Oddly enough I stumbled across this film when searching for movies to watch on YouTube. The title was not one that was unfamiliar as I had already been a fan of the 1959 Douglas Sirk version of An Imitation of Life. I was so pleasantly surprised to discover that it was not the only version and that one existed from an earlier time with a favourite actress of mine, Claudette Colbert.
Through watching, I could not help but compare and contrast the two. There are a great deal of similarities, yet also some differences that stand the two apart. The 1934 version, to me, is much more believable and does not try too hard to be melodramatic as all Sirk pictures do.
The story surrounds 2 small families; both single women trying to raise their children, one black and one white. They are joined together through circumstance and a tender bond is formed between the two families. For the 30s this was quite a bold subject matter, for to treat the "help" (the black family) closer than merely servants was something to stand it apart. It held the very beginnings of fighting against racism. While it does show typical stereotypes of the black lead played by Louise Beavers, it mildly tries to defy them...and I do mean mildly.
The friendship between the two women deepens with time and together they go into business. This pulls them from their financial struggles and unites them.
More greatly what is addressed is Delilah's (Beaver) daughter Peola, whom is half white and half black. The struggle of her upbringing and coming to terms with her identity; she does not know where she fits in, is she to "pass for" black? or for white? Peola choses to be seen as white and rejects all notions (even relations to her mother) that she is at all black. In the end this proves to tragically divide mother and daughter.