Imitation of Life (1934)
You know, this version of Imitation of Life isn't as hard to watch as I remembered it being when I was in my huffy, politically-hypersensitive twenties. It's slightly more nuanced than the Douglas Sirk technicolor, soapy remake in 1959, but there does seem to be real friendship and regard -- inasmuch as one was possible -- between the white businesswoman, Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), and the black maid, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers).
The story is of two widows struggling to raise their young daughters during the Great Depression. Bea has taken over her late husband's sales route selling maple syrup door-to-door (so that's a thing). Delilah, who has no doubt always worked, meets Bea by accident her way to a job prospect and the two decide to combine resources, with Delilah working below scale as Bea's maid for room and board. Bea's daughter, Jessie (Rochelle Hudson), is a friendly if not very bright kid; Delilah's child, Peola (Fredi Washington), is a smart, sad girl who, being very light-skinned, is constantly torn by the access her lightness affords her in white society and the fact that her actual blackness forbids her that access.
One morning over Delilah's fabulous pancakes, Bea gets the idea to set up a pancake house using Delilah's secret recipe, so she can (1) stop schlepping cans of maple syrup around town and (2) cash in on the serendipity. Somehow Bea cons a lease out of a store owner, furnishes the place without paying for it, and becomes an instant success. She offers Delilah a (low) percentage of the business and lets her cook the pancakes. Also to keep cleaning the house. In spite of the imbalance in their relationship, the two women share easy conversation about men and the difficulties of raising children alone, particularly when one isn't very sharp and the other is tormented by racial prejudice.
Enter Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks), cigar-chewing businessman, who also knows a good thing when he sees one, who convinces Bea to expand "Aunt Delilah's Pancake House" into an "Aunt Delilah's Pancake Flour" empire. Well, that makes everybody rich and happy. Except Peola, who has been passing for white at every opportunity only to be thwarted when her mother comes to visit and confuses everyone when she calls People her baby. Bea is forever shocked at how mean Peola is to her mother. I'm not the biggest Claudette Colbert fan, but I really like the way she delivers on sticking up for Delilah in this picture.
Now happily rich and successful, Bea meets handsome playboy ichthyologist Stephen Archer (Warren William), a friend of Elmer's, who is a huge step up from syrup salesman. The two fall in love and decide to marry, but first he must meet Jessie, who happens to be home from college and who is unaware of their plans. Jessie promptly falls in love with Steve (because, Warren William) which makes Bea break off their engagement to spare Jessie's feelings.
Meanwhile, Peola has left the negro college and plans to live as a white person, telling her mother that she must let her go and never acknowledge her. This, of course, finally breaks Delilah's heart and she takes to her bed, calling for Peola as she eventually dies in despair. The money Delilah eschewed from the business to buy her own house is spent on the biggest funeral in Harlem, where Peola shows up sobbing and begging forgiveness.
Outcome: Peola goes back to the negro college and Bea makes sure that Steve knows that eventually Jessie will get over him and they can't pick up where they left off. So, that's those problems of vastly different orders of magnitude solved.
There's a lot in this version of Imitation of Life about class, race, gender, and relationships than perhaps the film originally meant to say. For one thing, Fredi Washington was actually a mixed-race actress, not a white one playing mulatto as was the custom. And for another, the kinds of things the two widows talk about -- love, kids, work -- ring very true of things women in their circumstances would discuss. It's very worth seeing if you haven't in a long while.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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