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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. Read critic reviews

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Movie Info

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.

Cast & Crew

Claudette Colbert
Beatrice "Bea" Pullman
Warren William
Stephen "Steve" Archer
Louise Beavers
Delilah Johnson
Rochelle Hudson
Jessie Pullman
Ned Sparks
Elmer Smith
Henry Armetta
The Painter
Fannie Hurst
Writer
Finley Peter Dunne
Writer
William Hurlbut
Screenwriter
Henry Henigson
Associate Producer
Heinz Roemheld
Original Music
Merritt B. Gerstad
Cinematographer
Philip Cahn
Film Editor
Charles D. Hall
Art Direction
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Critic Reviews for Imitation of Life

All Critics (52) | Top Critics (17) | Fresh (45) | Rotten (7)

Audience Reviews for Imitation of Life

  • Mar 31, 2016
    What an interesting film this was. On the surface, you have Colbert in a charming role as a self-made woman who makes it to the top with pluck, ambition, and a secret pancake recipe she gets from a maid. But that's not what makes the movie interesting. Colbert's maid is played by Louise Beavers, an African-American, and also a single mother. Her daughter Peola, played by Fredi Washington, is light-skinned, and wants to 'pass' as white. There are several brutal, heart-wrenching scenes between the two of them - as a child (played by Dorothy Black), Peola is upset about being called black, believing it an insult; later in school, she has to slink out of an all-white classroom amidst stares and whispers to see her mother who has shown up unexpectedly; and finally, as an adult, pretending she doesn't even know her at her job, where she's also 'passed', and later telling her she wants to disown her entirely. Beavers' character is sweet and strong, and bears this suffering to her deathbed. 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.
    Antonius B Super Reviewer
  • Oct 24, 2013
    I did not see the Douglas Sirk version that was produced 20 years later but I found this depiction of two girls, one white and one black, who were raised together by circumstance is ever so good.
    John B Super Reviewer
  • Sep 03, 2010
    I normally hate remakes, but Sirk's remake of this movie presents a richer, well rounded, and more realistic story than this movie does. Although I do applaud the film makers for choosing this story, they disappoint the audience by not going into depth with the characters.
    Aj V Super Reviewer
  • Dec 23, 2007
    This is more of a social conflict drama with the mother-daughter conflict woven in, a fine film but the Lana Turner version is more emotionally involving.
    jay n Super Reviewer

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