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A black mother worries that her light skinned daughter
have only an IMITATION OF LIFE if she continually tries to
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.
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.
"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.
"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. (***)
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.
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."
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!
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.
I hope this film will be restored and put on DVD soon. It is a classic and
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
and she should not be criticized for it. Both these woman want a better
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
is very light-skinned and wants to pass for white for she knows in this
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
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
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.
*** This review may contain 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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