Imitation of Life
Directed by John M. Stahl
Peola Johnson, Age 19: I want to be white, like I look.
Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) is a young widow who carries on her husband’s maple syrup business to support her daughter Jesse. Delilah Johnson arrives on her doorstep looking for work with her own daughter Peola and proves to be a godsend. Bea goes on to use Delilah’s secret pancake recipe to climb to success first in the restaurant business and then as a pancake mix queen (under the Aunt Delilah label). Bea offers Delilah a share in the business but Delilah says she is not interested in money or in having her own home.
Peola (Fredi Washington) easily “passes” as white and struggles against her black identity, eventually disowning her own mother and breaking her heart. Bea has daughter troubles of her own when Jesse falls for Bea’s beau, Stephen Archer (Warren William), world’s richest fish scientist.
There is obviously quite a bit of stereotyping in this film. Poor Delilah seems to downright enjoy getting the short end of the stick in the eyes of the film makers. On the other hand, this is one of the few films from classic Hollywood to give black characters emotional lives of their own. And although Delilah is content to serve, Peola, while conflicted and full of self-loathing, is portrayed as a sophisticated complex woman. The performances of Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington are quite good and Claudette Colbert is sympathetic as Bea.
This was remade in 1959 with Lana Turner, Juanita Hall, Susan Kohner, Sandra Dee and John Gavin.