"Imitation of Life" (The New Universal, 1934), directed by John M. Stahl, is the first and best screen adaptation to Fannie Hurst's celebrated novel, yet underrated and seldom revived. It's a well written and developed character study about two mothers, one white, the other black, who bond a lasting friendship throughout the years while their daughters, both friends, try to face the facts of life, with one in particular, having problems with her imitation of life.
The story begins with Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert), a recently widowed mother, giving her tottler, Jessie (played by Baby Jane, who became better known later Juanita Quigley), a bath while the child is asking for her "quack quack," a toy duck. After dressing her up, Bea comes downstairs to answer the call of the doorbell where Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers), a black woman, comes to inquire about the location of a street where she hopes for possible employment. After being told that she is on the wrong side of town, Delilah, seeing that Bea has enough work on her own with her own little girl, asks if she could work as her housekeeper. Finding that little Jessie and Delilah's light-skinned daughter, Peola (Sabie Hendricks) would be good companions for one another, Bea decides to take Delilah's offer. Later, Bea purchases a store on the boardwalk where she decides to open up an diner where she specializes in pancakes with the use Delilah's secret pancake recipe. While the mothers struggle to success, eventually moving into a comfortable household, their daughters become eduated in private schools and mature to young women. With success comes problems: Bea meets and falls in love with Steven Archer (Warren William), but their relationship is complicated when Bea's 18-year-old daughter (Rochelle Hudson) falls in love with him also; and Delilah's grown-up daughter, Peola (Fredi Washington), becomes resentful of the world of segregation, denying both her heritage and mother while trying to pass as a white girl, thus, breaking her mother's heart.
Overly sentimental drama about mother love to be sure, but this version of "Imitation of Life" succeeds in many ways. Besides Claudette Colbert's sincere performance, and a wonderful underscoring by Heinz Roemheld, there is Louise Beavers, being given a rare opportunity to carry on the entire story in a major motion picture. Sadly the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress hadn't come into effect yet, otherwise Beavers, would have gotten that honor for at least a nomination. A presentation of such a movie, in 1934, was for its time quite a risk, but fortunately it didn't go unnoticed. "Imitation of Life" did get the honor of a Best Picture nomination, losing to Colbert's other 1934 release, "It Happened One Night," a comedy.
Universal remade "Imitation of Life" in 1959 starring Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner in the Colbert, William, Hudson, Beavers and Washington roles. Aside from it being a glamorized version produced in lavish Technicolor with the story brought up to date, it became one of the highest grossing movie of that year and today ranks one of the most revived tear-jerking dramas on television. There were alterations made, of course, such as changing central character of Bea Pullman, a Jewish woman, to whatever she wants to be in the name of Lora Meredith; the exclusion of the "pancake queen" business woman to the rise of a Broadway actress; and transforming the central character's black business partner into the actress's housekeeper and companion. The subordinate story and sentiment remains the same, especially the climax. The only problem with the remake that makes the original appear more honest is the use of Susan Kohner, a white actress who gave an fine performance, playing a light-skin "colored" girl instead of the use of an actual light-skinned black actress, thus, ruining the whole purpose to the story.
To see "Imitation of Life" of 1934 is to accept it for what it really is, a 1930s "soap opera" about mother love. However, its revival has become a rarity today possibly because of Louise Beavers being presented on screen as a stereotyped "colored mammy," but fortunately, not to the extreme. But at the same time, Colbert's character looks and cares for her as an equal, and even becomes very concerned about her when her troubled daughter, Peola, denies her. Fredi Washington should not go unmentioned in her worthy performance as Peola. Little is known of her except that it's been said that she later became one of the founders of the Negro Actors' Guild in 1937, acting as executive secretary.
Also featured in the cast are Ned Sparks as Elmer Smith; Alan Hale, Marilyn Knowlden, Franklin Pangborn appearing briefly as one of Bea's party guests, and Marcia Mae Jones recognizable as one of the school students in the early portion of the story. Warren William, on loan from Warner Brothers, playing Steve Archer, gives his usual high standard performance of sophistication.
"Imitation of Life," which runs almost two hours in length, was first presented on American Movie Classics for a while from 1990 to 91, and made its Turner Classic Movies premiere October 26, 2001. This and the Lana Turner remake are both available to compare in video and/or DVD rentals. (***)