Imitation of Life (1934) tells the story of two women who creates a successful pancake empire. Unfortunately adversity sets in when the women face their own personal problems separately.
This classic film is based on the 1933 novel by Fannie Hurston. After the success of the book, director John M. Stalh adapted into a groundbreaking film of its time. It also was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Picture, Sound Mixing and Best Assistant Director.
Story: Bea Pullman (Claudia Colbert) is a white widow mother raising a toddler (Jessie) all on her own. Her late husband left a maple syrup business behind that is struggling to do well. Bea is pretty busy between keeping the business intact and raising her young child until a knock on the door will change her life forever. Bea opens the door to and sees Delilah Johnson, a black woman with her young child Peola in tow. Delilah is looking for work and mistakenly went to the wrong address for the maid service. Delilah decided that she wanted to stay with Bea says she will cook and clean for nothing as long as she and her daughter have a place to stay. Bea sympathizes with Delilah's story and lets her stay in her home.
One morning Delilah makes pancakes for Bea before she heads off to work and Bea comment on how tasteful Delilah's pancakes are. Delilah than reveals the secret recipe on the pancakes to Bea secretly. Bea proposes an idea that the two women can profit off the pancake recipe and become partners. After a little strategizing from Bea and helpful marketing from Elmer Smith-a man (later becoming a business manager) who suggest she ‘box the flour'. Since then, the women pancake business blossomed and became one of the most popular corporations in town.
Years goes by and the business is still going quite well but personal wise, Delilah face one of the most painful dilemma a mother can have-- a distant relationship with her daughter. A incident in school occurred when Peola white peers finds out she is black after Delilah came into her classroom to give her a raincoat since it was a rainy day. Since then, Peola disowned her mother and this literally broken the heart of Delilah and resulted in her falling ill.
Meanwhile Bea forms a relationship with a man named Steve Archer at her own party she hosted. Jessie, now and young adult, meets a ichthyologist named Steven Archer . After several encounters and conversation with the older man, she began to fall for him, unbeknownst to Bea. This instance put a minor strain on their mother-daughter relationship.
Despite Delilah's and Bea's success, it doesn't prevent the situations they endured.
Social issues- Imitation of Life were at a time period where racism and racial stereotypes were still prevalent. Also to keep in mind, the two main characters happened to be women from opposite spectrum who came together as not only friends but as business partners, which is rare, as men are shown as leaders of society and women is shown to be dependent on men. Director Stalh took a risk into creating this film since many whites were not too fond of the idea of a white lady working equally aside of a black woman, who happens to be a maid at that! On the other side blacks didn't like the idea of Delilah being overly submissive and behaving in a mammy-like manner.
The thing that makes me cringe about this movie is the stereotypes of Delilah. What's been label about most blacks in the 30s--very loyal, subservient, and very calm and obient to their white counterparts, Delilah were everything and more. For instance, Bea suggested that Delilah can purchase her own home now the money has skyrocketed. Delilah insisted on staying with Bea and taking care of her and Jessie and the only good use of her money is for her own funeral--the only thing I commended her for using some of her money is sending Peola to college. But she proved to be dependent to a fault. As long as she looking after her friend and daughter's welfare, her own self and money doesn't really matter.
What makes Imitation of Life the most is Peola struggling with her racial identity. What is even sadder that she urges her mother to strip away her role as a parent, simply because she refuses to acknowledge being black and prefer to start a new life as a young white woman. Perhaps it can be possible that Peola is torn with her decision--live the rest of her life passing as white by living a life of deception or accept her ethnic identity and have the limited offerings of what society brings her. Either way it is a life that is hard to live one way or the other.
Acting: The acting is incredible in this film and everyone especially; Colbert, Beavers and Washington bring emotions that engage the audience as if they are part of their lives. This movie is definitely a tear-jerker when the viewer sees step by step of a mother-daughter relationship slowly leading into destruction and into a tragic ending.
Anyone who loves classic black and white films, Imitation of Life is the film to watch.