlawed under the code.25 For the PCA, any aspect of the story
that focused on Peola, whether her body or passing, would have been cause
for anxiety. In the film Peolas incidents of passing were less than ten min-
utes and her time on screen was less than twenty minutes total. And though
Bea and Delilah discussed and reacted to Peolas passing, Imitation of Life
was not solely focused on miscegenation. However, Lewiss reduction of the
film to this one topic points to how the screenplay was altered.
Though earlier drafts of the script are not available, it appears one of the
ways Peolas part changed was that her character was given less screen time.26
PCA concerns delayed production of the movie in early May, but in April
there were rumors in a Black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, that Wash
ington was cast for the role of Peola as an adult. Quite a few papers, both
Black and majority, noted it was a lead role and the part was important and

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pivotal in the film.27 Yet Washingtons actual screen time in the film was not
significant.28 Information from the PCA file reveals that a lynching scene was
removed from the screenplay. In that scene, a young negro buck lets his lust
get the best of him and he believes that a white girl has given him a come
on signal.29 The white girl is Peola and when the young man is about to be
attacked (presumably by White men) for his actions, Peola reveals that she
is Black, which results in the end of the attempted lynching.30 Interestingly,
this lynching scene was not in the novel and perhaps was included for sen-
sational effect. It is no surprise that the PCA viewed it as very controversial
and continued to suggest removing it. During one of many rewrites, Uni-
versal did remove this scene. Though there is not more specific information
about this or other deleted scenes, this is an example of how Peolas screen
time diminished.
Universal did attempt to placate the PCAs concerns about Peola. A
March 26, 1934, memo revealed one way that film producers could explain
Peola and maintain racial difference. The producer suggested that to avoid
the inference that the leading character was a descendant of a white ancestor,
they would definitely establish that her white skin was due to a rare but sci-
entific fact that such a child might come of a line of definitely negro strain.31
This attempt to avoid the historical realities of how light-skinned Blacks came
into existence discloses one of the central concerns the PCA had regarding
the making of this film. While in the twenty-first century machinations like
these seem ludicrous, they make clear that the PCAs desires were to support
prevailing ideas about race. The scheme to develop dubious scientific racial
facts to assuage any concerns the audience might have had could not deflect
anxiety about having a Black woman who looked White play this role. There-
fore, as negotiations continued between the PCA and Universal, the lead-
ing part of Peola was given less and less screen time.
More evidence for the PCAs seeking to limit Peolas role is found in a
memo from Alice Evans Field to Breen. Field was the director of the depart-
ment of studio and public service and served as a liaison between the studios
and organized womens groups.32 Field wrote that the only really gripping
and dramatic thread in the story is that of Peolas anguish and her old moth-
ers heartbreak over the whole miserable, unsolvable situation. She noted the
difficulty of removing this aspect of the story, and that doing so would render
the motion picture colorless while she was well aware it seemed impossible
to the PCA for this material to be permitted on screen. Her suggestion was
to have Peola die or sumpin early in the struggle.33 If the script had been
altered in this fashion, Peola may have died as a child or shortly after reach-
ing adulthood. Killing off the character would produce what the PCA seems
to have wanted, which was to remove or significantly shorten the time audi-
ences saw Peola.

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The character Peola is unique cinematically because her actions do not

clearly connect her with other more prominent Black female stereotypes.34
Though Peola could be characterized as a tragic mulatta, many Blacks read
Washingtons portrayal as rejecting racism and the second-class status it
placed upon Blacks as opposed to Peolas denial of her race. Also, Peola is
neither a mammy nor Jezebel, and her tragedy does not involve a White male
lover as is the norm. What makes the issue of Peolas passing intriguing is
that the character is not sexualized and has intelligence. She is also singu-
larly focused on having a better life, which could be viewed as a threatening
quality for a woman of any race.35
Since this character looks White, it is interesting that Peola is not sexu-
alized. The ambiguity of her looks, specifically the fact that she looks White,
makes it possible for Peola to not carry the traits or stereotypical notions of a
Black woman. One reason for Peolas unusual portrayal is the alarm over the
actresss body. The concern regarding this characters ability to pass made the
film controversial and caused the filmmakers to move attention away from
her body. Whether Peola appears at Beas party, at the cigar shop or prior to
her leaving her mother, she is modestly and stylishly dressed.36 However, at
the party Bea is wearing an evening gown. It is the first time the audience
sees Bea as a glamorous woman. If Peola was sexualized or made to appear
glamorous, this would bring back to her body the focus that the PCA was
trying to avoid. Moreover, if her character were alluring, she could be at-
tractive to the films significant White male characters. A romantic relation-
ship between a Black woman and a White man would have been a violation
of the Code and racial attitudes of the time.37 Regardless of the reason, con-
sidering the hegemonic ideologies about Black women that typically char-
acterized them as salacious, Peolas characterization is unusual.

Figure 1. Imitation of Life (dir. John Stahl, Figure 2. Imitation of Life (1934): Note that
1934): Peola preparing to pass again. Peolas attire resembles Beas.

