A black mother worries that her light skinned daughter will have only an IMITATION OF LIFE if she continually tries to pass for white.
Let it be stated unequivocally that this is one of the most remarkable films of the 1930's - unique in that it deals squarely with aspects of the racial question decades before it became common to do so. After becoming accustomed to the casual racism of most Hollywood movies of the era, this honesty is quite astonishing.
As the black mother, Louise Beavers is heartbreaking in the simple power of her performance. Joyously serving up love & pancakes, or devastated by her daughter's rejection of their race, Miss Beavers makes her audience feel her every emotion. This was the finest role of her film career, and she makes the most of it. However, the movie over, the studio system returned her to mammy parts. This is a tremendous blot on Hollywood's record.
Beautiful Claudette Colbert is scintillating, as always. Playing a tenderhearted maple syrup saleslady who first employs Miss Beavers, and later befriends her, Miss Colbert adds a distinct touch of class to the film. But she is also sympathetic to the concerns of the story and helps to quietly push along the plea for racial equality.
Elegant actor Warren William, he of the sophisticated profile, brings his considerable talents to the role of Miss Colbert's ichthyologist boyfriend. Refreshingly, he plays a solid, decent fellow - instead of the rake or cad which he portrayed so often & so well. His involvement is a definite asset to the film.
The rest of the cast adds to the overall excellence of the production: acerbic Ned Sparks as Miss Colbert's business manager; lovely Rochelle Hudson as her ready-for-love daughter; Henry Armentta & Alan Hale as businessmen cajoled by Miss Colbert's charms; and especially Fredi Washington, memorable as Miss Beavers' daughter, a stranger inside her own skin.
Movie mavens will spot Clarence Wilson as the pancake shop's landlord, Franklin Pangborn as a party guest & Paul Porcasi as a restaurant manager, all uncredited.
IMITATION OF LIFE preached a powerful sermon on racial justice & equality, but the Hollywood congregation was not paying attention. It would be a very long time before black performers & black roles would be treated with the dignity they so desperately deserved.