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Film / Imitation of Life (1934)

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Imitation of Life is a 1934 drama film directed by John M. Stahl and starring Claudette Colbert. It examines racism in a way that was very daring for a film made in The '30s.

Bea Pullman (Colbert) is a recent widow who is struggling to raise her toddler daughter Jessie and keep up her late husband's business selling maple syrup. A chance encounter leads to Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers), a black housekeeper, and her very white-skinned daughter Peola moving in with the Pullmans, with Delilah keeping house in exchange for room and board. Delilah's skill with making pancakes gives Bea an idea, and the two women wind up opening a breakfast diner specializing in pancakes. The pancake joint does well, but after a customer suggests to Bea that she merchandises the pancakes, Bea winds up as the owner of a highly successful business selling "Aunt Delilah's Pancake Mix" nationwide.

Delilah for her part is content to stay with Bea and take care of their little family, although Bea insists on putting money in the bank for her. Her daughter Peola, meanwhile, is light-skinned enough to pass as white and grows to resent her mother for identifying her as black and holding her back socially. While Delilah struggles with Peola, Bea, now a wealthy businesswoman, falls in love with Steve Archer (Warren William), a handsome, charming ichthyologist—but so does a now grown-up Jessie.

Based on a novel by Fannie Hurst. Another film version was released in 1959, directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Lana Turner.

This film provides examples of:

  • Call-Back: When they're signing the contracts for the pancake mix business, Bea asks Delilah what she wants with all the money they're going to get. Delilah says that all she wants is a big fancy funeral, complete with a procession through town and a horse-drawn carriage for her coffin. At the end, that's what she gets.
  • Dances and Balls: A now super-rich Bea meets Steve for the first time when he comes to a ball that she is hosting in her New York townhouse.
  • Death by Despair: Delilah just weakens and dies for no particular reason after Peola says that she's cutting Delilah out of her life so she can pass as white.
  • Hiding Your Heritage: Peola is a black girl who passes herself off as white.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Bea and Delilah form a life-long friendship, which includes living together.
  • Hollywood Genetics: OK, Peola's Disappeared Dad is described as "light-skinned", but it still seems absurd that a woman as dark-skinned as Delilah could birth a child as white-looking as Peola. (The actress who played Peola, Fredi Washington, was in fact of mixed white and African-American ancestry.)
  • Mammy: Both played straight and subverted in the person of Delilah. Delilah certainly hits every note of the stereotypical Mammy—overweight, uneducated, ungrammatical English, and an extremely servile attitude. She doesn't even ask for any money when her pancake mix makes Bea rich. On the other hand, unlike most every other Mammy in film history, Delilah has character depth and a storyline of her own, in which she is trying to raise her light-skinned child the best she can.
  • Maybe Ever After: Once she finds out that Jessie has fallen in love with Steve, Bea decides to break up with Steve to prevent anything coming between her and Jessie. But she tells Steve to call on her again whenever Jessie falls in love with someone else.
  • Meet Cute: A platonic example, as Delilah blunders into Bea's home due to confusing the address in a want ad. She winds up staying with Bea forever. Then a more conventional romantic version in which Steve, invited to Bea's party, dances with her without knowing who she is. He complains about having to meet the "pancake queen."
  • Pass Fail: The story of Peola's life, as she continually seeks to deny and escape from her mother in order to hide the fact that she's really black. In one sad scene, Peola is humiliated when Delilah shows up at her school in order to bring her some galoshes.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Just what does Delilah put in those pancakes?
  • Running Gag: Various characters having no idea what an ichthyologist is.
  • Time Skip: Several—five years after Bea opens the pancake house, to show that it was a success, five more years to show that the pancake mix business has made her rich, then several more years after that to show Jessie and Peola as adults.