Movie: Imitation of Life (1934)

ImitationLifeLife really was different in 1934.  For one thing, this movie includes a plug for the NRA: National Recovery Act, along with the slogan “we do our part.”  That’s the government program that was all about ending the depression.  And a fantastically successful business is at the center of the story.

Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) was a widow with a small child, trying to support them by continuing her husband’s business of selling maple syrup.  One day Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) came to her door by accident, mistaking a street and an avenue address for a classified ad for a housekeeper.  She saw how harried Bea was trying to get her daughter ready for the “day nursery” (day care center, in modern terms), and volunteered to work for room and board if she could have her daughter Peola with her.  Peola is quite light skinned, even though Delilah is pretty dark.

Soon, Bea discovers that Delilah makes wonderful pancakes using her mother’s secret recipe, and they open a shop on the boardwalk (Atlantic City? Coney Island?  not clear) called Aunt Delilah’s Pancakes.  Not long after, they are inspired to sell “Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Flour, using an image that will certainly remind you of Aunt Jemima.  It becomes a huge success, and they become wealthy.

A large part of the story revolves around Peola, who looks white but is considered to be black just because her mother is black.  She hates it, and passes for white whenever she can.  This means, of course, that she cannot acknowledge her mother.  It’s a tragedy that’s hard to understand in today’s terms, but was terribly important back in those days.  Still, it’s not really about racism as we understand the term, it’s about Peola’s hatred for who she is.  Poor Delilah is forgiving no matter how cruel Peola is to her, saying she hates her, because she understands that Peola really does not mean she hates her mother, just her mother’s color.

A secondary plot is about Bea’s romance with a gentlemanly ichthyologist and its effect on her daughter.  I can’t help thinking that part would have been written very differently today, but I will say no more on that matter.

This is a fine example of thoughtful drama from the 1930s, a good subject for a history of film class.  Also pretty good entertainment, if you can make allowances for how different life was in those days.  How different Hollywood was!

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.