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  Imitation of Life Passing Fancies
Year: 1934
Director: John M. Stahl
Stars: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, Juanita Quigley, Alan Hale, Henry Armetta, Wyndham Standing, Franklin Pangborn
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert) was widowed early in life, and left to bring up her daughter Jessie (Juanita Quigley) alone, and take over her late husband's maple syrup company which provided enough to get by but little more than that. One day she was bathing little Jessie in preparation for sending the girl to nursery, when the phone rang, and she rushed to answer, then as if that were not enough the doorbell rang and the breakfast cooking on the stove was ready too. The woman at the door was Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and she had the wrong house, she was looking for a domestic job. But after helping out Bea with her minor crisis of baby and breakfast, Bea invited her to stick around...

Imitation of Life was one of those soapy movies (in a soap opera sense, rather than a bathtime sense) based on a bestselling novel that showed up with some regularity ever since the inception of the cinematic medium, and indeed continue to this day. But it was controversial back in the nineteen-thirties thanks to its frank discussion of race, barely scraping by with a certificate allowing it to be shown in America's theatres under the increasingly strict Production Code, and the cause of much grumbling in many quarters of society there, no matter what the colour of the complainer's skin. Even looking back from the vantage point of the passing years, it failed to win the acclaim its fans felt due to it.

It was not really acknowledged until it was remade in the late fifties, probably the latest it could be produced as a popular entertainment without a heavy dose of irony or lecturing to leaven its themes of racial shame and the validity of African Americans wishing they had the privileges of the whites they shared the country with. Remember this was still a land segregated in large areas to keep black and white apart, and the Civil Rights battles were some time away when Colbert and Beavers played characters who were best friends across that racial divide. There were caveats, naturally: Delilah is happy to play housekeeper to Bea, even in the second half when they both come into a lot of money.

This leaves them set for life, Bea's maple syrup combining with Delilah's delicious pancake recipe to deliver a combination the hungry public cannot resist (this was the era of The Great Depression, and rags to riches narratives were understandably popular). But each woman has a daughter who will cause them great heartache, to tell the audience that money does not buy you happiness - but it sure makes it easier to endure the misery than if you were poor, it has to be said. Colbert, enjoying the biggest year of her career with her slinky turn as Cleopatra making a sex symbol out of her, and winning an Oscar for her role in Frank Capra's classic It Happened One Night, was essaying a more matronly part here, but that did not preclude her from suffering in furs as her female fans wished to watch. While Bea's relationship issues stemmed from the now teenage Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falling for her fiancé Stephen (the as always, impossibly suave Warren William), it paled in significance to Delilah and her offspring Peola.

Played by Fredi Washington, a stage actress, Imitation of Life proved her making and undoing simultaneously, creating a star out of the light-skinned, green-eyed beauty, but thanks to being so convincing, lending her the unwanted reputation of reluctance to accept her African American roots. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it was unfortunate a film that so sincerely placed the matters of race in the States to the forefront of its drama would have this detrimental effect on its brightest new star; she would leave Hollywood soon after, disillusioned but filled with new fervour to become an activist, which she did. Though the discussion of "passing", where Peola is obsessed with pretending to be white, is less current now (if anything, it'll occasionally happen the other way around), and the stereotyping was there in its characters, this remained an important stepping stone culturally: everyone was talking about it in 1934, and it's instructive to see what the fuss was about, in spite of an ending where everyone is left well and truly miserable, which can be frustrating unless you want a good cry.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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