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Passing involves being able to manipulate othersin Peolas case, she

misleads Whites about her racial identity. When Peola and Jessie are young
girls, Bea makes the observation that Peola is smarter than Jessie, and then
Delilah, consistent with the mammy stereotype, makes a self-deprecating
statement about how Blacks become dumb later in life.38 Thus, Peola is smarter
than some Whites in the film, which is a highly unusual trait for a Black
female (or male) character. The racial ideologies of the 1930s (and before
and since this time as well) portrayed Blacks as lacking intelligence. There-
fore, Peolas passing could be viewed as a mark of her social intelligence as
it demonstrates her recognition of the benefits of white privilege. Not sur-
prisingly, being aware that she can orchestrate her situation in life by pass-
ing, Peola does not desire to take on the subservient role her mother per-
forms.39 She sees the advantages that Bea and Jessie enjoy and knows she can
obtain those privileges by manipulating others. Unfortunately, the script only
presents Peolas efforts to pass as misguided and mischievous.40 As a young
girl in grade school, all of her White classmates and teacher assume Peola is
White; she does not correct them. If her mother had not come to class to
bring Peola an umbrella, Peola would have continued to pass.41 By making
her passing merely a penchant for deceit, the film undercuts Peolas intelli-
gence, minimizes racial inequality, and demonstrates her lack of morality.
Thus, the ideology of the film dictates that while Peola may be smarter than
Jessie (and other Whites) her wit will be squandered on manipulating Whites
about her race. Though it is never stated in the movie, passing was a criminal
offense in some states. Moreover, if Peola were to continue this facade, she
might marry a White man, and be guilty of another crime.
Since the film does not deal with the political, social, or economic rami-
fications of passing, it becomes Peolas personal problem.42 Reducing passing
to lying returns Peola to a characterization that was consistent with stereo-
types of Black women. She is a liar, and depicting her as such conforms to
normative portrayals of Black women without moral character. The script
never considers that Peolas intelligence causes her to understand how lim-
ited her options in life are as a Black person and that passing increases her
chances for a comfortable economic and social life. Considering that Peolas
character is drawn in this unusual manner makes it more evident that her
portrayal by a Black woman would challenge ideas about blackness because
the role does not neatly fit into common narratives about Black women.
Universal Studios was able to finally make the film because Peolas ac-
tivities take place off screen and emphasis throughout the film is shifted
to her mother, Delilah. Peolas time at college, running away from college,
and her return to college are not shown in the film. While Peola, her pass-
ing, and her appearance may have transgressed all conventions and expec-

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tations, Delilah is the personification of the southern mammy. Delilah is a

kindly, reassuring caretaker who is devoted to the White family she serves.
Her devotion, though consistent with the stereotype, is so exaggerated that
it prohibits Delilah from partaking in the American Dream. The fear of not
being able to serve the Pullmans motivates Delilah to refuse to accumulate
wealth or buy her own home. Conversely, Peola destabilizes the American
racial hierarchy, and her presence exposes the fiction of race. As Courtney
argues, the focus on Delilahs character is necessary because it controls the
potential threat of Peola. Delilahs servility is supposed to assure White audi-
ences that her daughter will eventually no longer try to pass. However, Wash
ingtons portrayal is so effective and unsettling that Hollywood did not cast
Black women in passing roles in the future.43
Fifteen years after Stahls film two movies returned to the idea of pass-
ing as a compelling story. The experience of Black Americans in the war be-
came a catalyst for demanding racial equality. While Lost Boundaries and
Pinky (1949) are viewed by some Blacks as Hollywood making efforts toward
equality, selecting passing narratives and the casting decisions undermined
this goal. Moreover, the increased screen time these White actors/actresses
received in comparison to Washingtons role coupled with the PCAs changed
attitude toward passing characters demonstrate how White performers play-
ing Black roles removed the threat that Washingtons earlier presence posed.

Lost Boundaries

This movie depicts the story of Scott and Marcia Carter, a Black couple so
light-skinned they can pass as White. However, the Carters, unlike Marcias
parents, do not want to pass; they plan on living and working with Blacks.
Unfortunately, Scott cannot find work, and with Marcia pregnant he decides
to pass temporarily. Later he is given the opportunity to work as a small town
doctor in New Hampshire. Scott and Marcia along with their two children
live a quiet life until their secret is discovered. The Carters must tell their
children and their neighbors their true racial identity.
Lost Boundaries was the second of four social problem films examining
race released in 1949.44 Though the movie does grapple with racism, it has
difficulty exposing the problems of institutionalized racial privilege because
Hollywood created (and continues to create) images that show the natural
superiority of Whites and almost exclusively cast Whites in lead roles. One
of the reasons the film is unable to tackle structural racism within its own
narrative is because it perpetuates the problem through casting. The use of
White actors in Black roles was so naturalized at this time that no Black ac-

