Douglas Sirk fashioned a memorably lavish 1959 remake (with Lana Turner), but director John Stahl’s Oscar-nominated 1934 weepie was the original screen version of Fannie Hurst’s popular novel, a tear-jerking tale of racial barriers, troubled mother-and-daughter relationships, and rags-to-riches female empowerment. (No fewer than three of Stahl’s 1930s films were remade in the ’50s by melodrama master Sirk: Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession, and When Tomorrow Comes, which became Sirk’s Interlude). Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers play, respectively, Bea, a penniless young widow, and Delilah, her African-American housemaid. Bea parlays Delilah’s special pancake recipe into a formidable business empire, but neither women can lessen the tragic self-torment of Delilah’s light-skinned daughter Peola (Fredi Washington), who attempts to pass for white. If Imitation of Life seems, to contemporary eyes, suffused with stereotypes, it was also something of a Hollywood landmark: its portrait of black-white friendship was highly unusual, as was its hint of real racial problems in America. The film struck a chord with black audiences, which contributed to its enormous box-office success. Actress Washington, later a civil rights activist, impresses as Peola (a white actress, Susan Kohner, played the equivalent role in Sirk’s remake). “Classic and compulsively watchable” (Pauline Kael). B&W, 35mm. 116 mins.
"Wonderfully warm and witty in its observation of two women (one black, one white) who not only crash the race barriers in their friendship but successfully go it alone in a man's world..."Time Out | full review