Imitation of Life (1934) Poster

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A Film Ahead Of Its Time - For All Time
Ron Oliver13 January 2002
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.
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Offensive? Not to this black film fan!
fussyfreddy4 January 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Let's get down to it! Here's Hollywood's best pre-WWII effort to portray not only white-black racism, but its subtleties. I doubt many women shared the caring relationship of Bea and Delilah.

What offends some I strikes me as honest. For the one or two absurd moments (e.g., the faithful, mourning Negro servants in the you-know-what scene), many more are deft and moving. The lavish 1959 version cannot compare.

(Love Lana Turner, but she and Juanita Moore are wooden and embarrassing in the remake; it's worth seeing for Mahalia Jackson and of course, Susan Kohner's scenes at the cocktail party and getting beaten in the back alley. Susan's scenes are so showy that they kill any hope of honesty, which was never in the script to begin with)!

At the beginning of this version, do you remember Delilah's response when Bea asks why she hadn't taken the streetcar? Racism is accepted as a given; the characters cast their lot from there. Both women have seen tragedy, and The Depression looms. In this crucial aspect, Bea and Delilah are equals. But to get anywhere with such a touchy gambit, the lead performances had better be good.

Louise Beavers is mesmerizing. I cannot say she gives the best performance I've seen on the silver screen, but it's hard for me to name a more focused one.

It is easy to dismiss her lines as demeaning or simple-minded. With each viewing, I see a woman whose circumstance and inner strength enables her to look beyond the mortal sorrows of this life. Doesn't she ring a bell, especially if you grew up black in the South? She was so many of our mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Ms. Beavers nails it.

In this plot, she's more: She is a a mystic whose spirituality not only complements but critiques Bea's get-ahead pragmatism. Pre-feminist themes ricochet in this picture: successfully, I think.

I'm gonna get slammed for my only significant reservation: I don't feel Fredi Washington's performance. She's more than adequate, but in no league with Louise Beavers or Claudette Colbert. From all that I have read and heard about her, I conclude that Ms. Washington let her own good taste get the best of her. She seems to underplay on purpose, to evoke a smoldering quality of rage. If I am correct, I appreciate her instincts, but they cannot work over every scene she has in this potboiler plot.

Nothing about this movie is weak. Even the few headslapping moments are so sincere that they come off as camp, at worst. Frankly, I'm not sure I could otherwise bear Louise Beavers' last scene.

Notice that her face is almost immobile; a single glycerin tear rolls down her cheek; her final, wrenching line reading is actually disembodied, off-camera (a master stroke of direction).

This, folks, is the killer scene for me -- not the histrionics at the hearse, which grabbed me mainly inasmuch as they showed an unqualified moment of dignity in black America, rare for 30's Hollywood. Note the sympathetic white mourners who have a line or two...

Claudette Colbert is radiant, as previous posters have said. Her performance is less memorable than Ms. Beavers', yet she hits the bull's-eye. Bea is warm but just distant enough to put across a real woman of her time, a white one who can never hope to understand black folks or the many contradictions of her relationship to them. In her best moments, which are without dialogue, Colbert conveys this delicate point. (Anyway...Bea has her own slutty daughter to worry about, right?)

It was said that Ms. Colbert had the best figure on the Paramount lot -- not lost on Universal, which dressed her to the nines in scene after scene.

It's hard to believe Colbert was barely 30 at the time. She looks no older, but acts as if she were going on a hard 50. And what a year for her! She won the Oscar for "It Happened One Night," and also scored this second huge hit, which artistically speaking is hardly chopped liver.

She made both movies on loan to other studios after Paramount suspended her! Talk about having the last laugh: if only Louise Beavers could have shared it in her own career!

