The film was originally released by Universal Pictures on November 26, 1934, and later re-issued in 1936. A 1959 remake with the same title stars Lana Turner.
White widow Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her toddler daughter Jessie (Juanita Quigley), take in black housekeeper Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her daughter Peola (Fredi Washington), whose fair complexion conceals her mixed-race ancestry. Bea exchanges room and board for work, although struggling to make ends meet. Delilah and Peola quickly become like family to Jessie and Bea. They particularly enjoy Delilah's pancakes, made from a special family recipe.
Bea finds it difficult to make a living selling maple syrup, as her husband had done. Using her wiles to get a storefront on the busy Atlantic City boardwalk refurbished for practically nothing, she opens a pancake restaurant, where Delilah cooks in the front window. Five years later, Bea makes her last payment to the furniture man and is debt-free.
Jessie (Marilyn Knowlden) and Peola have proven to be challenging children to raise: Jessie is demanding, not particularly studious, relying instead on her charm. She is the first person to call Peola "black" in a hurtful way, hinting that their childhood idyll is doomed. Peola does not tell her classmates at school that she is "colored" and is humiliated when her mother shows up one day, revealing her secret.
Later, at the suggestion of a passerby, Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks), Bea sets up an even more successful pancake flour corporation, marketing Delilah as an Aunt Jemima-like product mascot. She offers Delilah a 20% interest in her family recipe, but childlike, Delilah refuses and continues to act as Bea's housekeeper and factotum, the shares held presumably in trust. Bea becomes wealthy from her business.
Ten years later, the two older women are confronted with problems. Eighteen-year-old Jessie (Rochelle Hudson), home on college vacation, falls in love with her mother's boyfriend, Stephen Archer (Warren William), who is unaware at first of her affections. Meanwhile, Peola (Fredi Washington), seeking more opportunities in the segregated society, passes as white, identifying with her European ancestry and breaking Delilah's heart.
Leaving her Negro college, Peola takes a job as a cashier in a whites only restaurant. When her mother and Bea track her down, she is humiliated to be identified as black. She finally tells her mother that she is going away, never to return, so she can pass as a white woman without the fear that Delilah will show up. Her mother is heartbroken and takes to her bed, murmuring Peola's name and forgiving her before eventually succumbing to heartbreak. The black servants sing a spiritual as she dies, with Bea holding her hand at the end. Delilah's last wish had been for a large, grand funeral, complete with a marching band and a horse-drawn hearse.
Bea sees to it that Delilah is given the funeral she wished for, and, just before the processional begins, a remorseful, crying Peola appears, begging her dead mother to forgive her.
Peola returns to her Negro college and presumably embraces her African descent. Bea breaks her engagement with Stephen, not wanting to hurt her daughter's feelings by being with him, but promises to find him after Jessie is over her infatuation with him. Ultimately, Bea embraces Jessie, remembering the girl's insistent demands for her toy duck (her "quack quack") when she was a toddler.Claudette Colbert as Beatrice "Bea" Pullman
Warren William as Stephen "Steve" Archer
Rochelle Hudson as Jessie Pullman, age 18
Ned Sparks as Elmer Smith
Louise Beavers as Delilah Johnson
Fredi Washington as Peola Johnson, age 19
Dorothy Black as Peola Johnson, age 9
Juanita Quigley as Baby Jessie Pullman, age 3
Marilyn Knowlden as Jessie Pullman, age 8
Alan Hale as Martin, the Furniture Man
Henry Armetta as The Painter
Wyndham Standing as Jarvis, Beatrice's Butler
Cast notes:Child actress Jane Withers has a small part as a classmate of Peola, her fifth movie appearance.
Franklin Pangborn appears uncredited as "Mr. Carven"
Fannie Hurst's inspiration in writing her novel Imitation of Life was a road trip to Canada she took with her friend, the black short-story writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. The novel was originally to be called Sugar House but was changed just before publication.
Universal borrowed Warren William from Warner Bros. for the male lead, but the studio had first wanted Paul Lukas for the part. The parents of the child playing "Jessie" as a baby changed her name from "Baby Jane" to "Juanita Quigley" during production of the film. Claudette Colbert was borrowed from Paramount.