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tors or actresses were even considered for the leads in the film. When a treat-
ment of the film was approved by MGM in May 1948, there were rumors that
Van Heflin, a White actor, was mentioned as a probable star.45
The PCA file on Lost Boundaries is revealing in what is not said. The file
is not very long and the screenplay was approved by Breen with few altera-
tions. Unlike the Peola character in Imitation, there were no efforts or sug-
gestions from the PCA to minimize the role of the Carters. Perhaps this was
because when members of the Carter family interact with Whites, there is no
intimacy. Most interactions between the Carters and those outside of their
family are formal business contacts or during town gatherings. Though their
teenaged children, Howard and Shelly, have been dating Whites, in the die-
gesis of the film the PCA did not deem their behavior as questionable.46
Though there was silence about the movies casting from its producers,
Black actors and actresses were not quiet on the matter. Actor Monte Haw-
ley wrote an open letter to a theatrical editor that appeared in the Pittsburgh
Courier, a weekly Black newspaper, that attacked Hollywoods casting poli-
cies. Hawley would have been well known to Black movie and theatre go-
ers because of his twenty-six years in theatre and film.47 Because of his ex-
perience and age, Hawley felt he would have been an ideal candidate for the
role of Scott Carter. After years of not being cast in roles because he was too
light, he thought this film was a dream come true for him. Hawley noted
how Imitation of Life cast Fredi Washington in the role years ago, and he did
not understand the democracy of the studios testing Whites who look Ne-
groid for the role.48 Hawley argued that by using Whites in lead roles, pro-
ducers and directors were fabricating a hoax of the story they are trying so
hard tomake.49
Two weeks after the Pittsburgh Courier article appeared, the Chicago De-
fender examined the casting issue in a piece titled White Is Black in Holly-
wood. Lillian Scott interviewed several actors, actresses and producers who
all lamented the situation and noted that if the industry had seriously tried to
find Blacks to fill the roles in Lost Boundaries and Pinky, there were plenty of
performers from whom they could choose. Similar to Hawley, Fredi Wash
ington stated that the films casting undermined the potential social impact of
these movies and went onto to describe the unjust and cowardly nature of
this policy. Knowing firsthand how Black performers were rejected for roles
because they are too fair to play Negro characters convincingly, Washing
ton was not surprised by these events.50 After Imitation of Life, she took part
in two other Hollywood films. Unfortunately, concern about her color kept
her from getting roles, and she went to New York to perform on stage.51
The Whites-only casting policy worked to maintain hegemonic notions
of whiteness. The actors and actresses (Mel Ferrer, Beatrice Pearson, Richard

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Hylton, and Susan Douglas) cast in Lost Boundaries were not established per-
formers, so their selection was not based on audience familiarity. The PCA
did not have issues with the story or script, and unlike with Imitation, there
was no sense of alarm about passing or miscegenation in this film. Thus, the
decision to cast White performers appears bound up in past industry prac-
tices in spite of the fact that producer Louis de Rochemont was shooting the
film independently.
While Hollywoods casting policy was known to some Black commu-
nities, it was largely unknown outside of the industry.52 Not having Blacks
in the lead roles subtly communicated to audiences (and the industry) that
there were no qualified performers of African descent. There was also a belief
that most Whites would not be as sympathetic to the characters if the per-
formers were Black.53 Finally, it was demoralizing to Black actors/actresses
because even when the narrative was centered on Blacks, these performers
could only acquire secondary roles.54
In Lost Boundaries, white hegemony operates by having the few Black
characters speaking more than a line or two portrayed as exceptional Blacks.
Scotts mentor, Dr. Charles Fredrick Howard (Emory Richardson), and his
best man and medical partner, Dr. Jessie Pridham (Rai Saunders), are doctors
who are leaders in their communities. Scotts son, Howard/Howie, interacts
with Blacks, including a friend from college, Art Cooper (William Greaves),
who is the son of a judge, and the police lieutenant, Dixie Thompson (Canada
Lee). Other Black parts show people of African descent in a more negative
Scotts first obstacle comes from a Black doctor at the hospital where he
is supposed to intern. Despite Scotts recommendation from Dr. Howard, Dr.
Cashman (Maurice Ellis) tells Scott that he cant have the job because south
ern applicants are preferred. However, the audience perceives it is because
Cashman thinks Scott is White. Prior to Scotts going into Cashmans office,
the latter views Scott without his knowledge from the office window, and
both nurses believe Scott is White. Naturally, Scott is shocked by this rejec-
tion because Dr. Howard had secured this position for him. And even after
Scott protests that he has rented a place and brought his pregnant wife with
him, Cashman does not honor his promise to Dr. Howard.
Having Scott experience racial bias first at the hands of African Ameri
cans works to downplay White supremacy. This scenario presents racism as
a universal problem common in Black and White communities. There is
no examination of power relations within and outside of these communi-
ties or an analysis of White privilege.55 Scotts problem, like Peolas, is per-
sonal; should he pass as White or work in another profession because hospi-
tals with White clientele and doctors will not hire him? While Scotts reasons

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for passing are not sinister, with the focus of the drama on the Carter family,
the film avoids any acknowledgment of Scotts (and Marcias) real reasons for
passing and the practices and institutions that bar Scott from employment.
Another means by which the movie downplays the effects of racism and
White privilege is by having women embody blatant racism. In one scene
the town is giving blood to the navy as part of the war effort. Miss Rich-
mond, a White nurse, does not want to accept the blood donated by some-
ones chauffeur because hes Black. When Dr. Carter challenges her racism,
she drops the jar containing the blood. Another racist incident occurs at a
town dance. One of the townswomen, Abby, refuses to serve refreshments to
Howies Black friend, Art. The reaction of the other women to Abby is to at-
tempt to ignore her behavior by looking away. While these womens actions
may expose their bias, neither are leading figures in the town or appear to in-
fluence town opinion. However, it is apparent that their actions are not iso-
lated. Though they are the exceptions in the film, such attitudes simply work
to sustain racial bias, not merely socially but economically and politically as
well. The two characters seem to represent racial prejudice, yet they are dis-
missed in ways that could be read as the town of Keenham being progressive
and tolerant with only a few problem people. Presenting Keenhams racial
problem through these two characters also frames the idea of civil rights as
being a natural evolution, with the local citizens needing only a gentle prod
to do the right thing, while in reality these changes did not occur without
struggle and confrontation of the status quo.
A critical moment occurs when Scotts naval commission is revoked be-
cause the navy has discovered his true racial identity. Heightening the ten-
sion, Scotts son Howie has also signed up for the navy and now must be
told he is African American. The movie alludes to Scotts reasons for join-
ing the navy as completely patriotic; he heard from his friend that the fight-
ing on the Pacific front requires more doctors. The audience also knows that
Scott is aware of the Navys policy regarding Black servicemen; they serve as
Stewards Mates and are only able to serve White naval officers their meals.
Nevertheless, the question remains why would Scott apply for this commis-
sion and put himself at risk of exposure? Since Scott is framed as being a de-
cent and noble person, the audience is led to believe that his patriotism got
the better of his judgment or that he hoped his skills were so spectacular his
race would not be considered, or, more sinisterly, he now believes his own
lie that he is White.
Neither Howie nor Shelly takes the news about being African Ameri
can well. Howie runs away while Shelly ceases to be her bubbly self and
breaks off her relationship with White boyfriend Andy (Carleton Carpen-
ter).56 Howie goes to Harlem in order to learn more about Black people. Later,
he has a nightmare in which each of his family members becomes recogniz-