I first saw this film on the big screen about 20 years ago at a now-defunct repertory cinema in Chicago. The matinée comprised me and a handful of elderly black women. We applauded as the curtain rang down; the clapping had the satisfied quality that follows a parable.
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Wonderful Movie.
customer-229 December 2004
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.
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Mothers Courageous
lugonian22 November 2001
"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. (***)
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Box it!
jotix10024 February 2006
"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.
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There isn't a black person who hasn't seen this movie and cried
jahlaune13 May 2005
This film is a part of growing up black in America. I saw it as a kid and I don't know anyone who hasn't cried. But, it is what it is, a true testament to the times. There is not much you can say. Lana turner did a great job on the remake but to me this is a bit earthier and I prefer to see the original and then see the 57 version. However, the pancake recipe bit is a bit ludicrous i mean how many secret ingredients can you put into pancakes. geesh Louise! Wonderful, keep it in your library at home and show it to your kids. I haven't seen a teenager yet that isn't fasinated and somewhat appalled by this movie. Its like listening to Billie Holidays Strange fruit. You are shocked but find yourself listening over and over again. To assure you have not missed anything.
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Landmark Film
vze23nyc8 December 2004
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."
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Yes, it is a classic
YoPec18 February 2003
I hope this film will be restored and put on DVD soon. It is a classic and a worthy addition to the film buff's library. Imitation of Life is not a perfect film, but considering that it was made in 1934, it deserves recognition. The film tells of two women, one white one black. Each has a daughter. Single moms and interracial friendships in 1934? Yes, it is true that the black woman, Delilah is subservient, but this is true to the times and she should not be criticized for it. Both these woman want a better life for their daughters and work together to do so. It is a sad, but realistic fact that neither daughter is happy with the better life. Delilah's daughter is very light-skinned and wants to pass for white for she knows in this era that the only opportunities are for whites. The later version starring Lana Turner is a poor substitute for this one. Lana tends to over act and the friendship between the two women is severely downplayed. It is true that in this film the camera seems to pause on the actors' faces over long, but this I think is a holdover from the silent film era when acting had to be done by facial expression instead of voice.

While this film is flawed it is a good film for young people in that it shows the changes made in our society both for single moms and for blacks.
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It Was Nice to See the Original
Jalea29 September 2002
Although I liked the remake with Lana Turner, it does not compare with the original. The remake represents a slicker Hollywood formulaic version, yet, I really liked Juanita Moore's heartfelt performance in the 1959 version.

Some may find it was hard to believe that a Beatrice (Cobert) in the 30's could make money from a Delilah's (Beavers) secret recipe. It would have been quite a challenge (but, not impossible) for Delilah; a poor, black woman the 30's to make a fortune as a business woman! Also, people make fortunes on other people ideas all the time.

This is a well done soap opera. The cast was excellent. Not a beat was skipped in this movie. I am glad that I had the opportunity to see the original. I also think it was a brave move for the 30's. One of my favorite scenes was when at the end of their "girl talk," Beatrice goes upstairs and Delilah goes downstairs to the servant's quarters. That scene said it all. In spite of the fact that these two women were good friends and loved each other, they did not have equal status because of the color of their skin.
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Imitation of Life
oOoBarracuda12 May 2016
The iconic Claudette Colbert was the shining star in John M. Stahl's 1934 film Imitation of Life, based on a book by Fannie Hurst of the same title. Colbert along with Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, and Rochelle Hudson join together to expose the hardships of women who must enter the workforce in a time when women were only to maintain households. In addition to the struggle of a family who lost their patriarch, the audience also experiences through the film the multi- faceted race relations that consumed people of color in the 1930's. The two intertwined tales of personal struggle create a window into the world of the 30's social constructs to engage a whole new audience in their complexities.

Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) becomes a single mother to her daughter Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) after the death of her husband. Struggling to maintain both the household and her husband's business, Bea is blessed with an angel in the form of housekeeper Delilah Johnson. (Louise Beavers) Delilah comes to Bea's door with a proposition to work for the Pullman family for only room and board in exchange. Delilah is not alone, however, she also has a daughter Peola (Fredi Washington). Peola and Jessie are about the same age and Bea doesn't have the money to hire a much-needed housekeeper; the arrangement seems like a fit for all parties involved, so Bea agrees. The two women become fast friends and eventually spring an idea to market Ms. Delilah's pancake recipe. The idea takes off and the duo becomes incredibly wealthy. No matter how much wealth the two accumulate, Delilah requests that she and Peola remain living with Bea and Jessie. The girls grow together, as much as they can, in a world strained by racism. Jessie, being afforded many more opportunities especially in regards to education, flourishes into adulthood and takes off for college. Peola, however, becomes a victim of intolerance and constantly tows the line between her true self, and the self she assumes when she passes as a white woman. Peola becomes estranged from her mother, due to her deep resentment of Delilah's dark skin. Mother-daughter relationships are difficult enough to navigate, Imitation of Life goes to show that this is an age-old difficulty made no easier by also having to deal with death, racial tensions, and heartache along the way.

