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Imitation of Life

Released Nov 26, 1934 1h 46m Drama List
88% Tomatometer 56 Reviews 85% Audience Score 2,500+ Ratings
Widow Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her daughter, Jessie, take in a fair-skinned black girl and her mother, housekeeper Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers). Struggling to make ends meet, Delilah shares her family pancake recipe with Bea, and the two decide to start a business on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Together, the women find great success and considerable fortune, but they also encounter family hardships and some deep-seated identity and racial problems. Read More Read Less
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Imitation of Life

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Critics Consensus

Imitation of Life isn't always subtle, but even as it tugs at the heartstrings, this socially conscious melodrama effectively explores Jim Crow-era racial taboos.

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Critics Reviews

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Kevin Maher Times (UK) The soul of the drama is the conflict that Delilah’s fair-skinned daughter feels between her personal black identity and the dominant white society around her. [Full review in Spanish] Rated: 4/5 Feb 27, 2023 Full Review Eric Henderson Slant Magazine The film remains a conscientious depiction of the bitter realities of race in America. Jan 10, 2023 Full Review Wanda Hale New York Daily News The race angle is treated with so obvious an attempt at tear-jerking that a good part of the Hurst appeal for increased... tolerance is lost in a welter of sentimentality. Rated: 2.5/4 Jan 30, 2021 Full Review Nicholas Bell A classic melodrama, John M. Stahl’s version of Imitation of Life is perhaps a more accurate depiction of partially mislaid good intentions regarding contentious race relations compared to Sirk’s more lavish 1959 version. Rated: 3.5/5 Jun 14, 2023 Full Review Michael J. Casey Boulder Weekly Adapted from the novel by Fannie Hurst, "Imitation of Life" is a multi-layered melodrama that feels staid in some places and fresh as a daisy in others. Rated: 3.5/5 Jan 19, 2023 Full Review Charlotta Bass California Eagle Miss Beavers, who has been in pictures for about ten years found her masterpiece in Imitation of Life. Jan 30, 2021 Full Review Read all reviews

Audience Reviews

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david f Quite a moving film about America's racial problems and the way they can tear families apart. Rated 3.5 out of 5 stars 03/31/23 Full Review Ethan S A very unexpected film, having recently watched Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night from the same year, this is a complex and gripping drama of an entirely different sort from the Oscar-winning screwball comedy. Although race and representation in film is a fairly constant concern in modern filmmaking, it is interesting and indeed enlightening to see it dealt with in such a forthright manner (if not exactly nuanced by today's standards) at a time when Jim Crow and racial segregation were still part of daily life in the United States. The relationships between the mothers and daughters and particularly the exploration of Peola's plight as a woman of color who can pass for white are all noteworthy, and it helps that the movie is enjoyable to watch and the characters easy to become emotionally invested in. Rated 4 out of 5 stars 05/11/22 Full Review Audience Member An adaptation of Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel of the same name about two single mothers endeavoring to build a pancake business and bringing up their contrary daughters, with one of them passing as white, is a brave piece of filmmaking at that time because of taboo subjects of miscegenation and interracial desires. Rated 3.5 out of 5 stars 01/22/23 Full Review Audience Member "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. (***) Rated 4.5 out of 5 stars 02/08/23 Full Review georgan g An artful film best viewed from within it's time period. Great acting. Rated 3.5 out of 5 stars 03/31/23 Full Review Audience Member I was amazed at the candor in this movie. America was very segregated in 1934 and the movie did not shy away from showing the effects of that segregation. I liked how they showed the differences in the life of white and black mothers. I liked how they show that even in the middle of such suffocating injustice black people were able to find a way to live in dignity. I was also impressed with the casting of the movie all the actors did a first rate job. I had never seen this version I had only seen the 1959 version which is also a great movie but I liked the way this movie went right after the injustice of racial predjudice. I watched this movie reminding myself it was made before any of the major civil rights lawsuits, legislation and protests movements. Rated 5 out of 5 stars 02/14/23 Full Review Read all reviews
Imitation of Life

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Movie Info

Synopsis Widow Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her daughter, Jessie, take in a fair-skinned black girl and her mother, housekeeper Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers). Struggling to make ends meet, Delilah shares her family pancake recipe with Bea, and the two decide to start a business on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Together, the women find great success and considerable fortune, but they also encounter family hardships and some deep-seated identity and racial problems.
John M. Stahl
Carl Laemmle Jr., John M. Stahl
Fannie Hurst, Finley Peter Dunne, Victor Heerman, William Hurlbut
Universal Pictures
Production Co
Universal Pictures
Original Language
Release Date (Theaters)
Nov 26, 1934, Wide
Release Date (Streaming)
Apr 19, 2016
1h 46m
Aspect Ratio
Flat (1.37:1)
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