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Figure 3. Lost Boundaries (dir. Alfred Werker, Figure 4. Lost Boundaries:... and becomes
1949): In Howies nightmare his mother visibly African American.

ably Black. After this dream, Howie changes from the person he was earlier
to a disheveled and disoriented young man.57 Unable to sleep, Howie walks
around Harlem and attempts to stop a fight. The assailant escapes and Howie
is there with the injured party and the gun. He is brought to the police sta-
tion for questioning and wont reveal his identity. It is only after his encoun-
ter with other exceptional African Americans (Lt. Thompson and his friend,
Art) that Howie returns to his former self.
While the audience can empathize with the Carters dilemma of choos-
ing to pass, Scott and Marcia are held responsible for lying to their children
and their community. In spite of their noble ideals and Scotts work in a Black
clinic in Boston, the Carters become tragic mulattoes because they have de-
nied their racial heritage. Their punishment for this racial transgression is
the temporary disintegration of their family. Unfortunately, racism is cast as
a personal problem or only something in which petty women engage. The
town of Keenham and by extension the rest of the United States is not impli-
cated in the race problem; racism is addressed, confronted, and overcome by
a simple Sunday sermon. Whiteness is inherently good and fair, with black-
ness a problem. Finally, adding to the centrality of whiteness in the film is
the fact that the protagonists are White, with the Black performers in minor
roles only.

Sirks Remake

By the time Douglas Sirks 1959 remake of Imitation of Life was in produc-
tion, the influence of the PCA had been significantly weakened. Otto Prem-
ingers 1953 The Moon Is Blue was released without the PCA seal of approval

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and performed well at the box office. Subsequent challenges from other film-
makers reduced the Code by 1956 to banning only nudity, sexual perver-
sion and venereal disease.58 Not surprisingly, in this weakened state the PCA
file for the remake is very short. The only concerns found to be unacceptable
were Sarah Janes costume, dance and lyrics when she performs at a gentle-
mans club, violence directed toward Sarah Jane, and some language (not
concerning Sarah Jane).59 While the contrast between the PCAs attitude to-
ward Stahls picture compared to Sirks can be attributed to changes in both
race relations and the Code itself, as has been shown with Lost Boundaries,
replacing White bodies for Black bodies seemed to eliminate apprehensions
the PCA had about passing and/or race.
An intriguing aspect of Sirks film is that he found the Black narrative,
specifically the plight of the daughter, the only interesting facet of the story.
He said that the film was a piece of social criticismof both white and black.
You cant escape what you are. Now the Negroes are waking up to black is
beautiful. Imitation of Life is a picture about the situation of the blacks before
the time of the slogan Black is Beautiful.60 In light of this statement and the
critical praise Sirk received from numerous academics for his progressive vi-
sion, it always struck me how odd it was that the mulatta character in his mo-
tion picture was played by a White actress, particularly in light of Washing
tons casting twenty-five years earlier. However, his selection of Susan Kohner
was completely consistent with almost all Hollywood films using White ac-
tresses to portray mixed-race women.61 Though many Blacks were consid-
ered for the partaccording to production notes nearly one hundred Black
and only five White performers auditionedKohner won the part.62 Sirks
film expands the part of Sarah Jane, the troubled mulatta; in comparison with
Peola, Sarah Janes performance is racialized in ways that make the character
act Black. (Named Peola in Stahls 1934 film, the mulatta characters name
is changed to Sarah Jane in Sirks remake.)
For a character to act Black means conforming to gross stereotypes.
While Peola did have one trait that aligned her with other Black stereo-
typeslyingshe also was intelligent, which was an unusual quality to im-
part to someone of African descent. Sirks Sarah Jane is a Black seductress
who in the words of Edward Mapp is as old as the motion picture medium
itself.63 Sexualizing Sarah Jane not only makes the character very differ-
ent than Peola but also reveals the race of each actress; light-skinned Black
Fredi Washington as Peola troubled PCA officials enough to curtail her role
while White Susan Kohners Sarah Jane has an expanded role where she em-
bodies a Black seductress. The 1959 film also alters the story line of the two
maternal characters. Instead of the two women being in business together,
there is less equality in their relationship with one another: Lora Meredith
(Lana Turner), an aspiring White theater actress, and Annie Johnson (Juanita

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K a r e n M . B o w d r e / Passing Films and the Illusion of Racial Equalit y 35