If you're an old film lover like me, this film will you why you are. There is nothing quite like that softly gleaming glow that a great black and white movie puts off. Claudet Colbert is a national treasure, and if you haven't seen her acting, you should--today. The real power behind this film is its distinct story line. Of course, no one denies the existence of the obvious racism that filled the earlier days of this country. This film takes a unique line of that struggle to focus on the problems that light-skinned black people often went through. Peola could pass for white because her father before her was light skinned. In passing as white, Peola also had to disown her mother. There is no greater pain for a single mother than to be abandoned by her daughter. In contrast, Jessie was afforded much more opportunities due to her skin color and was able to maintain a healthy relationship with her mother. This class distinction was beautifully, and painfully, illustrated in the image of Bea ascending up the stairs while Delilah descended down the stairs immediately following their discussion of college plans of their daughters. This scene depicted, in such a stark way, the level of divide between races at the time, which were present regardless of income. Delilah had amassed a fortune with Bea due to her pancake recipe yet was still treated as a second-class citizen with a daughter that resents her. Many films deal with race, but the added struggle of both the women being single mothers creates a film that will not be forgotten in Imitation of Life.
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I want my quack quack
BumpyRide24 November 2004
People, people, why does everyone judge this movie confection through the looking glasses of 2006?? There was probably some "imitation of life" to the movie when it was made, no matter how silly or stereotypical it might have been, even for its time. If anything, this movie at least attempted to show two women in business being rewarded for their efforts and hard work. Yes, the 20/80 split when the pan cake business went incorporated might seem unfair now, but it was better than the 1950's film where Annie just waits on Ms. Lora, dolling out wisdom with a spoon full of sugar. I was much more perplexed why Jessie would be interested in a fish scientist who said he was 37 but looked more like 57!
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The Woman Who Became A Brand
manuel-pestalozzi25 July 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I purchased this movie because of Louise Beavers. I was impressed with her performance in Mr Blandings Build His Dream House where she does more than hold her own in her all too short appearances with stars like Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas. And I was not disappointed. She really is the solid center of this movie and its true star. She is like some sort of early method actress with a terrific screen presence, and her stile of acting differs remarkably from the more affected ones of her acting colleagues in this movie who come through as real airheads (or, shall we say designer products?) in their imitation of life.

Basically I think this is less a movie about race but about Delilah's values – and in this aspect it is an entirely different movie than the remake of 1957. Although beset by a hard and difficult life, Delilah is a balanced person of principle. And she has knowledge, on philosophical as well as practical ways. She accepts her place in society (that is a personal choice, mind you) and aims to make the best out of it. The world of Big Dreams is not hers. Her meeting another women with the daring and the tenaciousness of a dye hard capitalist is, seen in that context, a sort of an accident. This other woman discovers and exploits Delilah's knowledge, first on a small then on a very large scale. Delilah's values lead to commercial success, Delilah's portrait becomes literally a brand (incidentally, a beautiful Art Deco design, not unlike Uncle Ben's). She takes success gracefully, although she does not really care about it. And she knows, there will always be things money can't buy and they most probably will determine your personal happiness. The daughters of the two single mothers seem to symbolize the mean truth, that there are issues that are simply beyond a mother's will and have to be left to godly powers. Delilah's daughter just wants to be an airhead too (that is a personal choice, mind you). She is most happy blending in with the anonymous general crowd of our modern times selling cigars in a store (Fredi Washington's best scene). There's nothing her mother can do about it.

