Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) has been taking care of her husband’s maple syrup business since he died, but being a single mother is already enough of a job. One day, while trying to get her three year old daughter ready for day care, Bea gets a knock on her door. A large African-American woman is standing there inquiring about a housekeeper job. Unfortunately, she has the wrong address. Moments later, they both hear Bea’s daughter falls into the bathtub, her clean dress ready for daycare soaked. Seeing what a pickle Bea is in, the lady, Delilah (Louise Beavers) offers to be her housekeeper, asking for no more than a place for her and her young daughter to live. Bea’s hesitant at first, but connecting with the sympathy of being a single mother, she agrees. This is just the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
After a while of Bea selling syrup and Delilah taking care of the home running smoothly, Bea hatches a grand idea. Using Delilah’s amazing pancake recipe, they’ll open a pancake house right on the boardwalk. At first, it seems they’re way over their heads and can never turn enough profit to keep the place, but just a few years later they’ve got things paid off and talk hopefully about their daughters.
Now for the racial tensions that cause dilemmas. You see, even though Delilah is very dark, her daughter, Peola (Fredi Washington), is very light skinned. From an early age, she realizes that she will be held back and accepted less if people know she’s really black, that means none of her friends can know who her mother is. But when Delilah comes to school one day to bring Peola her rain clothes, her whole class is shocked to see her mother. As Peola leaves, kids whisper, “I didn’t know she was colored.” Poor Peola knows she’ll never be treated the same there.
Even more sad, is that Peola takes her anger out on her poor mother. She openly blames her mother for making her black. Later, these tensions mount to heartbreaking proportions.
There’s also mother-daughter issues with Bea and Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) as she gets older. At a business party, Bea meets Steve Archer (Warren William) and they begin a romantic relationship. But before they get married, Bea wants Steve to win Jessie over, so they can feel like family. The problem is, Jessie believes that with all the attention Steve is giving her, that they’re falling in love.
Daughters always cause trouble around those late teenager years, don’t they?
As much as I enjoyed the story, I did not care for the acting. When things turn dramatic, it gets over-dramatic. Other times, the dialogue during more pressing events seems that it’s delivered way too light. It made me feel a little uncomfortable when rested upon a solid storyline.
Finally, I have to commemorate this film for being the least blatantly racist film I’ve ever seen from the ‘30s. I’ve felt like so many films of the decade don’t even realize how horribly racist it can be (I’ve found multiple uses of black-face so far.) Imitation of Life is the first that tackles the subject straight and it was very refreshing.
I don’t know who to recommend this film to. If you’re in some racial studies class, this is a gold mine. If you enjoy working women of yesteryear, this is it. Perhaps this could be a good mother-daughter bonding movie as well. May I suggest making pancakes for the occasion?
“After all, what’s the good of algebra and all that stuff to a girl?”