From what I did gather in my usual pre-watch research, I went into Imitation of Life knowing as little about the actual plot as possible, so I could bend and sway with the plot however it turned without knowing beforehand how it would. I’d gotten the inclination that, contrary to other films of the era that are largely by rote and written with formulas in mind, Imitation of Life was to be a serious picture, examining race relations in an era some several decades before the Civil Right’s movement started to smolder. What I got from actually watching it was more than that; it was a little bit of the exploration of race, which was less than I expected, but it was so much more of a worthwhile film as a whole that I was frankly surprised I hadn’t heard of it before.
Claudette Colbert is Bea Pullman, a young widow taking care of her infant daughter Jessie by picking up her late husband’s business peddling maple syrup. One day, a black housekeeper comes to her house responding to an ad in the paper, having gotten the wrong address, but she and Bea hit it off and the woman, Delilah, decides to stay with the Pullmans as long as they can also care for her daughter Peola. From there, the film follows the makeshift family over the years, from Bea’s decision to open up a pancake restaurant featuring Delilah’s pancake recipe, to how the family makes it big when they incorporate and sell Delilah’s recipe nationwide, to how Delilah’s daughter Peola tries to use the good fortune of being fair-skinned to avoid her black ancestry, as well as her mother, when she comes of age. The first word that jumped out at me about Imitation of Life as a film was ‘professional’. Especially considering the last two films I watched, I couldn’t believe how professional everything in this film was, from how it handled itself and its plot to how well put together it was, down to the finest details and the simplest camera moves. Add to it the progressiveness of the plot itself, and it was actually quite stunning how forward-thinking the whole picture was for the 1930s. Apparently it was almost a little too forward-thinking, as the newly enforced Hays Code threatened to shutter the picture because of how it deals with the questions of racial identity, and were still denying their approval even two weeks into the film’s shooting. Thankfully, the film was made regardless, and I’m especially thankful that it was; of the films nominated for Best Picture that I had yet to see, this one is probably the first real genuine surprise find for me.
This film was as simple in construction as it could be, had barely any music to it, and a cast of arguably only one notable name, and it still not only managed to be a wonderful film, it exceeded even that by being so ahead of its time. It’s smart, it’s broad in scope, it’s amazingly well-made; I’m seriously floored that this was made in 1934, especially against other films (such as the last two I reviewed). I saw a few other reviews of this one that weren’t as glowing, that were mostly let down that the film wasn’t as serious and hard-hitting as it could’ve been about the topics of race and identity, especially compared to the later remake of this, which I can understand, but I was still bowled over by how well done this film was that a thought like that hardly crossed my mind. I’m so happy this was made, as well as nominated for Best Picture, and I’d agree with its placement even among a shorter field of nominees. The one other nominee of hers I’ve yet to get to notwithstanding, Claudette Colbert had a hell of a year in 1934.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10