MINOR SPOILER AHEAD At the end of the movie, Delilah dies, probably of a broken heart. The world of airheads was too much for that archaic type of good, motherly woman. She leaves a vacuum behind, and people wistfully watch her stylized portrait eternally turning over flickering electric pancakes on the huge billboard on a rooftop. This will forever be a truly modern movie.
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Not Perfect But Brave and Touching
Handlinghandel1 January 2005
This is not a great movie but it's a very good one. Its racial views are somewhat of its time but it is also very forward-looking. Little need be said of the remake other than that the original is superior in every way. Most interesting, though, is that the daughter passing for white is played here by a black actress, whereas in the version almost three decades later the character is taken by a Caucasian.

In many ways, the truly heartbreaking story of Louise Beavers's character's love for her conflicted daughter is like something from a "race picture." It has a feel of authenticity.

Ms. Beavers looks very pretty, though she is heavy. It's a shame that in her big scenes, the camera is focused on Claudette Colbert or Rochelle Hudson -- the white mother and daughter in the considerably less interesting intertwining plot.

Colbert looks good, though this was a little before she had hit on her trademark look with bangs. The scenes in which Beavers massages her feet seem a little risqué, intentionally or otherwise.

My mother, who was a child when this came out, used to talk about seeing this several times and crying each time.

And speaking of children, the opening scenes in which the daughter is an ostensibly adorable child and Colbert addressees her comments about her wanting her "quack-quack," it's hard not to think of the scene in "Midnight," a later and different but far better movie, in which Colbert speaks on the phone to her nonexistent little daughter's illness, with John Barrymore speaking in falsetto about a hangover at the other end.

Frerdi Washington, as Beavers's daughter who is passing for white, is lovely. She has a beautiful mezzo voice and acts this melodrama as if it were O'Neill.

Colbert's daughter's crush on Warren William seems uninteresting and possibly -- I have not read and never will read the original -- that aspect of the plot was trimmed or censored.
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Good melodrama, but the remake was a little better
FilmOtaku7 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
John M. Stahl's 1934 melodrama "Imitation of Life" stars Claudette Colbert as Bea Pullman, a young widow with a young daughter, Jessie who struggles to carry on her husband's syrup sales business after her husband dies. One morning, as she is trying to get her two year old ready for day care before setting off for work, her doorbell rings and she finds Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her young daughter Peola at the door. Delilah has mistaken Bea's household as the one advertising for house help, but when she sees Bea struggling, she offers to help her out for no wages, only room and board for she and her daughter. The two women strike up a friendship, and eventually begin a pancake house business, with Delilah making her famous pancakes and Bea selling them and her syrup. Throughout the next fifteen years, their business becomes a small conglomerate, with Delilah continuing to care for Bea and her daughter simply because she wants to, despite her now great wealth. Complicating matters is the fact that Peola is very light-skinned, and often passes for white, which develops hatred within her for her race which manifests itself as contempt and disdain for her mother. Additionally, Bea's boyfriend Steve (Warren William) finds himself the object of the now 18 year old Jessie's affection, which causes strife among the three of them.

"Imitation of Life" is simply a great, rich story that we so rarely see in cinema today. Certainly an unusual topic in the 1930's, the subject of race relations is very prominent throughout the film, without being remotely preachy. The acting was good, though I did feel like Delilah's role was more of a caricature than a character at times. I also didn't really see the appeal of Steve's character, who also has probably one of the most unusual occupations that I've seen in a classic film (fish scientist). I of course couldn't help comparing this version to its Douglas Sirk remake from 1959 that starred Lana Turner and Juanita Moore. I think that the high melodrama of the story is much better served in the highly colorful Technicolor and Lana Turner's histrionics. I also felt a little uneasy with the treatment of African-Americans in this version because it was continuously teetering on a racist line; just a little more caricature and certain moments would have fully gone over the edge. The film was not disrespectful, but it got close to being eyebrow-raising. Granted, it was a different time, but I was expecting a little more from a film that would address the subject in the first place.

Having said all that, I really did enjoy the film as a whole – I just enjoyed the remake a little bit more. I did find, even without Mahalia Jackson singing at the end of the remake, that I bawled like a baby at the end of this version almost as much as I do at the end of Sirk's version, which is no small amount. I'm not sure what it is about this story, or these movies, but when I was in film school, specifically in my Films of the Fifties class where I first saw "Imitation of Life" (1959) I remember sitting in the classroom just sobbing (and wasn't the only one). It takes a good story, regardless of its presentation, to have that kind of impact regardless of how many times it is viewed. This version gets a solid 6/10 from me.

