Imitation of Life (1934)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Melodrama  |   Release Date - Nov 26, 1934 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 106 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Lucia Bozzola

The plain Jane stepsister next to Douglas Sirk's gloriously and pointedly gaudy remake, the first film version of the Fannie Hurst novel Imitation of Life (1934) still has a subtle power of its own. Scripted by Preston Sturges and directed with restrained expressiveness by 1930s and '40s melodrama specialist John M. Stahl, the relationships between the white and black mother-daughter pairs illuminate a Depression-era slant on the central dilemmas of work and race. More of a down to earth, maternal career woman than in Sirk's film, Claudette Colbert's Bea may make her fortune from Delilah's (Louise Beavers) pancake recipe, but their mutual, materially necessary success makes the racial divide seem all the more artificial and meaningless. Delilah's light-skinned daughter Peola (played by Fredi Washington, an actress who actually did "pass") becomes the only "imitator" with her desire to pass for white, yet Stahl's upstairs-downstairs compositions -- and Beavers' dated "Aunt Jemima" performance -- underline why she'd want to pass. Ending in a muted mother-daughter reconciliation, this imitation mines emotion from a relatively calm, dignified sincerity underlying the quartet's need to reconcile their conflicting desires and responsibilities.