Thursday, December 12, 2013

Movie of the Week: Imitation of Life (1934) - Review

This week, I watched the original film adaptation of Fannie Hurst's novel of the same name, Imitation of Life.

"Bea Pullman (played by Claudette Colbert) and her daughter Jessie (first played by Juanita "Baby Jane" Quigley) have a hard time making ends meet since Bea's husband died. Help comes in the form of Delilah Johnson (played by Louise Beavers), who agrees to work as Bea's housekeeper in exchange for a room for herself and her daughter Peola (first played by Sebie Hendricks). 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 (finally played by Fredi Washington) seeks a new life passing for white. Bea's love for her daughter is tested when she and Jessie (finally played by Rochelle Hudson) fall for the same man (Stephen Archer, played by Warren William)." [IMDb]

General Thoughts

I hope this doesn't make me sound uppity--in fact, I hope it makes me sound grateful, which I am--but every once in awhile (often, actually) I thank God that I was born in the time in which I was born. While watching this movie, I had to say another 'Thank You'.  The plot summary above mentions that as the years went by, Bea and Delilah's "friendship deepens", but if me getting only 20% of the profits from the sales of my pancake recipe equals "friendship"...if me sleeping in a small bedroom downstairs in the huge house that my pancake recipe bought equals "friendship"; if me having to stay downstairs while you have a party (thrown with the money made from my pancake recipe) equals friendship, then count me completely out. No time traveling for me.

As show in this photo from the trailer, New York Daily News was one of many outlets that praised Ms. Beavers' performance.

First off, I was already a little irritated by certain production aspects of this movie--like the fact that even though this movie was supposed to be about Bea and Delilah's friendship and the relationships with their daughters, Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington were listed fifth and sixth in the credits. Then, you have the trailer that features Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington and praises of their performances. The trailer sort of gave me "Look at what colored people can do, now! Come see these Negresses give actual dramatic performances!" vibes. However, I won't complain too much about the actresses getting their props somewhere, some way, and somehow in 1934.

One of the many praises of Fredi Washington's performance in the trailer

I had to keep reminding myself that this movie was made in 1934 to keep from getting irritated by certain things. It was hard, but I got through it. From Delilah's incessant desire to serve and be dependent on Bea to the fact that no one wanted to tell Peola that there was nothing wrong with being black, I found myself letting out exasperated sighs every ten minutes. Let me go into further detail about the latter issue that was mentioned:

In one of the earliest scenes of this movie, a crying Peola (eight or nine years old by this time) comes running back home from school. She's upset because Jessie called her "black". No one asks Peola "Well, what's wrong with that?" We don't get a "That ain't nothin' to be 'shamed about, Peola." Nope. Instead, we get Bea telling Jessie to apologize for "saying something so mean" and Delilah saying there was no need to apologize because Peola would have to accept it soon enough. Then she starts rambling, "It ain't your fault, it mine, and it ain't Lord's, that's what leaves me puzzled..." (not the exact quote, but something like that).

 See, I actually started watching this movie last year and I turned it off right on that part, because no.

Peola has just told her mother she's going away (From ReelSistas)

To be quite honest, it seemed as though Peola was the only person who saw nothing (completely) wrong with blackness itself. Peola hated the conditions and treatment that came with being black at that time, which of course is completely understandable, and she hated that she was "light enough" to change the trajectory of her own life, but was (for the most part) prevented from doing so. Now, this isn't me excusing passing or the hatred of one's heritage, but once again, I don't believe Peola hated blackness, however, I do believe that she hated the fact that she didn't look like what she was and wasn't raised to be what she could be.

Characters and Performances

Claudette Colbert in I Cover the Waterfront

Overlooking her faux-friendship with Delilah, I could admire a character like Bea Pullman. She's what you'd call a "go-getter", she's determined, and a great businesswoman--even though her business was built on someone else's skill. Ms. Claudette Colbert plays the character beautifully--quite naturally, actually.

Louise Beavers (from The Great Katharine Hepburn)

As always, Louise Beavers gave a flawless and convincing performance in the role of Delilah. Like most of the roles she played, she play a subservient "mammy figure", but this character was new and different because her life and personal problems were deemed important and relevant, particularly alongside white characters. Unfortunately (but not suprisingly), Ms. Beavers was snubbed for an Oscar nomination.

Rochelle Hudson in a publicity shot for Show Them No Mercy

I didn't really care too much for Jessie Pullman. From the moment we saw her for the first time as a two year old repeatedly telling her mother that she wants her "quack-quack" (rubber duckie) during her bath, I knew she would irritate me at some point further into the movie. 

How could you not even assume that your mother's handsome male friend is her boyfriend???

But, I always say that if a character irritates you, then the actor is good--so two thumbs up to Rochelle Hudson.

Fredi Washington (From Planet Barberella)

I love me some Fredi Washington and critics were right in praising her performance as Peola. Her theatre experience definitely showed in this film. I think I've pretty much covered how I felt about Ms. Washington's character. Unfortunately, this role would lead to numerous "tragic mulatto" role offers and suggestions to pass for white in real life. Ms. Washington would only make two more movies before returning to New York's stage.

In the trailer for Gold Diggers of 1933

I also found the character of Elmer Smith (played by Ned Sparks), Bea's business partner and self-appointed advisor, to be quite irritating. The guy was just cranky the entire time, but he was the man who made Bea Pullman and Delilah Johnson rich--and once again, unlikable characters = great actors.

 I must also add that Mr. Sparks reminded me (in appearance and performance) of Moses Gunn.


The "King of Pre-Code" in the trailer for Goodbye Again

I loved Warren William as Bea's ichthyologist boyfriend, Stephen Archer. He added the necessary light, comedic (and of course, romantic) touch for this movie filled with heartbreak and emotion.


Contrary to my obvious irritation to certain aspects of this film, for the most part, I did enjoy watching it. It was beautiful to look at, the actors were beautiful and all gave solid performances. However, even though we were to care for the black and white characters' life and problems equally, I still feel as though Delilah, Peola, and even the black bit players and extras were kept "in their place". It's rare that I prefer a remake of something to an original, but prefer the 1959 film adaptation of Imitation of Life to the original. The second version didn't seem to give off the message of "black=bad, but that's life and you've gotta accept it (and the conditions)" like the first one did.

I'll have to check out the book someday, as well.


I watched Imitation of Life (1934) on a personal DVD. I don't believe that a (free) link is available online.


Unless noted otherwise, the images in this post were obtained from Wikipedia. They were used for informational purposes only. If the rightful owner(s) of any of these images wishes to have them removed, please contact me, and I will do so immediately.



  1. Great observation! Yesterday the great Juanita Moore from the 2nd film passed away. Great and proud talents! Indeed!

  2. Why no photos of Sebie Hendricks? Was played by a White actress, no info available still you have screencaps to use.


Rude comments will be deleted. Irrelevant comments will be ignored.