Moore), a Black domestic, meet and become friends.64 Annie works for Lora
as the latter tries to become a renowned actress. The story arc for Loras and
Annies daughters, Susie and Sarah Jane respectively, is similar to that of the
1934 film as Susie falls in love with Steve, Loras beau, and Sarah Jane is con-
stantly trying to pass.
Sarah Jane is a foil to Peola in that while both characters understand and
desire the privileges of whiteness, they pursue their goals very differently.
While Peola is not sexualized in the film, Sarah Jane is the embodiment of
a seductress. The audiences first glimpse of Sarah Jane as a teen is rather in-
nocuous. Steve Archer (John Gavin), a family friend and Loras former boy-
friend, and Sarah Jane are meeting again after a long absence. However, Sarah
Janes response to him is not that of a young woman to a family friend. She
seems to be trying to beguile Steve with her new look. She appears to be con-
tinuing to entice him until Steves laugh breaks the sexual tension and they
embrace. It is only at that point that Sarah Janes actions toward Steve cease
to be seductive. Her relationship stands in contrast to Susies (Sandra Dee),
who is clearly smitten with Steve. Susie gushes while Sarah Jane seduces. The
inappropriateness of Sarah Janes interaction with Steve is evident not only
by gauging her against Susie but also because Steve is the love interest of
Lora. Though Lora also flirts with men (and has many suitors), Sarah Janes
attempts to flirt are much more exaggerated. And this early flirtation fore-
shadows how Sarah Jane will continue to transgress norms of White middle-
class femininity and use her sexuality to ensnare White men.
Her sexuality is further manifested through her apparel. There are many
bedroom scenes in the film, so the audience views Sarah Jane in fewer clothes
than the other female characters. During a conversation with Susie, Sarah
Jane changes back into her nightgown to continue to feign illness. As she un-
dresses, Sarah Jane tosses her clothes from her body in a way that evokes a
striptease. This provocative spectacle stands out because none of the other
female characters have exposed their bodies so obviously. The voyeuris-
tic scenes mark Sarah
Janes increasing sexu-
ality in the film.
The dissolution of
Sarah Janes relation-
ship with her boyfriend
because of his discov
ery of her race appears
to be the catalyst that
makes her even more
Figure 5. Imitation of Life (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1959): Sarah Jane aggressive in her at-
flirts with Steve. tempts to pass. Though

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she knows Frankie,

played by Troy Dona
hue, is unaware of her
race, she hopes she can
continue the facade
of passing in order to
marry him.65 When
Frankie discovers Sarah
Jane is Black, he beats
Figure 6. Imitation of Life (1959): Sarah Jane reveals her secret her up. After her

to Susie. failed relationship with

Frankie, she works at
a seedy mens club and later in the Moulin Rouge as a show girl. Both of
these scenes are in stark contrast to Washingtons Peola, who passes by other
means. In the Stahl film, Peola leaves college and becomes a salesgirl in a
shop. There is no overt sexual reference in her interactions with her White-
male boss. Peolas ability to pass could have been very disturbing to some
White audiences because she is able to act the part of a White woman so ef-
fectively that Whites around her do not suspect she is Black.
Another contrast between Peola and Sarah Jane is how the latters at-
tempts to pass are consistently associated with White men. Though part of
this difference can be attributed to the PCAs concerns about miscegenation
limiting Peolas interaction with White men, none of her attempts to pass in-
volve seducing men. Peola knows she has fooled Whites as a child and is de-
termined to do so as an adult. Within the narrative of the film, she does not
need a man to acquire the privileges of whiteness. It is this determination
and Washingtons portrayal of her that makes Peola such a distressing char-
acter to some Whites and significantly differentiates her from Sarah Jane.
Sirks changes to Sarah Janethe character appears to be driven to se-
duce White menare consistent with the Black seductress stereotype. Sirk
could have altered Sarah Jane in any number of ways, but chose to animate
her in a way that focuses on her sexuality. Since Sarah Jane is played by a
White woman, her race in the film becomes questionable. In order to make
it clear that Sarah Jane is Black, I argue that her actionsher provocativeness
and deceptiveness to entice White menare what mark her as Black. Though
Sarah Janes desire to marry is consistent with that of most female charac-
ters in 1950s films, she wants to deceive and seduce an unsuspecting White
man into marriage. By emphasizing her sexuality in such an obvious man-
ner, Sirk undercuts Sarah Janes quest for matrimony. Moreover, using de-
ception and seduction also links her to racial discourses about Black women.
Unlike Peola, whose passing could be linked to her intelligence, Sarah Janes
desire to pass is imbricated with the Black seductress stereotype.

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Sarah Janes sexual provocativeness stands out all the more in the sec
ond iteration of Imitation because of Lana Turner. In 1959, Turner was a very
popular movie star known for being sexy while retaining the approachability
of the girl next door. The star text surrounding Turner almost necessitated
that her sexuality be part of the narrative.67 Sirk does deploy this extra di-
egetic text in the story line. Lora tries to get a role in a prominent play. Un-
fortunately, the play is cast, but the agent, Allen Loomis (Robert Alda), is at-
tracted to Lora and asks her out to dinner. Before their dinner that evening,
Lora learns Allen will help build her career if she is willing to sleep with him
and his other clients. Though the movie uses the known allure of Turner,
Lora refuses to comply with the agents demands. While sexuality is one facet
of Loras personality, it is not made explicit, which stands in contrast to Sarah
Janes sexually aggressive or suggestive manner. Throughout the film Sarah
Janes clothing is tight-fitting and she is shown in her nightgown and slip;
none of the other female characters is as exposed as Sarah Jane, nor do any
of them provocatively entice men. In both her presentation and her actions,
Sarah Janes sexuality is excessive.
Sirks changes to Sarah Jane from the Stahl film of 1934 attest to the
strength of hegemonic discursive formations surrounding Black women. The
Sarah Jane of his remake is almost always sexual. Though the character still
struggles with being black and looking white, her sexual nature under-
mines her choices when she passes. When her mother first discovers Sarah
Jane passing as an adult, Sarah Jane claims to be working at the library when
she is really performing in a gentlemens club. The selection of a library and
the visual connotations of the kind, demure (read chaste) librarian provide a
vivid contrast to Sarah Janes actual employment. This selection is also con-
sistent with racial discourses that view Black women as being all body, no
mind.68 This logic, which imagines Black women as hypersexual, cannot
fathom these women being intelligent. Thus Sarah Jane, as a Black woman,
cannot really be a librarian; it is only a ruse she uses to fool her mother. As
a character caught within the confines of this racialized regime of represen-
tation, Sarah Jane can only conceive herself passing through her sexuality.
While both characters are based on the same source, Fannie Hursts
novel, the emphasis of each role is different. I argue that these differences are
based on the races of the actresses who played each part and the racial ide-
ologies in the culture. In the Stahl film, Peolas intelligenceher mindis the
vehicle she uses to pass. Though having a Black female character with acumen
was out of the ordinary, the problem in the 1934 film was Peola/Washingtons
body. Because the Black woman who played Peola looked White, her body
had to be controlled in the narrative. Directing attention to her mind took
the focus off of her body, which could disrupt discursive formations about
race being easily discerned visually. When this role is played by a White ac-

