Friday, March 23, 2012

"Imitation of Life" with Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, and Ned Sparks (1934)

When Bea Pullman is widowed, she and her 8 year old daughter Jessie are hard-pressed to make ends meet. At this crucial moment of Bea's life Delilah Johnson shows up on her doorstep, looking for work. It's the middle of the Great Depression and Delilah, played by Louise Beavers, is willing to work as a maid for Bea and her daughter. Delilah has a daughter of her own, named Peola, played by Fredi Washington. She is the same age as Jessie, and though her mother is as black as can be, Peola is light skinned and easily mistaken for white. At first this causes no trouble, but as she gets older, things change. Meantime, the two women need one another; Bea needs the help in order to find work, while Delilah needs the job to feed herself and Peola.

Delilah makes the most wonderful pancakes in the world, and the two women set out to open a pancake house. Alan Hale plays the store fixture salesman, Marvin, who is outwitted by Bea when the two negotiate the refurbishing of the store which Bea has selected to open her pancake house. With no money down Bea must convince Marvin to let her have the furnishings and make payments.

The business is doing well and all problems seem to have vanished when Elmer Smith; played with his usual aplomb by Ned Sparks; an out of work victim of the Depression, comes loitering outside the shop on the boardwalk. He is broke, and hungry. He offers to give Bea a million dollar idea for a "stack of those wheat cakes". His idea is simply put; "Why not box it?" And they do, with Aunt Delilah's picture on the cover. The gamble is a huge success, making the women wealthy in a short time. He also becomes their business partner, always looking out for Bea.

As all of this is taking place, the two daughters, Jessie and Peola grow up. And, as they do, Peola realizes that in spite of her light skin, she is black. When her mother inadvertently "blows her cover", the child is mortified and rejects her in order to lead a life "passing" as white. This, of course breaks her mother’s heart, and Delilah is taken ill from the stress and pain of having "lost" her daughter.

Meanwhile, Jessie has grown into a beautiful young woman, just as her mother has fallen in love with Stephen Archer, played by Warren William. He is an expert entomologist, that is, he studies insects. When Peola goes missing, both Bea and Delilah go in search of her, leaving Jessie alone with Steve for a few days. During this time she falls in love with him, in spite of the difference in their ages. Although he finds her to be a delightful young woman, he is truly in love with Bea.

By this time, Delilah has passed away, and Peola has returned home, mortified at the way she treated her mother. Jessie, on the other hand, has decided that her mother's happiness is more important than her own, and plans to go to Europe for a few years and complete her schooling, thus removing herself from the situation between her mother and Steve. But Bea will have none of it, and though it breaks her heart to do so, she calls off her impending marriage to Steve, realizing that their union would always represent a division between herself and her daughter.

This is one of the best films of the 1930's. It is also one of Ms. Colbert's best performances, encompassing drama, tinged with a bit of humor thrown in. Fans of "It Happened One Night" will enjoy this movie immensely. Though “Imitation of Life” was remade in the 1950's with Lana Turner, the original is still the benchmark for this wonderful film. Taken from the novel by Fannie Hurst, and with a screenplay by William Hurlbut, you simply can't go wrong with this one.

Trayvon Martin - RIP

No comments:

Post a Comment