Imitation Of Life

Highly sentimental social soaper, subtly crafted by director Stahl. In this adaptation of Fannie Hurst's melodramatic novel, Colbert ages 15 years--quite believably--as a widow raising her daughter alone. (The daughter is played first by Juanita Quigley, then by Marilyn Knowlden, and as a young woman by Rochelle Hudson.) When Colbert decides to join forces...read more

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Highly sentimental social soaper, subtly crafted by director Stahl.

In this adaptation of Fannie Hurst's melodramatic novel, Colbert ages 15 years--quite believably--as a widow raising her daughter alone. (The daughter is played first by Juanita Quigley, then by Marilyn Knowlden, and as a young woman by Rochelle Hudson.) When Colbert decides to join forces with

her maid, Louise Beavers, and open a small pancake parlor, Beavers, who also has a young daughter (played by Sebie Hendricks, by Dorothy Black, and primarily the largely forgotten, beautiful Fredi Washington), becomes Colbert's full partner in the business, which proves highly successful. As the

enterprise flourishes, however, the women's family lives become fraught with conflict. Washington, whose light complexion enables her to pass for Caucasian, finds herself unable to live in both the white and black worlds, and as a result breaks off relations with Beavers and runs away from school,

hoping to live as a white woman. Colbert, meanwhile, is shocked to learn that the 18-year-old Hudson is in love with the man Colbert herself wants to marry, Warren William.

Audiences didn't seem to mind the rather downbeat ending of IMITATION OF LIFE (remade successfully in 1959, with Lana Turner starring under Douglas Sirk's direction), but there was a great deal of controversy over the basic elements of the narrative. Some white southern viewers disapproved of

Colbert's character going into business with her black maid (despite the fact that it's the latter's recipe that makes both women rich); Black critics, on the other hand, felt that Beavers should have been shown establishing her own residence, rather than staying on with Colbert and continuing to

function as household help. At one point, Stahl makes an explicit visual social comment: a masterful camera shot of a staircase that divides upstairs from down, with Beavers catering upstairs and Colbert hostessing downstairs, revealing the hypocrisy of the entire exercise. Beavers' interpretation

has dated badly; she's either jolly or resigned and does not suggest the transistions from one emotion to another.

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