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tress, the focus shifts from her mind to her body. Sarah Jane is the oppo-
site of Peola; she is all body. The confusion of having a White body play this
part meant that the race of the character had to be made obvious through
her actions. Sarah Jane/Kohners actions are raced by having her conform to
stereotypes of Black female sexuality. Thus, both roles alter based on the race
of each actress and the racial discourses regarding her race. These powerful
hegemonic ideologies not only shape popular narratives in film and televi-
sion, but also influence which actresses play a particular part and how that
part is realized.
Passing films, while an unusual choice of subject matter for Hollywood
because few Blacks could do so, provided an opportunity for the industry
to embark into dramas concerning race. Unfortunately, passing narratives
worked to maintain the status quo and encouraged Black readers or viewers
to stay in their proper place. Hence, while some liberal producers, directors,
and writers tried to engage with race in problem films of the period, the PCA
worked to limit Washingtons performance in Imitation, and Hollywood con-
tinued its practice of racial exclusion by casting White actresses (and actors)
in Black roles. Though the industry typically operated and continues to use a
variety of narrative and visual strategies of containment that subordinate
the images of Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities while uphold-
ing ideas of white superiority, selecting passing stories and hiring practices
played a critical role in keeping these social problems films from having a
greater impact.69


1. Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive His-
tory of Blacks in American Films, (New York: Continuum, 1989); Thomas Cripps, Mak-
ing Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights
Era, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Margaret T. McGehee, Disturbing the
Peace: Lost Boundaries, Pinky, and Censorship in Atlanta, Georgia, 19491952, Cinema
Journal 46, no. 1 (Fall 2006); and Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Social History of
American Movies (New York: Random House, 1975), 280. Cripps does note the problem
of using passing films as vehicles to deal with race, and Edward Mapp argues that these
films raised phony issues, played with them in unrealistic fashion, and finally threw in
happy endings. Edward Mapp, Blacks in American Film: Today and Yesterday (Metuchen,
NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1972), 39. Daniel Leab also contends that deeper explo-
ration of race did not occur in Lost Boundaries. See his From Sambo to Superspade: The
Black Experience in Motion Pictures (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975), 150.
2. While other racial and ethnic groups could often claim various origins, Blacks
have typically not been afforded this benefit. The history of slavery and the racial hier-
archy it produced meant that people with any trace of African descent or one drop were
Black; this idea became law in most states and was also known as the one-drop rule or

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hypodescent. Hence while today people like Pinky, who had a Black parent and a White
parent, could claim they are biracial, in the past these individuals could only legally iden-
tify themselves as Black.
3. Valerie Smith, in her chapter on passing narratives, describes how though these
texts can be a place of convergence for antiracists and white supremacist ideologies, the
Black reader of these texts (and in this case viewer) is not encouraged to challenge rac-
ism. See Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings (New York: Routledge,
1998), 36.
4. Cripps, Making Movies Black, 229.
5. Lost Boundaries is more of a family melodrama that includes the personal story of
the Carters passing. (A longer version of this paper includes an analysis of Pinky [1949],
which is considered more of a womens film and/or melodrama.)
6. Cripps in another work observes that these problem films didnt generate any type
of change in the stories being told and that Negroes nearly disappeared from the screen
completely in the early 1950s. See The Death of Rastus: Negroes in American Films
Since 1945, in Black Films and Film-Makers: A Comprehensive Anthology from Stereo-
type to Superhero, ed. Lindsay Patterson (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975), 60.
7. An important issue to note about mulatto/a characters is that most films and other
visual media almost exclusively deal with the mulatta or mixedrace female. Historically
in the United States mulatta/os are always and, as Lisa Anderson notes, only Black and
White. Anderson posits that mulatto men cannot be tragic because of the threat of rape
and miscegenation. See Mammies No More: The Changing Image of Black Women on Stage
and Screen (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), 46.
8. Thomas Schatz actually describes the film as an exercise in excess because nine
different writers worked on the adaptation and the picture was also a considered a lavish
star vehicle for Claudette Colbert. The above-the-line expenses (the cost of the screen-
play, screenwriters, producers, actors, directors, and directors assistants) were $196,000,
which was the amount afforded the average horror movie at Universal. Schatz, The Ge-
nius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (New York: Pantheon Books,
1988), 231.
9. Variety, November 27, 1934.
10. In 1925, the Rhinelander case made nationwide headlines when Leonard Rhine-
lander, the White heir of a wealthy and prominent family married a woman of African
descent, Alice Jones. His father disapproved of the marriage and forced his son to divorce
her. Another indication of the awareness of passing comes from Valerie Smith; she men-
tions texts with passing plots from the nineteenth century in her first footnote. Smith,
Reading the Intersection of Race and Gender in Narratives of Passing, Diacritics 24,
nos. 2-3 (Summer-Fall 1994): 43.
In order to keep local or national censors from altering films, the film industry
formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America in 1922
to control moral content. The Production Code was established in 1930 but not enforced
until 1934 when the Production Code Administration was created.
11. PCA File. Memo dated March 9, 1934.
12. Yann Tobin, in Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage, American Directors,
Vol. I (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983), 29293.
13. The Chicago Defender mentions the number of women vying for the Peola role
at least twice: June 23, 1934, 8, and June 30, 1934, 9.
14. Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1934, 11.