Universal had difficulty receiving approval from the censors at the Hays Office for the original script they submitted for Imitation of Life. Joseph Breen objected to the elements of miscegenation in the story, which "not only violates the Production Code but is very dangerous from the standpoint both of industry and public policy." He rejected the project, writing, "Hurst's novel dealing with a partly colored girl who wants to pass as white violates the clause covering miscegenation in spirit, if not in fact!" The Production Code Administration's (PCA) censors had difficulty in "negotiating how boundaries of racial difference should be cinematically constructed to be seen, and believed, on the screen."
Their concern was the character of Peola, in whose person miscegenation was represented by this young woman considered black, but with sufficient white ancestry to pass as white and the desire to do so. Susan Courtney says that the PCA participated in "Hollywood's ongoing desire to remake interracial desire, an historical fact, as always already having been a taboo." In addition, she explains the quandary imagined by the censors: "the PCA reads Peola's light skin, and her passing, as signifiers of 'miscegenation.' By conflating miscegenation and passing in this way, the censors effectively attempt to extend the Code's ban on desire across black and white racial boundaries to include a ban on identification across those boundaries as well."
They also objected to some language in the script, and a scene where a black boy is nearly lynched for approaching a white woman whom he believed had invited his attention. Breen continued to refuse to approve the script up to July 17, when the director had already been shooting the film for two weeks.
Imitation of Life was in production from June 27 to September 11, 1934, and was released on November 26 of that year.
All versions of Imitation of Life issued by Universal after 1938, including TV, VHS and DVD versions, feature re-done title cards in place of the originals. Missing from all of these prints is a title card with a short prologue, which was included in the original release. It reads:
Atlantic City, in 1919, was not just a boardwalk, rolling-chairs and expensive hotels where bridal couples spent their honeymoons. A few blocks from the gaiety of the famous boardwalk, permanent citizens of the town lived and worked and reared families just like people in less glamorous cities.
The scene in which Elmer approaches Bea with the idea to sell Delilah's pancake mix to retail customers refers to a legend about the origins of Coca-Cola's success. It has been credited with strengthening the urban myth about the secret of Coke's success — that is, to "bottle it".
"According to Jean-Pierre Coursodon in his essay on John M. Stahl in American Directors,
"Fredi Washington...reportedly received a great deal of mail from young blacks thanking her for having expressed their intimate concerns and contradictions so well. One may add that Stahl's film was somewhat unique in its casting of a black actress in this kind of part - which was to become a Hollywood stereotype of sorts."
(Later films dealing with mulatto women, including the 1959 version of this work, cast white women in the roles.)
The themes of the movie, to the modern eye, deal with very important issues—passing, the role of skin color in the black community and tensions between its light-skinned and dark-skinned members, the role of black servants in white families, and maternal affection.
Some scenes seem to have been filmed to highlight the fundamental unfairness of Delilah's social position—for example, while living in Bea's fabulous NYC mansion, Delilah descends down the shadowy stairs to the basement where her rooms are. Bea, dressed in the height of fashion, floats up the stairs to her rooms, whose luxury was built from the success of Delilah's recipe. Others highlight the similarities between the two mothers, both of whom adore their daughters and are brought to grief by the younger women's actions. Some scenes seem to mock Delilah, because of her supposed ignorance about her financial interests and her willingness to be in a support role, but the two women have built an independent business together. In dying and in death—especially with the long processional portraying a very dignified African-American community, Delilah is treated with great respect.
Imitation of Life was nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Assistant Director for Scott R. Beal, and Sound Mixing for Theodore Soderberg.
In 2005, Imitation of Life was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. In February 2007 Time magazine included it among The 25 Most Important Films on Race, as part of the magazine's celebration of Black History Month.
Both the original 1934 film and its remake were issued in 2003 on a double-sided DVD from Universal Home Entertainment. The movie as well as the 1959 remake were re-released on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Universal's 100th Anniversary on January 10, 2012.