Imitation of Life (1934)

Drama, Romance
Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks
Bea Pullman and her daughter Jessie have had a hard time making ends meet since Bea's husband died. Help comes in the form of Delilah Johnson, who agrees to work as Bea's housekeeper in ...
  • Universal Studios Company:
  • N/A Rated:
  • IMDB link IMDB:
  • 26 Nov 1934 Released:
  • 05 Feb 2008 DVD Release:
  • N/A Box office:
  • Fannie Hurst (novel), William Hurlbut (screenplay) Writer:
  • John M. Stahl Director:
  • N/A Website:

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Trailer:

Wonderful Movie.9/10
I find the movie aptly named. My motivation for responding is due to an earlier opinion on this movie, specifically: "the central character of Delilah is the worst kind of racial stereotype; a relentlessly cheerful mammy, perfectly satisfied to spend her life tending to the needs of her white employer". I am an American Black (African-American) and I do not find Delilah offensive. In fact I applaud the reflection of honesty that this 1934 film attempts. The "mammy" of that time period had very few choices. That she was happy to help her very nice white employer for the safety provided does not make for a hate figure by Blacks. It makes for a reminder of the intense level of crap Black folks went through and how they dealt with the pain of it to stay honest, kind and helpful people. Should Delilah lived in the streets and hated white people the rest of her life? Should she have not had the fortitude and insight to find a situation with another caring human being, albeit this other human was white? And for this she is lauded as a the worst kind of racial stereotype? No. The answer is a resounding NO. Now if Delilah was beaten and raped on a regular basis and still wanted to please her white employer while denying her race the previous poster would have had a point.

Okay, I really didn't like the mournful gospel music, R&B would have made this movie perfect to me but that's just me. Live and Love. There is no shame in being a good person.
Box it!7/10
"Imitation of Life", the 1934 version, reflected the attitude in the country toward blacks. This movie wouldn't have had a chance of being made in the present climate of political correctness. This movie shows how Hollywood dealt with the racial issues back in those years. John Stahl directed the film, which stands in stark contrast with the Douglas Sirk's take in 1959 which presents a glossier vision of the Fanny Hurst novel, in which it's based.

Between the two versions, this one seems to make more sense, in spite of the incredible jump from rags to riches Bea Pullman experiences. Claudette Colbert makes Bea more accessible to us, in contrast with Lana Turner's blonde goddess looks. This Bea Pullman is easier to take because the way she makes her money by going into business, capitalizing on Delilah's idea about the marketing the perfect blend for pancakes.

Warren William plays Steve Archer, the man who falls in love with Bea while not suspecting the effect he causes in young Jessie, Bea's daughter. Louise Beavers is Delilah; she is made to speak broken English to show her ignorance, which was the thing expected every time black characters were shown in movies of that period. Ms. Beavers' role was made bigger in the 1959 remake, but Juanita Moore, who played the part, was not subjected to her predecessor's fate. Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks and Fredi Washington round up the supporting cast.
Mothers Courageous5/10
"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. (***)
A Film Ahead Of Its Time - For All Time10/10

A black mother worries that her light skinned daughter will have only an IMITATION OF LIFE if she continually tries to pass for white.

Let it be stated unequivocally that this is one of the most remarkable films of the 1930's - unique in that it deals squarely with aspects of the racial question decades before it became common to do so. After becoming accustomed to the casual racism of most Hollywood movies of the era, this honesty is quite astonishing.

As the black mother, Louise Beavers is heartbreaking in the simple power of her performance. Joyously serving up love &
pancakes, or devastated by her daughter's rejection of their race, Miss Beavers makes her audience feel her every emotion. This was the finest role of her film career, and she makes the most of it. However, the movie over, the studio system returned her to mammy parts. This is a tremendous blot on Hollywood's record.

Beautiful Claudette Colbert is scintillating, as always. Playing a
tenderhearted maple syrup saleslady who first employs Miss Beavers, and later befriends her, Miss Colbert adds a distinct touch of class to the film. But she is also sympathetic to the concerns of the story and helps to quietly push along the plea for racial equality.

Elegant actor Warren William, he of the sophisticated profile, brings his considerable talents to the role of Miss Colbert's ichthyologist boyfriend. Refreshingly, he plays a solid, decent fellow - instead of the rake or cad which he portrayed so often & so well. His involvement is a definite asset to the film.

The rest of the cast adds to the overall excellence of the production: acerbic Ned Sparks as Miss Colbert's business manager; lovely Rochelle Hudson as her ready-for-love daughter; Henry Armentta & Alan Hale as businessmen cajoled by Miss Colbert's charms; and especially Fredi Washington, memorable as Miss Beavers' daughter, a stranger inside her own skin.

Movie mavens will spot Clarence Wilson as the pancake shop's landlord, Franklin Pangborn as a party guest & Paul Porcasi as a restaurant manager, all uncredited.

IMITATION OF LIFE preached a powerful sermon on racial justice & equality, but the Hollywood congregation was not paying attention. It would be a very long time before black performers & black roles would be treated with the dignity they so desperately deserved.
Landmark Film5/10
This is probably one of the first films that dealt with race relations in this country. While "Imitation of Life" centers around the business created by two women, one black and one white, it also take a hard look at the struggles minorities face -- something very rarely seen on the big screen at that time. Most of the films at that time showed blacks as domestic servants and pictured them as "happy" in those roles. This is a classic in that it's one of the first times any medium tackled the issue of black-white relations. It's a must-see, both from an entertainment perspective and, most importantly, a historical one. I think a lot of African-Americans in the entertainment business can look at this film as a trail-blazer in terms of "serious" roles for blacks instead of being cast as "entertainers."