Imitation of Life (film)

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Original title Imitation of Life
Country of production United States
original language English
Publishing year 1934
length 111 minutes
Director John M. Stahl
script William Hurlbut
Victor Heerman
Finley Peter Dunne
production Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal Pictures
music Heinz Roemheld
camera Merritt B. Gerstad
cut Philip Cahn
Maurice Wright

Imitation of Life is a 1934 American film about racial prejudice and gender roles. The main roles are played by Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers , directed by John M. Stahl . The script is based on the novel of the same name by Fannie Hurst . Time selected the film as one of the 25 most important films about the coexistence of people of different skin colors. In 1959 Douglas Sirk shot a remake of the same name .


When her husband dies, Beatrice Pullman continues her husband's business of selling maple syrup. One day, when Jessie falls into the bathtub and the milk burns while trying to dress her two-year-old daughter Jessie and make breakfast at the same time, the African American Delilah Johnson stands at her door looking for a job as a maid. She convinces Beatrice to take Delilah and her fair-skinned daughter Peola into her home, because it is difficult to find a job that does not separate her from her daughter. In return for board and lodging, Delilah takes care of the two children and the household, while Beatrice earns the four of them a living. After Beatrice tried Delilah's pancakes, which are made according to an old family recipe, she spontaneously founded a pancake house. The company is proving to be a success. A customer named Elmer Smith gave her the idea of ​​selling the recipe as a baking flour mix; Beatrice then hires him as a manager. The company becomes a gold mine that brings in millions. Beatrice wants to give Delilah a 20 percent share in the company, but Delilah refuses; she wants to keep looking after the household and the children. Beatrice replies that she will invest Delilah's share in the bank for her.

At a party to mark the company's tenth anniversary, Beatrice meets the scientist Stephen Archer, a friend of Elmer. Beatrice and Stephen fall in love, but they want to wait with a wedding until Jessie returns from her college trip and has met Stephen. At the same time Peola ran away. Peola has felt excluded from society because of her origins since she was at school, as on the one hand she is often considered white with her light skin color, but on the other hand is identified again and again as black by her dark-skinned mother - so she tries her hand at her mother to distance. Delilah wants to find her in Virginia with Beatrice's help. Beatrice instructs Stephen to look after her daughter while she is away. After a few days of searching in Virginia, Delilah finds Peola, who works as a waitress in a restaurant that is forbidden to black people. Peola denies knowing Delilah and runs out of the restaurant. She returns but still denies her mother in order to lead a life of her own.

At the same time, Jessie fell in love with Stephen, who saw her as a child. Peola's return and her behavior is too much for Delilah, who becomes seriously ill. On her deathbed, she asks Beatrice to take care of Peola, should she ever return. Peola attends Delilah's funeral and struggles with her mother's death and denial. Beatrice takes them in. Soon after, Peola agrees to go back to college. Beatrice recognizes the state of mind of her daughter, who is still in love with Stephen. Stephen urges Beatrice to marry him soon, but Beatrice asks Stephen to return to his islands. She will come to him as soon as Jessie's feelings have changed. They both ensure their love and Stephen leaves. In the last shot, Beatrice and Jessie remember the day Delilah first came into the house.

Relationship to the literary original

While traveling with her friend, African American writer Zora Neale Hurston , Fannie Hurst experienced firsthand how deeply rooted racism was in America at the time. Her resulting book, Imitation of Life , was published in the spring of 1933 and made it to number 9 on the New York Times' best-selling book list by the end of the year . The screenplay is closely based on Hurst's literary source on the two widows Bea Pullman and Delilah Johnson, a socially critical analysis of racial prejudice and female gender roles in America in the 1910s. However, the ending was changed: while Peola marries a white man in the book and moves to Bolivia forever, she returns ruefully in both films.

In addition to the story of the friendship between two dissimilar women who start a successful company together, the film is primarily about the conflict between Delilah and her fair-skinned daughter Peola (played by the African-American actress Fredi Washington ). In order not to endanger her passing in white society, she denies her mother and breaks her heart. The film thus asks the question of the sacrifices that blacks had to make in order to survive in a two-class society .

Jeff Stafford wrote about the film:

"[The film] is actually more faithful to the Fannie Hurst novel and in many ways presents a much more socially progressive viewpoint than the Sirk version. For one thing, Stahl's version was ahead of its time in presenting single women as successful entrepreneurs in a business traditionally run by men. Even more significant was its subplot which addressed sensitive racial issues (light-skinned vs. dark-skinned blacks) that were rarely acknowledged in Hollywood films. "

“[The film] is closer to Fannie Hurst's novel and presents a much more socially progressive point of view than Sirk's version. On the one hand, Stahl's film is ahead of its time in that it shows unmarried women as successful entrepreneurs in a traditionally male business field. Even more important was its subplot, which addresses sensitive racial issues (fair-skinned vs. dark-skinned blacks) that were rarely mentioned in Hollywood films. "

- Jeff Stafford : TCM


The relationship between the various ethnic groups is portrayed in the film with a certain hope for the future and for change. After Georg Seeßlen is the film

A reflex to the liberal mood of the New Deal. History is heading towards the idealization of a harmony between the races based on insight and human understanding. [...] The voluntary standing together of the two mothers refers to the typical New Deal ideology, as it propagated in many films of the time (e.g. in the comedies of Frank Capra) between rich and poor and between men and women has been. "

- Georg Seeßlen, Jürgen Berger : Cinema of feelings. History and mythology of the film melodrama. Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 1980.

At the same time, the film also shows that

Transition of another stereotypical character, the black mammy, from a rather comical characterization to a human dimension. The black mammy here becomes a kind of mother figure, whose understanding could never be raised by the white woman. "

- Georg Seesslen, Jürgen Berger : Cinema of feelings. History and mythology of the film melodrama. Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 1980.


Andre Sennwald of the New York Times described the film in 1934 as a solid and sober chronicle that lasted more than two hours on its serious path. Despite the sincere direction, Stahl could not cover up the shallowness, the platitudes of emotions or the quickly waved script. Claudette Colbert played her lead role with a familiar charm and intelligence, supported by the solid play of Louise Beavers' and Warren Williams.

Variety described the 1934 film as strong with an unusual story. The direction is good, she has the literary source well under control. Stahl keeps the interest high, even if the film is sometimes a little too slow. Particularly noteworthy is the play by Louise Beavers, which depicts the entire range of human emotions from joy to anguish without appearing implausible.


The film went to the 1935 Academy Awards with three nominations , but won none of the awards:

In 2005, Imitation of Life was added to the National Film Registry .

Literature and web links

Individual evidence

  1. a b Richard Corliss: Imitation of Life | Top 25 Important Movies On Race . In: Time . February 4, 2008, ISSN  0040-781X ( [accessed February 11, 2020]).
  2. Molly Hiro: "'Tain't no tragedy unless you make it one": Imitation of Life, Melodrama, and the Mulatta . In: Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory . tape 66 , no. 4 , December 22, 2010, ISSN  1558-9595 , p. 93–113 ( [accessed February 11, 2020]).
  4. Seeßlen / Berger 1980, pp. 193f.
  5. Seeßlen / Berger 1980, p. 194.
  6. Andre Sennwald: The Screen Version of Fannie Hurst's 'Imitation of Life,' at the Roxy - 'College Rhythm.' In: The New York Times . November 24, 1934, ISSN  0362-4331 ( [accessed February 11, 2020]).
  7. Variety Reviews - Imitation of Life - Film Reviews - - Review by Vari… September 15, 2012, accessed on February 11, 2020 .