Before the 1959 version of Imitation of Life starring Lana Turner that Claudette Colbert starred in 1934 Academy Award nominated film by the same title based on Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel of the same name . The film was nominated for an Academy Award. In 2007 Time magazine named it among the "The 25 Most Important Films on Race".
Fredi Washington plays Peola, the daughter ashamed of her African-American heritage, that attempts to pass as white. The casting of such a role was a rare opportunity for a light-complexioned actresses of her time. In fact she was lucky to cast at all. Extremely fair skinned with green eyes she didn't fit the "maid" roles reserved for Negro actresses of her time.
The role had poignant meaning for Washington, as she turned down a number of opportunities to pass for white as an actress. If she had chosen to do so, she might have become a movie star. Of mixed race with a light complexion, green eyes, and great beauty, Washington found it hard to win roles and audiences given the limited opportunities of the time. She was too light skinned and elegant to play stereotypical "maid" roles. Because she was African American, however, Hollywood directors did not offer her romantic roles with leading white actors. General romances did not then feature African Americans. When Washington played roles in films for black audiences, she often wore heavy makeup to darken her skin.
After Imitation of Life, Washington had one more decent role (4th billing) in Fox's One Mile from Heaven (1937). Realizing that there was no future in Hollywood for an African-American actress with ivory-toned skin, Washington quit movies altogether and returned to New York to work in theater. -- Wikipedia
Unfortunately no opportunity was given to any light-complexioned actress for the 1959 remake. The actress playing Sarah Jane was not mulatto.
Although many African Americans were screen-tested for the corresponding Sarah Jane role in the 1959 remake, Susan Kohner, of Mexican and Czech Jewish descent, won the role. Karin Dicker, of Jewish decent, made her film debut as the young Sarah Jane in this film. -- Wikipedia