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Deeply felt, and an early look at racism for the movies...and Colbert is amazing!
secondtake29 November 2010
Imitation of Life (1934)

A beautiful and beautifully felt movie. Claudette Colbert, in the same year as her legendary role in "It Happened One Night," shows the really sincere charm and natural presence on screen even better here. She's a wonder, as an actress, and her role as a young struggling single mom, idealized for sure, and her success as a mature woman, is terrific stuff. A great movie, with a great performance.

The director, John Stahl, who gets maligned in the bio on this site (go to Wikipedia for a more balanced and fair view), was indeed a man of mixed talents, but he pulled off several really first rate movies. This version of "Imitation of Life" is remarkably clear and forceful and subtle. It's not quite a formula movie even if it has some standard Hollywood tricks (of the passing of time, of handling the filming and the back projection, all very convincingly). And it has a story at its core that is really rather forward thinking for a mainstream movie.

There are those (I've heard them) who find the approach to race too cloying and timid, but I say, show me a better film that people actually watched about the subject from this year. Just to find a way to deal with the idea of "passing," which means a black person passing as white in order to avoid prejudice, is terrific and necessary for the times. (By the way, for an insider look on this, read the extraordinary 1929 short novel, "Passing," by Nella Larsen.) The story for "Imitation of Life" is written by a white (Jewish) woman (Fanny Hurst) and is clearly taking up the broad themes of the depression. Written in 1933, it nailed themes that probably echoed some of the bigotry against Jews of the time, as both blacks and Jews were largely assimilating into mainstream America.

Inevitably the remake of this movie will come to mind, and luckily they are very different movies. I love Douglas Sirk for his stylizing excesses, and his willingness to identify clichés and make them the substance of his 1959 movie (including the cliché known as a tearjerker!). I watched them both together this week (back and forth between them), and you can check out that review, too, if you want.

Stahl's version, closer to the book in time and feeling than Sirk's, is in many ways a better movie, once you remove pure style from the equation. There is less to love, but much more to really like here, in the sincerity of the characters, the sweeping defiance against a Great Depression (that is mostly invisible), and in sheer personality. Terrific stuff!
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The one to watch
eigaeye27 August 2012
This 1934 filmed version of the story, which is well written, acted and directed, is the one worth watching. The 1959 version, which is none of these things, has purely historical interest. And the historical interest is this: if these films are anything to go by, in the 25 years between them race relations and the filming-making craft in America both went into reverse. Concentrating on the treatment of race for a moment, while the rabbit's foot and the 'will to death' clichés about African Americans have gone out of the story by 1959, opportunities and recognition for their race are seemingly more elusive than before. The Annie character in the earlier film is a business partner (albeit an unequal one, a '20%er') of her white friend; in the latter version she is no more than her maid and occasional confidante. In the 1934 version, Annie's daughter conforms to the 'tragic mulatto' stereotype but retains personal dignity; in the 1959 version she conforms to the 'promiscuous mixed-blood' stereotype and ends in the gutter. Both scripts struggle to interconnect the relationship between the ambitious white woman and her daughter and the relationship of the black woman and her daughter, in terms of dramatic action, thematic content and comparative time on screen. Although the films place both relationships under the one roof, they run largely in parallel: problems of 'white folks' and problems of 'black folks' are perceived to be so separate. The latter version does worse in this regard. At least the 1934 version tries to bridge the gap by having the Claudette Colbert character go in search of the runaway Sarah Anne. Lana Turner's character just pitches in a few trite comments. This lack of emotional commitment robs the final scene in the 1959 film of any of the power that is present in the earlier version when Colbert goes to comfort Annie's daughter at the hearse. With its undistinguished supporting cast, a terrible score and sometimes laughable dialogue, the remake would, I suspect, have disappeared from critical discussion had it not for its 'controversial' subject-matter and the star pull of an aging Turner. The 1934 version still looks and feels somewhat brave; certainly it has a lot more heart and quality. The DVD's quality in sound and image are also good.
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An excellent film; perhaps better than the re-make. I love it!
Marko-72 April 1999
This has long been one of my favorite movies. Although the remake is in color, (and excellently done, I might add), this one has special attractions for me. For one thing, it has the incomparable Claudette Colbert at her peak, and a heart-rending performance by Louise Beavers. Of course it is a bit of a tear jerker, but it is a wonderful movie. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would not hesitate to give it an 8.
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Watch it for the African-American characters
gbill-748774 April 2016
Warning: Spoilers
What an interesting film this was. On the surface, you have Colbert in a charming role as a self-made woman who makes it to the top with pluck, ambition, and a secret pancake recipe she gets from a maid. But that's not what makes the movie interesting. Colbert's maid is played by Louise Beavers, an African-American, and also a single mother. Her daughter Peola, played by Fredi Washington, is light-skinned, and wants to 'pass' as white. There are several brutal, heart-wrenching scenes between the two of them – as a child (played by Dorothy Black), Peola is upset about being called black, believing it an insult; later in school, she has to slink out of an all-white classroom amidst stares and whispers to see her mother who has shown up unexpectedly; and finally, as an adult, pretending she doesn't even know her at her job, where she's also 'passed', and later telling her she wants to disown her entirely. Beavers' character is sweet and strong, and bears this suffering to her deathbed.

