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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 exchange for a room for herself and her daughter Peola. Bea comes up with a plan to market Delilah's pancake recipe. The two soon become wealthy and as the years go on, their friendship deepens. Their relationships with their daughters, however, become strained. Ashamed of her mother, Peola seeks a new life by passing for white. Bea's love for her daughter is tested when she and Jessie fall for the same man. Written by
Fredi Washington (Peola, Aged 19) was a light-skinned African-American. After playing this role, she was criticized by some in the black community who labored under the misconception that the actress herself practiced self-hatred and would rather 'pass' herself off as white. Ms. Washington was, in fact, an avid civil rights activist. See more »
Reissue prints of this film, issued after Carl Laemmle's ouster and retirement from Universal, read "The New Universal Presents [Claudette Colbert and Warren William in 'Imitation of Life']" rather than "Carl Laemmle Presents [Claudette Colbert and Warren William in 'Imitation of Life']" See more »
Nobody Knows de Trouble I've Seen
Traditional Negro Spiritual
Lyrics by Henry Thacker Burleigh
Played and sung by an offscreen chorus during the opening credits
Played as background music often See more »
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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