Thursday, December 19, 2013

1934 - Imitation of Life

Awards season is heating up, which means I have a lot of movies to catch up on. I've only seen two of the major contenders so far - Gravity and Blue Jasmine. The former seems certain, at this stage, to garner multiple Oscar nominations, if only for the mere fact that it covers all its bases. It has the potential to be cited in both the creative and technical categories, along with Best Picture and perhaps even a Best Actress nod for Sandra Bullock. Perennial screenplay nominee Woody Allen may add another notch to that belt with Blue Jasmine. In addition, the film may give Cate Blanchett her second Oscar. At the very least, a nomination is almost certain.

While the 2013 contenders shuffle for position, we continue our look at the 1934 Best Picture nominees...

Imitation of Life
John M. Stahl
William Hurlbut
(based on the novel by Fannie Hurst)
Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Widowed mother Bea Pullman (Colbert) struggles to hold on to her late husband's maple syrup business while raising her daughter Jessie. When African-American housekeeper Delilah (Beavers) shows up looking for a job, Bea reluctantly accepts the help in exchange for room and board for Delilah and her mixed-race daughter Peola. Soon, Delilah's delicious pancakes give Bea the idea to open a pancake shop, which eventually grows into a lucrative pancake flour business thanks to the business savvy of Elmer Smith (Sparks) and a giant neon sign (pictured below). But the two mothers have their hands full with their respective daughters as they grow into young women. Jessie (Hudson) falls for Bea's dapper boyfriend Stephen (Wililam), while Peola (Washington) pushes her own mother away, embarrassed by her skin colour.

It may seem odd to say, but as a whole, I found Imitation of Life to be a relatively simple tale. Granted, it includes some complex themes, but the story itself is rather straight-forward, and for some reason, it just didn't grab me. As is often the case with stories that span so many years, the story is inevitably a little rushed, preventing the audience from truly investing in any of the subplots. In a way, even though plenty of important events occur, we only really see snippets from each event, resulting in a feeling that nothing much is happening at all.

All of this is not to say that the film is boring. In fact, being as uncomplicated as it is, the story is pleasantly easy to follow. It's just that perhaps the drama could have been furthered. Despite some genuinely fascinating subplots - particularly Peola's resistance to her own heritage - they mostly felt somewhat unexplored.

Gladly, the cast are all capable in their roles. Claudette Colbert - in one of three starring roles in Best Picture nominees this awards year - is almost overly affable, laughing at everyone and everything, bordering on patronizing at times. Still, her charm lets her get away with it. Playing opposite her is the dashing Warren William, who delivers a delightfully elegant portrayal, making me wonder why he never rose to the heights of Gable or Grant. Unusually fascinating is Ned Sparks as the matter-of-fact business manager. His delivery is often motionless, in both body and face, yet his distinct vocal quality produces quite a captivating lilt, repetitive though it may be.


  1. While it's outside the spectrum given it wasn't nominated for Best Picture (or at least I don't think it was), I wonder how this Imitation of Life holds up to the glossy remake.

  2. Imitation of Life was one of my mother's favorites from that time period (along with Wuthering Heights). I saw it before I saw Douglas Sirk's remake. I liked it quite a bit. It certainly tackled some issues rare to find in films from the thirties, which didn't shy away from social dramas in general. After I saw Sirk's version, I rewatched the original, and I'd have to say I prefer Sirk. He's a deceptive film-maker.