These are the scenes with real emotional impact in the story, and it's stunning, though not surprising, that neither Beavers nor Washington where nominated for an Academy Award. But Colbert was, even though she was also nominated in the same year for 'It Happened One Night'. How true this trend was 82 years ago, and how true it is today (see 'Creed').

Now it is true that the love story in the movie for Colbert with William Warren is captivating, and it gets complicated when her daughter falls in love with him as well, and despite no wrongdoing on his part, creates a dilemma for Colbert. I liked this twist, it was unexpected and created a little angst for the white characters, who were otherwise in beautiful clothes, sipping champagne, and dancing the night away. However, the resolution of this at the end pales in comparison to the resolution of Beavers' story which precedes it.

The movie is a great snapshot of what pushing the boundaries meant in 1934. On the positive side, you have a single mother shown balancing family and work, and keeping control of her business as it skyrockets. You have Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African-American actress (who in real life disdained 'passing') hired to play the role of Peola, when it was much more common to hire whites. You have Colbert's character inviting Beavers into her home and not showing an ounce of racism as she talks to her, or concern when by hiring her they'll live together. And you have a movie that showed very sensitive racial subject matter, revealing to the audience the real struggle African-Americans go through, and in a way that was thoughtful, not exploitative.

On the other hand, you have Beavers' being simple-minded, superstitious, and wanting to remain subservient to Colbert's, even when they've made enough money and it's no longer necessary. While it underscores her big heart, it also perpetuates a myth, one that is very convenient for Caucasians. Also, because the Hays Code had recently gone into effect, references to Peola being of mixed-race were avoided, because 'passing' itself was already dangerous ground, and the concept of racial mixing was a definite no-no. Her father is simply referred to as having been 'light-skinned'. Just as importantly, a scene in the script depicting a black boy being attacked and nearly lynched for coming up to a white woman was excised; conservative America was not willing to admit this shameful truth.

All in all though, an important film. The Colbert story is cute on its own, but I wish the emphasis had been placed more on Beavers, that it had been a movie more from her viewpoint with the minor character and subplots belonging to Colbert instead. Fair or unfair, I knocked it down a half a star as a result.
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Depression-era woman's picture
This is a powerful film, despite its reflecting the naivety of the times. Like A Star is Born, the story of Imitation of Life is inherently moving: a white woman befriends a black woman, who has a pale-skinned daughter that unbeknown to her mother has been passing for white. But there is only so much that loving friendship and motherhood can accomplish.

This is the original version, more homely than the fifties one. Bea(Claudette Colbert) is a single mother who fortuitously bumps into good-hearted Delilah (Louise Beavers), who is willing to forgo a salary in order to simply have a loving home. The two start up a pancake business together which rapidly becomes a success. Delilah's pale daughter Peola (teenage version played by Fredi Washington) refuses to accept her racial identity and the low social status that Delilah willingly takes.

