Newly restored and available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, 1934’s Imitation of Life opens with two single mothers: Beatrice (Claudette Colbert) and Delilah (Louise Beavers). Beatrice, white, is recently widowed and trying to keep her husband’s maple syrup company going. Delilah, Black, is a housekeeper in need of work. 

By accident, their paths cross, and Delilah offers her services for free room and board for her and her daughter, Peola, a light-skinned girl who passes for white. Beatrice accepts, and after learning of Delilah’s secret pancake recipe, the two go into business and make a fortune flipping flapjacks and hocking syrup.

Time passes, and business is good to Beatrice and Delilah, who now share a fabulous new house. The daughters grow, and though no real friction between Beatrice and her daughter Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) develops, Peola (Fredi Washington) grows to resent her mother and her racial heritage. Peola continues passing as white—even denouncing her mother publicly when push comes to shove.

Adapted from the novel by Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life is a multi-layered melodrama that feels staid in some places and fresh as a daisy in others. Beatrice climbs to the top of the pancake industry without compromising her integrity or product and eventually falls in love with a dashing ichthyologist—savor that phrase for a second. It’s the kind of B-story designed to distract you from what’s really going on between Delilah and Peola and how Beatrice capitalizes on Delilah’s visage and family recipe. Director John M. Stahl takes great care not to bury these threads, yanking on them in the movie’s stunning funeral sequence for maximum emotional effect.

The above blurb first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 30, No. 22, “Mommy issues.”