Now That’s What I Call Quite Good: Imitation Of Life (1934)

Imitation Of Life 1934 indexThe first 70 minutes of this quite unusual 1934 film is a mix of buddy comedy and rom-com as Bea (Claudette Colbert) and Delilah (Louise Beavers) start up a pancake restaurant together, and Bea meets the suave and charming fish expert Stephen Archer (Warren William). Meanwhile a certain aspect of the film deals with the fact that Delilah is black and has to deal with a level of racism, along with the fact that her daughter can pass for white yet is deeply ashamed of her mother’s ethnicity and upset that she isn’t technically Caucasian herself.

Yet it’s not a film which really explores this complex situation, and the first two thirds are mostly light and frothy material, a celebration to a certain extent of these two women who go out in to the world without a man by their sides, at first at least, and set up a business which thanks to Bea’s business savvy behaviour and Delilah’s secret family recipe is soon a huge success, and with the aid of sort of sidekick Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks, who gets the best one liners in the film) they begin selling a powdered pancake mix and are wildly successful.

Throughout this there are only hints of the direction it eventually takes when Delilah’s young daughter Peola acts out against her mother and embarrasses her in public, but then this aspect is ignored as Bea meets Stephen Archer and falls for him rather quickly. But with forty odd minutes to go the film takes a serious turn as a now teenage Peola (Fredi Washington) flees the college she was studying at and rejects Delilah, claiming that there’s no way Delilah could be her mother at the restaurant she’s now working at, while Bea’s daughter Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) returns from school and all but instantly is swooning at the mere sight of poor old confused Stephen.

It’s an unusual mix, a rom com which also tackles serious themes, but it feels like it shouldn’t have waited until the final act before doing so. This does seem to be partially because of the Hays Code however, which was introduced only a year prior and led to a lot of films being censored, and unfortunately this was one of them, with a storyline about a black youth almost being lynched forcibly cut from the movie, as was more of Peola’s struggles, and a big element of the finale had to be changed too.

Based on an acclaimed novel, it was adapted a second time in 1959 and while I’m normally against remakes it’s understandable here given how much was changed thanks to those Hays Code idiots. It’s still a film which is worth checking out if only because of the strong, (mostly) independent women who feature in the film, the rom-com element is packed with strong dialogue (potentially thanks to Preston Sturges who was one of eight uncredited writers on the movie) and even despite the changes the ending is still quite powerful.

★★★1/2

Alex Finch.
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