The race question is not explored as deeply in the original because of the constraints of the era in which it was made, so unfortunately Fredi Washington does not have enough screen time. She is a strong actress but she seems quite uncomfortable with the character's desire to be white. Some, including the actress herself, have argued that Peola merely wants the rights of a white woman rather than a black one. Whilst Peola clearly does want those privileges, she still does not want to accept her racial identity, which is why she becomes so unhappy and lives an "imitation of life". Whatever motivation you attribute to Peola, Fredi Washington still does a very good job and looks spot on. All that was needed was a bit more focus on the race issue, although perhaps it was too sensitive a topic for 1934.

The film is all about the women, and is a perfect example of a woman's picture. The friendship between Bea and Delilah is the heart of the film, although the characterisation of Delilah as a "mammy" type is a bit too patronising and Bea is on the whole condescending towards Delilah. The bond of motherhood is also a very significant theme: Peola's heartbreaking rejection of Delilah is contrasted with the relative lightness of Jessie (Bea's daughter) crush on her mother's boyfriend Stephen (Warren William). Rochelle Hudson's portrayal of Jessie is much better than Sandra Dee's, but then the Jessie of this film is written better and is more interesting. Her exchanges with Stephen are particularly comic.

Louise Beavers' portrayal of Delilah (renamed Annie in the later film) is the mammy stereotype but with a soulful edge. She takes the subservient role because of her spiritual beliefs rather than because she believes that black people ought to be inferior. The difference between this and the Douglas Sirk film is that this film is saying that there are differences between black people and white people whereas the latter film isn't. I couldn't say which is a more accurate portrayal of the African-American experience: in a post-civil rights world, many would be inclined to prefer the latter choice. However, there is a powerful soulfulness about Delilah that for the most part overcomes the racial stereotypes.

This film offers a lot of interesting themes: business; society's attitude to race; friendship; motherhood, and many others. Do not let the moments of naivety spoil what is a very good woman's picture.
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An Understanding Of Racism In Her Time
bkoganbing3 November 2008
When Imitation Of Life came out in 1934, Fannie Hurst was at the height of her literary reputation having had her two best works this one and Back Street, come out back to back as both novels and movies. Both stories are about a women's sacrifice.

One day before World War I, Louise Beavers comes looking for domestic work and gets the wrong address and comes knocking on Claudette Colbert's door. Colbert is a recent widow with a child and Louise has a child the same age. Colbert can't afford any salary, but Louise is willing to work cheap, just for room and board for herself and her child.

This starts an unusual partnership both personal and business because Claudette's late husband was a seller of a cooking syrup and Louise makes a melt in your mouth type of pancake. When passing stranger Ned Sparks tells her one day to package the flour, this makes both Colbert and Beavers millionaires overnight. Beavers can't see it however and passes up her own household to stay with Claudette.

A lot of people today look at Beavers's character and say this is a racial stereotype that Hurst was perpetrating. Taking the racial component out of it, I've seen several people who are just like Beavers in their own way. Clark Gable had a father who could have lived quite well off his son, but couldn't deal with the Hollywood lifestyle and actually told his son they ought to resume their previous occupations as oil roughnecks. Stan Musial when he was making big money as a baseball star had a mother who took in washing back in the little steel mill town of Donora, Pennsylvania where he came from and not because he wasn't willing to provide.

And I had an uncle who worked hard at Kodak and also built up a milk delivery business of his own and at an age where he could have just relaxed and taken it easy, he was out working at close to 80 at a tool and die plant. There are folks out there who shy away from the outward trappings of success like Beavers. And there are those stubbornly over-committed to a work ethic when they don't have to be.

Both Colbert and Beavers are just moms with problem daughters on their hands. Daughter Rochelle Hudson is crushing out on Warren William who has his eyes on Colbert. But Beavers has bigger problems.

Remember these girls were literally raised together with their mothers in business. Fredi Washington sees the white world, she's light skinned enough to pass, she wants what's over in that world. But her denial of heritage hurts Beavers more than my words can describe. But Hurst's words in the novel and the screenplay betray a rare understanding of racism during her time.

