Imitation of Life is a 1934 American drama film directed by John M. Stahl. The screenplay by William Hurlbut, based on Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel of the same name, was augmented by eight additional uncredited writers, including Preston Sturges and Finley Peter Dunne. The film stars Claudette Colbert, Warren William and Rochelle Hudson and features Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington.
The film was originally released by Universal Pictures on November 26, 1934, and later re-issued in 1936. A 1959 remake with the same title stars Lana Turner.
In 2005, Imitation of Life was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. It was also named by Time in 2007 as one of “The 25 Most Important Films on Race”.
White widow Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her toddler daughter Jessie (Juanita Quigley), take in black housekeeper Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her daughter Peola (Fredi Washington), whose fair complexion conceals her mixed-race ancestry. Bea exchanges room and board for work, although struggling to make ends meet. Delilah and Peola quickly become like family to Jessie and Bea. They particularly enjoy Delilah’s pancakes, made from a special family recipe.
Bea finds it difficult to make a living selling maple syrup, as her husband had done. Using her wiles to get a storefront on the busy Atlantic City boardwalk refurbished for practically nothing, she opens a pancake restaurant, where Delilah cooks in the front window. Five years later, Bea makes her last payment to the furniture man and is debt-free.
Jessie (Marilyn Knowlden) and Peola have proven to be challenging children to raise: Jessie is demanding, not particularly studious, relying instead on her charm. She is the first person to call Peola “black” in a hurtful way, hinting that their childhood idyll is doomed. Peola does not tell her classmates at school that she is “black” and is humiliated when her mother shows up one day, revealing her secret.
Later, at the suggestion of a passerby, Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks), Bea sets up an even more successful pancake flour corporation, marketing Delilah as an Aunt Jemima-like product mascot. She offers Delilah a 20% interest in her family recipe, but childlike, Delilah refuses and continues to act as Bea’s housekeeper and factotum, the shares held presumably in trust. Bea becomes wealthy from her business.
Ten years later, the two older women are confronted with problems. Eighteen-year-old Jessie (Rochelle Hudson), home on college vacation, falls in love with her mother’s boyfriend, Stephen Archer (Warren William), who is unaware at first of her affections. Meanwhile, Peola (Fredi Washington), seeking more opportunities in the segregated society, passes as white, identifying with her European ancestry and breaking Delilah’s heart.
Leaving her Black college, Peola takes a job as a cashier in a whites only restaurant. When her mother and Bea track her down, she is humiliated to be identified as black. She finally tells her mother that she is going away, never to return, so she can pass as a white woman without the fear that Delilah will show up. Her mother is heartbroken and takes to her bed, murmuring Peola’s name and forgiving her before eventually succumbing to heartbreak.
The black servants sing a spiritual as she dies, with Bea holding her hand at the end. Delilah’s last wish had been for a large, grand funeral, complete with a marching band and a horse-drawn hearse.
Bea sees to it that Delilah is given the funeral she wished for, and, just before the processional begins, a remorseful, crying Peola appears, begging her dead mother to forgive her.
Peola returns to her Black college and presumably embraces her African descent. Bea breaks her engagement with Stephen, not wanting to hurt her daughter’s feelings by being with him, but promises to find him after Jessie is over her infatuation with him. Ultimately, Bea embraces Jessie, remembering the girl’s insistent demands for her toy duck (her “quack quack”) when she was a toddler.