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15. The Los Angeles Times reported the selection of Black and Hendricks on June 29,
1934, 11. The Chicago Defender has a story about the stand-ins for Dorothy Black. They
are twins Alma and Almita Johnson noted in July 21, 1934, 9, and August 4, 1934, 9, ar-
16. While some Blacks were critical of Washingtons characters denial of her race,
others understood Peola as not rejecting her race but the racial oppression Blacks faced
in the United States of the 1930s. See Anna Everett, Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of
Black Film Criticism, 19091949 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 221.
17. Washington was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild (NAG) of
America. The treatment she and others received in Hollywood inspired her and enter-
tainers Leigh Whipper, Noble Sissle, W. C. Handy, and Dick Campbell, to establish NAG
in 1937. She was also Entertainment Editor for the Peoples Voice, a newspaper founded
by her brother-in-law, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., minister and New York congressman. I
acquired this information from the Fredi Washington Papers at Tulane Universitys Amis-
tad Research Center in New Orleans, LA.
18. Thomas Doherty, Hollywoods Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code
Administration (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 233. According to Doherty
there was not one official version of the Production Code, as it was amended several times
19. PCA File. Letter from Joseph Breen to Harry Zehner of Universal, dated March
9, 1934. Though it appears this letter was not sent to Mr. Zehner, Breen had a conference
with Dr. Wingate, Mr. Auster, and Mr. Henigson, Laemmle Jr., and Zehner of Univer-
sal about the content of the film. The PCA tried unsuccessfully to persuade Universal to
drop the film.
20. Susan Courtney, Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation Spectacular Narratives of
Gender and Race, 19031967, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 148.
21. Smith, Reading the Intersection of Race and Gender in Narratives of Passing,45.
22. PCA file. Memorandum for the files dated March 9, 1934.
23. Ibid.
24. PCA file. A letter dated June 7, 1934, from Breen to General Hays states that the
Administration has stated our belief that this particular element [passing] is unsuitable
for screen presentation, both as a matter of public policy, as well as under the Code clause
covering the treatment of miscegenation (italics mine).
25. PCA file. Inter-Office Memo dated March 10, 1934.
26. Courtney also notes that although Peolas story provides the films melodramatic
core, she herself is excised from the diegetic scenenot once but three times (168).
27. Two articles state that Washington had the role: the Chicago Defender, April 14,
1934, 8; April 21, 1934, 9. However, Fred Daniels noted in an April 28, 9, article that she
did not officially have the role. On May 5, both the Defender (9) and the Pittsburgh Cou-
rier (A8) mentioned that the film had been indefinitely postponed. The New York Times
reported that Claudette Colbert was engaged by Universal Pictures to play the lead on
May 24 (28), and the Atlanta Daily World celebrated Washingtons securing of the role
on May 30 (2). The Los Angeles Times described Washingtons role as the mulatto lead,
June 20, 11, and the Washington Post noted her character as being important and piv-
otal (June 26, 20).
28. Literary Digest, a national weekly magazine, commented in its December 8, 1934,
review that the real story, the narrative which is merely hinted at, never really contem-
plated, is that of the beautiful and rebellious daughter of the loyal negro friend.... Obvi-

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ously she is the most interesting person in the cast. Her drama is the most poignant, but
the producers not only confine her to a minor and carefully handled subplot but appear
to regard her with a bit of distaste.
29. PCA file. Inter-Office Memo dated March 10, 1934.
30. Ibid.
31. PCA file. Inter-Office Memo dated March 26, 1934.
32. Though she was not part of Breens staff, this memo appears to be in response to
questions about how womens groups would react to the adaptation of this novel. I am
indebted to Barbara Hall, Research Archivist at the Margaret Herrick Library, for this in-
formation on Field.
33. PCA file. Memo to Breen from Alice Field. There is no date on the memo but it
is placed between materials dated March 13, 1934, and March 20, 1934.
34. For other definitions of the mammy, jezebel and other characterizations of
Black women see, Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Conscious-
ness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1990), 7078; S. K. Jewell,
From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond: Cultural Images & the Shaping of US Social
Policy (New York: Routledge, 1993), 3545; Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies &
35. Smith remarks that throughout the film Peola demands for equality and accep-
tance. Smith, Reading the Intersection of Race and Gender in Narratives of Passing,48.
36. Lauren Berlant mentions that Peola looks, and dresses, much more like Bea than
her own mother. Berlant, National Brands/National Body: Imitation of Life, in Compara-
tive American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text, ed. Hortense Spill-
ers (New York: Routledge, 1991), 127.
37. Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy state regarding Pinky (1949) and it is applicable here,
that interracial marriage was always objectionable. See The Hollywood Social Problem
Film: Madness, Despair, and the Politics from the Depression to the Fifties (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1981), 249.
38. Berlant reads this statement in a way that negates the negative reading. Berlant,
National Brands/National Body, 126.
39. After Delilah gives Bea the formers secret family recipe for pancakes, Bea offers
Delilah twenty percent in the company. Tellingly, Delilah does not view the percentage
as an insult. Moreover, she rejects the opportunity to accumulate wealth, such as owning
her own home and car, because she would not be able to take care of Bea and Jessie.
40. Courtney also comments on Peolas lying but uses this observation to demon-
strate different arguments.
41. This scene also takes place in the 1959 version of the film.
42. Film and television are often criticized for reducing social problems of race, gen-
der or class to personal problems that can be resolved if the people involved would just
make the right decision.
43. Some scholars believe that Peola was chastened by her mothers death and will
stop trying to pass. See Jeremy Butler, Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959): Style and the
Domestic Melodrama, in Lucy Fischer, Imitation of Life (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
University Press, 1991), 293, 298. However, I would argue, based on her actions through
out the film, that Peola will return to passing. Also, in Hursts novel Peola passes and does
not return to her mother.
44. These other films, all released in 1949, are Home of the Brave, Pinky, and Intruder
in the Dust.