Imitation of Life got three Oscar nominations including Best Picture. It's a dated film, but that fact alone makes it worth watching as a glimpse of the racial picture in America in the Thirties.
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Interesting and Entertaining
tophoca14 March 2004
The previous reviewer finds this film "Racist Garbage" Oh for goodness sake! The 1934 film version of Fanny Hearst novel is broadly similar to the Douglas Sirk remake made in the late 50s with Lana Turner. O.K. maybe neither version could be describe as PC by todays standards but as the films are between 46 and 70 years old thats hardly surprising. Both versions make a statement relevant to the period they were made. The 1934 version is on a par with the later Sirk version but stands on its own as a fine tribute to its stars Claudette Colbert and Delilah Johnson. I find it difficult to believe that any viewer interested in cinema history would find either film version of the Hearst novel offensive.
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Wonderful movie
cnf200411 November 2005
I purchased the Imitation of Life a few months ago, but in the DVD, I found that there were two versions of the movie and I never knew about the 1934 version. I watched it first and fell completely in love with it. I mainly payed more focus to the warmth of Bea Pullman and Delilahs friendship as it progressed over time. When one was down, the other helped build them back up and it stayed that way until Delilah gave her very last breath. Of course, some say that back in the 30's you never found blacks and whites to be so close, (but indeed there were some and Imitation of Life proved that.) As far as Fredi Washingtons character as Peopla, I found myself keen to her more so than any other character. I understood why she felt the way she did about outwardly appearing caucasian on the outside and being African American by race. It does hurt me to see her turn against and deny her mother as the movie ends, but when her mother then dies, it's even more sorrowful that Peola never has the chance to tell her, "Yes I did love you and I should have claimed you as my mother from the start" For anyone who loves a warm, heartfelt classic, you should certainly see Imitation of life (The year 1934)
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This Movie Must Be Taken In Context of the Times....Yet.....
rbstoker16 January 2006
I have seen this movie several times as well as the re-make. Condidering they were made 25 years apart the re-make is more palatable for my African-American sensibilities. However, considering the state of race relations in the US and the prevailing climate in Hollywood at the time the movie isn't that bad. The story's premise of a white woman feeling pity for and taking in a black woman is credible given that all women especially mothers would find it difficult to turn their back on another woman in need. Yet, I feel Hollywood could have made some bold strides and tried to elevate Delilah's character to more than a "step-n-fetch" slave. How hard would it have been for Hollywood to make her an equal partner and decision-maker in the pancake deal. Interestingly, the light-skinned character played by Fredi Washington(who really is mixed) is vilified in the movie as wanting to pass herself off as white. In real Hollywood life she was told she could make more money if she allowed the studio to promote her as being white. She of course refused and her career ended three years later because she could not be accepted by either race in movies at the time. She was too white for blacks and too black for whites...Shame. I recommend all people to watch this movie and then also watch the re-make and appreciate how our society has changed and still has more opportunities to change.
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I love this movie.
larrymp18 April 2002
By far better than the remake. Although I love the remake also, but this one is much better. Claudette Colbert is one of my favorite actresses. She is great in this one. Louise Beavers is wonderful as Delilah. It just makes you want to out and buy some pancakes. The story, although dated now, was great. As I said before, better than the remake.
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brilliant, realistic and heart-breaking
MartinHafer20 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I really like this movie, but it sure brings me close to tears since the movie sucks you in as well and is, in the end, so heart-wrenching. I also admire it because when it comes to race, the film is WAY, WAY ahead of its time.

Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers star as single parents struggling to raise their daughters. Beavers is an excellent cook and Colbert has the great idea of opening a restaurant--so with Beavers' cooking and Colbert's energy and know-how, they become quite successful. Years pass, and you see how their rising fortunes have changed their lives as well as the daughters. Colbert's is pretty decent, but Beavers' daughter is ashamed of her black mom--especially since this daughter is so light-skinned that she can, and does, pass for white. Beavers eventually discovers this AND is shunned by the daughter--pretending in front of her friends that her mother is the hired help! And, the shock is overwhelming and brings the movie to its conclusion.

Both leads do an excellent job. The movie also must be applauded for being an early forum concerning race relations. It might seem a little bit tame today, but in its day it was a powerful film and took some big risks. Plus, for once, Ms. Beavers did not play a maid but was able to show she could be a darn good actress. A nice job by all.
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