Imitation of Life (1934) - Rotten Tomatoes

Imitation of Life1934

Imitation of Life (1934)



Critic Consensus: Imitation of Life isn't always subtle, but even as it tugs at the heartstrings, this socially conscious melodrama effectively explores Jim Crow-era racial taboos.

Imitation of Life Photos

Movie Info

The first of two film version of Fannie Hurst's novel, 1934's Imitation of Life chronicles the friendship between two women--one white (Claudette Colbert), one black (Louise Beavers). Colbert is a widow with a baby daughter who hires Beavers, who also has a daughter, as a housekeeper. Colbert is a working girl who yearns to operate her own business, which she does thanks to Beavers' special pancake recipe. A family friend (Ned Sparks) suggests that the ladies form a corporation to merchandise the "Aunt Delilah" pancake mix, and within ten years both women are quite wealthy. Colbert's relationship with her teenaged daughter (Rochelle Hudson) is strained when both ladies vie for the attentions of the same man, but these problems are minor compared to the travails of Beavers, who not only must deal with the De Facto segregation of the 1930s but must also contend with her restless daughter (Fredi Washington), who resents being an African-American and attempts to pass for white. The heartbroken Beavers dies, and at her funeral her now-chastened daughter weeps out her apologies for turning her back on her mother. Imitation of Life was remade in 1959, its story glamorized and updated to accommodate star Lana Turner.

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Claudette Colbert
as Beatrice 'Bea' Pullman
Louise Beavers
as Delilah Johnson
Fredi Washington
as Peola Johnson (Age 19)
Warren William
as Stephen 'Steve' Archer
Juanita Quigley
as Jessie Pullman (age 3)
Marilyn Knowlden
as Jessie (age 8)
Rochelle Hudson
as Jessie (age 18)
Sebie Hendricks
as Peola Johnson (age 4)
Dorothy Black
as Peola (age 9)
Alan Hale
as Martin, Furniture Man
Henry Kolker
as Dr. Preston
Alice Ardell
as French Maid
Paul Porcasi
as Restaurant Manager
G.P. Huntley Jr.
as Man at Party
Noel Francis
as Mrs. Eden
Baby Jane Holzer
as Jessie Pullman at 3
G.P. Huntley
as Man at Party
Tyler Brooke
as Tipsy Man
William Austin
as Englishman
Alma Tell
as Mrs. Carven
Hazel Washington
as Black Maid
Lenita Lane
as Mrs. Dale
Barry Norton
as Young Man
Curry Lee
as Chauffeur
Stuart Johnston
as Undertaker
Fred 'Snowflake' Toones
as Person at Funeral
Hattie McDaniel
as Person at Funeral
Dennis O'Keefe
as Dance Extra
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Critic Reviews for Imitation of Life

All Critics (52) | Top Critics (17)

The race angle is treated with so obvious an attempt at tear-jerking that a good part of the Hurst appeal for increased colored tolerance is lost in a welter of sentimentality.

January 29, 2021 | Rating: 2.5/4 | Full Review…

We should hand It to Universal for making even a timid attempt to get away from the cut and dried formulae of cinema drama. It evidences a belief that the American movie public is maturing in its tastes and tolerance.

January 29, 2021 | Full Review…

Not so much an imitation as a fake, for life has a way of forcing conclusions and decisions, and this film, which never seems quite sure which way it is going, studiously avoids both.

January 29, 2021 | Full Review…

Miss Colbert has never done anything finer or more heart-touching.

January 29, 2021 | Full Review…

It is the work of Miss Beavers [and] Fredi Washington that gives the picture its greatest grip on the emotions.

January 29, 2021 | Full Review…

Claudette Colbert steps into her emotional role and makes it an outstanding characterization.

January 29, 2021 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Imitation of Life

What an interesting film this was. On the surface, you have Colbert in a charming role as a self-made woman who makes it to the top with pluck, ambition, and a secret pancake recipe she gets from a maid. But that's not what makes the movie interesting. Colbert's maid is played by Louise Beavers, an African-American, and also a single mother. Her daughter Peola, played by Fredi Washington, is light-skinned, and wants to 'pass' as white. There are several brutal, heart-wrenching scenes between the two of them - as a child (played by Dorothy Black), Peola is upset about being called black, believing it an insult; later in school, she has to slink out of an all-white classroom amidst stares and whispers to see her mother who has shown up unexpectedly; and finally, as an adult, pretending she doesn't even know her at her job, where she's also 'passed', and later telling her she wants to disown her entirely. Beavers' character is sweet and strong, and bears this suffering to her deathbed. These are the scenes with real emotional impact in the story, and it's stunning, though not surprising, that neither Beavers nor Washington where nominated for an Academy Award. But Colbert was, even though she was also nominated in the same year for 'It Happened One Night'. How true this trend was 82 years ago, and how true it is today (see 'Creed'). Now it is true that the love story in the movie for Colbert with William Warren is captivating, and it gets complicated when her daughter falls in love with him as well, and despite no wrongdoing on his part, creates a dilemma for Colbert. I liked this twist, it was unexpected and created a little angst for the white characters, who were otherwise in beautiful clothes, sipping champagne, and dancing the night away. However, the resolution of this at the end pales in comparison to the resolution of Beavers' story which precedes it. The movie is a great snapshot of what pushing the boundaries meant in 1934. On the positive side, you have a single mother shown balancing family and work, and keeping control of her business as it skyrockets. You have Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African-American actress (who in real life disdained 'passing') hired to play the role of Peola, when it was much more common to hire whites. You have Colbert's character inviting Beavers into her home and not showing an ounce of racism as she talks to her, or concern when by hiring her they'll live together. And you have a movie that showed very sensitive racial subject matter, revealing to the audience the real struggle African-Americans go through, and in a way that was thoughtful, not exploitative. On the other hand, you have Beavers' being simple-minded, superstitious, and wanting to remain subservient to Colbert's, even when they've made enough money and it's no longer necessary. While it underscores her big heart, it also perpetuates a myth, one that is very convenient for Caucasians. Also, because the Hays Code had recently gone into effect, references to Peola being of mixed-race were avoided, because 'passing' itself was already dangerous ground, and the concept of racial mixing was a definite no-no. Her father is simply referred to as having been 'light-skinned'. Just as importantly, a scene in the script depicting a black boy being attacked and nearly lynched for coming up to a white woman was excised; conservative America was not willing to admit this shameful truth. All in all though, an important film. The Colbert story is cute on its own, but I wish the emphasis had been placed more on Beavers, that it had been a movie more from her viewpoint with the minor character and subplots belonging to Colbert instead. Fair or unfair, I knocked it down a half a star as a result.

Antonius Block
Antonius Block

Super Reviewer

I did not see the Douglas Sirk version that was produced 20 years later but I found this depiction of two girls, one white and one black, who were raised together by circumstance is ever so good.

John Ballantine
John Ballantine

Super Reviewer


I normally hate remakes, but Sirk's remake of this movie presents a richer, well rounded, and more realistic story than this movie does. Although I do applaud the film makers for choosing this story, they disappoint the audience by not going into depth with the characters.

Aj V
Aj V

Super Reviewer

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