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45. Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1948, 17.

46. Though Lost Boundaries was not challenged by the PCA, in her article about cen-
sorship in Atlanta, Georgia, McGehee explains how the film was banned in Atlanta and
Memphis, Tennessee. Southern censors such as Atlantas Christine Smith and Memphiss
Lloyd Binford, who was considered very troublesome to the studios, often caused the stu-
dios anxiety. The producers of Lost Boundaries did file a lawsuit against the city which
went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court refused to hear the case so the ban was not
removed. McGehee, 42-44.
47. Hawley performed in a number of race films, films made for Black audiences, as
well as theatre. Some of his better known films are The Duke is Tops (1938), Double Deal
(1939), and Mystery in Swing (1940).
48. Pittsburgh Courier, March 5, 1949, 19.
49. Ibid.
50. Chicago Defender, March 19, 1949, 1.
51. Donald Bogle, Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of Americas Black Female Superstars
(New York: Da Capo Press, 1980), 79.
52. In reviews from the Los Angeles Times and New York Times no mention is made of
the race of the leads being different than the roles they play. Also in two New York Times
pieces about race and film, neither Bosley Crowther, the Times film critic, nor Philip
Dunne, one of the screenwriters for Pinky, mentions these casting choices.
53. In his analysis of Pinky, Donald Bogle describes how White audiences were horri-
fied by the menial chores Jeanne Crains character had to execute. Bogle Brown Sugar,152.
54. See Cripps quote at the start of this essay.
55. George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit
from Identity Politics (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1998).
56. Michele Wallace argues that Shelly took the news calmly but in the film Shellys
disposition changes once she learns she is Black. Wallace, Race, Gender and Psychoanaly
sis in Forties Films: Lost Boundaries, Home of the Brave and The Quiet One, in Black
American Cinema, ed. Manthia Diawara (New York: Routledge, 1993), 266.
57. Miriam Petty obverses Howies Jekyll/Hyde transformation in her essay exam-
ining how horror conventions operate in Pinky. See Passing for Horror: Race, Fear, and
Elia Kazans Pinky, Genders 40 (2004): 119.
58. Tamar Jeffers McDonald, Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre (Lon
don: Wallflower, 2007) 42. With reference to the taboos, she cites Leonard J. Leff and Je-
rold L. Simmonds, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship and the Production
Code, rev. ed. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 225.
59. PCA letters from Geoffrey M. Shurlock to Kathryn McTaggart of Universal-
International Pictures from 1958 dated May 13, July 18, August 1, September 2, and Sep
tember 15.
60. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk: Interview with Jon Halliday (New York: The Viking
Press, 1972), 130.
61. As I have noted, having White actresses (or actors) play Black roles was very com-
mon starting in the silent era. Films continuing this practice with the advent of sound are
Show Boat (1929, 1936, and 1951), Saratoga Trunk (1945) and the two films in this essay:
Lost Boundaries and Sirks Imitation of Life.
62. Lucy Fischer, Imitation of Life (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press,
1991), 184.

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K a r e n M . B o w d r e / Passing Films and the Illusion of Racial Equalit y 43

63. Edward Mapp, Black Women in Films: A Mixed Bag of Tricks, in Black Films
and Film-Makers: A Comprehensive Anthology from Stereotype to Superhero, ed. Lindsay
Patterson (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975), 19697.
64. While it is clear that the women in Sirks film do not have an equal relationship,
the women of the Stahl film are not really equal either.
65. Donahue later became a teen idol in the 1959 film A Summer Place, which also
starred Sandra Dee, Susie.
66. Having a White man beat a Black woman for her transgression, in this case pass-
ing, also would be a familiar and disturbing narrative.
67. Turners first film was in A Star is Born in 1937. Her rise to fame was relatively
quick and by 1941 she was a star featured with leading men such as Clark Gable and
Spencer Tracy. Turner also had an infamous personal lifeshe was married seven times
and also had many lovers. In 1958, her daughter, Cheryl Crane stabbed to death her boy-
friend, mobster Johnny Stompanato.
68. bell hooks and Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (Bos-
ton: South End Press, 1991), 153.
69. Ed Guerrero, The Black Image in Protective Custody: Hollywoods Biracial
Buddy Films of the Eighties. in Black American Cinema, ed. Manthia Diawara (New
York: Routledge, 1993), 237.

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