Imitation of Life Reviews
These are the scenes with real emotional impact in the story, and it's stunning, though not surprising, that neither Beavers nor Washington where nominated for an Academy Award. But Colbert was, even though she was also nominated in the same year for 'It Happened One Night'. How true this trend was 82 years ago, and how true it is today (see 'Creed').
Now it is true that the love story in the movie for Colbert with William Warren is captivating, and it gets complicated when her daughter falls in love with him as well, and despite no wrongdoing on his part, creates a dilemma for Colbert. I liked this twist, it was unexpected and created a little angst for the white characters, who were otherwise in beautiful clothes, sipping champagne, and dancing the night away. However, the resolution of this at the end pales in comparison to the resolution of Beavers' story which precedes it.
The movie is a great snapshot of what pushing the boundaries meant in 1934. On the positive side, you have a single mother shown balancing family and work, and keeping control of her business as it skyrockets. You have Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African-American actress (who in real life disdained 'passing') hired to play the role of Peola, when it was much more common to hire whites. You have Colbert's character inviting Beavers into her home and not showing an ounce of racism as she talks to her, or concern when by hiring her they'll live together. And you have a movie that showed very sensitive racial subject matter, revealing to the audience the real struggle African-Americans go through, and in a way that was thoughtful, not exploitative.
On the other hand, you have Beavers' being simple-minded, superstitious, and wanting to remain subservient to Colbert's, even when they've made enough money and it's no longer necessary. While it underscores her big heart, it also perpetuates a myth, one that is very convenient for Caucasians. Also, because the Hays Code had recently gone into effect, references to Peola being of mixed-race were avoided, because 'passing' itself was already dangerous ground, and the concept of racial mixing was a definite no-no. Her father is simply referred to as having been 'light-skinned'. Just as importantly, a scene in the script depicting a black boy being attacked and nearly lynched for coming up to a white woman was excised; conservative America was not willing to admit this shameful truth.
All in all though, an important film. The Colbert story is cute on its own, but I wish the emphasis had been placed more on Beavers, that it had been a movie more from her viewpoint with the minor character and subplots belonging to Colbert instead. Fair or unfair, I knocked it down a half a star as a result.
The second half of the film has a lot of unnecessary melodrama revolving around the character of Bea (Claudette Colbert) and her love interest, but overall this is an important and interesting flashback to the 1930s.
How frustrating it must have been for Louise Beavers to appear in movies like this! Hattie McDaniel summed it up beautifully as "I'd rather play a maid than be one," but people really genuinely thought the attitude this movie had toward her character was enlightened. I think they thought her character was an equal partner, that she and the white woman shared equally. It's certainly true that she makes it to the box cover. However, her character is redolent of McDaniel's most famous character, and she'd been a slave! Here, let's face it, the character is willing to place herself into slavery voluntarily--she's working for room and board, and even when it looks like they'll be making quite a lot of money from her recipe and her likeness, she doesn't take the share she frankly deserves. I was right in my guess--the story in this version is made pretty well ridiculous.
Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) is a young widow with a toddler (Juanita Quigley) to raise on her own, which she does in the not-quite lucrative field of selling maple syrup. One day, fifth-billed Delilah Johnson (Beavers) shows up on her doorstep for reasons I missed. She tells Bea that she'll work as her housekeeper for room and board for her and her daughter, Peola (uncredited Sebie Hendricks). Coincidentally, Delilah turns out to have the world's best pancake recipe. It's her grandmother's recipe, and she won't tell it to a soul . . . until Bea convinces her to first start a restaurant on the boardwalk and then start selling her mix. Meanwhile, Peola (now Fredi Washington) is trying to pass for white, which she's very able to do, given how pale she is. Bea gets involved with Steve Archer (Warren William). While she's away on business, now-eighteen Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falls in love with her mother's boyfriend. Peola runs away so she can pass. And all Delilah wants is a proper funeral.
And by "all she wants," I mean that they give her 20% of the company. Despite the fact that it's her recipe and her face on the box. And at that, she says she's making it (or the rest of the money; I wasn't quite clear) to Bea, because if she had her own house, who'd take care of Bea and Jessie? She's really not a person in a lot of ways. Steve is an ichthyologist, and Bea doesn't know what that is. (Jessie cleverly looks it up in a dictionary!) Later, when Delilah is rubbing her feet--and can you picture Bea rubbing Delilah's feet?--Bea tells her what Steve does, and she basically amuses herself with the fact that Delilah won't know what that is. Which, again, she didn't at first, either. When they're first discussing putting Delilah's face on the packaging, they tell her to turn her face a certain way and smile, and she doesn't work out--even when Bea and the other person start walking away--that it's okay for her to stop holding the pose now. Because it's funny!
Once again, the more interesting aspects of the plot get swept up in the story of the white woman. I want to know more about Peola's life. (Also why her mother gave her such a dreadful name. She doesn't need to be the white-bread Sarah Jane of the remake, but come on!) Bea and Peola act as though Jessie's calling her black is about the worst thing possible to say, but by standards of the time, and even now, she very much was. Sure, she was extremely light, and one of the other things I want to know about is her father, but her mother was dark Louise Beavers. (Just two years older than Fredi Washington!) No, she didn't much want to be black, and she almost certainly spent all her time from age nineteen passing, but maybe part of the reason for that is that it was considered, even by "enlightened" Bea, to be such a serious insult. How would that make a person feel? How would it make you feel if something that's such a basic part of yourself was too insulting to mention?
There are the seeds of a good story here, but once again, it's subsumed in the story they think we'll like better, the story of the white woman. One of the reasons given by people who don't think Pixar should do a movie with a female main character is that it wouldn't be "universal," which has the implication that girls should be interested in stories about boys, but boys shouldn't be interested in stories about girls. Similarly, here, it's the white people who are important. Delilah is having a deep personal crisis, but that's swept aside in the fact that Steve worked a little too hard to get Jessie to like him. (And I have to tell you, if he showed her the kind of attention that would make her think he loved her, he's doing it wrong.) It's implied that Peola won't be able to face the children in her classroom now that they know Delilah is her mother, but will they treat it as the major problem that she does? And did anyone else notice that, when discussing the better life the children could have, it was that Jessie could go to college and Peola just wouldn't have to be a maid?