Imitation of Life (1934) – Criterion Blu-ray Review

4.5 Stars Classic Stahl melodrama gets the Criterion treatment
Imitation of Life screenshot

One of the most popular American novelists following WWI and one of the most widely read female novelists of the 20th Century, Fannie Hurst’s work combined the romantic and sentimental with the pressing social issues of her time. Her novels also proved to be great material for Hollywood to adapt to film, with Back Street (1931) getting filmed three times in 1932, 1941 and 1961, and Imitation of Life (1933) getting the silver screen treatment twice, with the first coming a year after the novel’s publication. The 1934 version, directed by John M. Stahl, has gotten the Criterion Collection treatment here on Blu-ray, having been previously released on Blu by Universal alongside Douglas Sirk’s more widely known 1959 remake.

Imitation of Life (1934)
Released: 26 Nov 1934
Rated: Approved
Runtime: 111 min
Director: John M. Stahl
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Cast: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Rochelle Hudson
Writer(s): Fannie Hurst, William Hurlbut, Preston Sturges
Plot: A struggling widow and her daughter take in a Black housekeeper and her fair-skinned daughter; the two women start a successful business but face familial, identity, and racial issues along the way.
IMDB rating: 7.5
MetaScore: 72

Disc Information
Studio: Universal
Distributed By: Criterion Collection
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 50 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Clear keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 01/10/2023
MSRP: $39.99

The Production: 4.5/5

Widowed and having to take care of her daughter Jessie by herself, Beatrice “Bea” Pullman (Claudette Colbert) finds some relief by chance in the form of Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers), who happens to arrive at Bea’s house looking for work as a housekeeper. Brought together by circumstance, a friendship develops between Bea and Delilah over the years, propelled by the success of Delilah’s pancake recipe and Bea’s booming business that humbly started on the boardwalk of the Jersey Shore. However, as the years pass, tensions develop, not between Bea and Delilah, but rather the circumstances that parallel each other; Delilah has to deal with her daughter Peola (Fredi Washington) passing for white and rejecting her roots while Bea is caught in a love triangle between Stephen Archer (Warren William) and Jessie (Rochelle Hudson).

The first film adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s novel, the 1934 version of Imitation of Life is one of the most important mainstream Hollywood films to tackle the subject of race. Though dealing with some initial difficulties with the newly instituted Production Code, director John M. Stahl and screenwriter William J. Hurlbut – with uncredited contributions from 8 different writers, including Preston Sturges – manage to fashion a screen adaptation that was remarkably progressive in its time in depicting women in the business world and racial relations. While working within the melodramatic frame, the film is still restrained within the bounds of what was acceptable to be shown on the screen in regard to the theme of race in its complexity and its contradictions; there’s not much subtlety either in regard to how the parallel problems of both Bea and Delilah are depicted as well. Despite this, Stahl still manages to wrest out great performances from his cast and has a great eye for visuals as well, backed up by cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad and production designer Charles Hall. In the end, Imitation of Life works within the constraints of its era to create an emotionally transcendent story of love and race that still resonates today.

Brought over on a loan from Paramount Pictures, Claudette Colbert gives one of her best performances as Bea; with this movie’s Best Picture nomination – it lost out to It Happened One Night – she is the only actress to date to appear in three Best Picture Oscar nominated movies the same year (Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra is other). In a rare chance to step out from the supporting player status, Louise Beavers arguably gives the best performance of her career as Delilah; despite playing countless maids and servants in Hollywood films, she did have a chance to play the lead in the 1939 movie Reform School. Warren William – the “King of Pre-Code Hollywood” – acquits himself well as the sticking point in the love triangle between Bea and her daughter while Fredi Washington steals every scene she’s in as an adult Peola. Rounding out the cast here are Ned Sparks as the customer who encourages Bea and Delilah to “box it” (referring to Delilah’s pancake recipe), Rochelle Hudson as Bea’s daughter Jessie (Juanita Quigley and Marilyn Knowlden played Jessie at 3 and 8 years old, respectively), Alan Hale as the furniture man, Henry Armetta as the painter, Wyndham Standing as Bea’s butler Jarvis and uncredited appearances from Clarence Wilson as the landlord of the store space that becomes Bea and Delilah’s pancake restaurant and Franklin Pangborn as Mr. Craven.

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

The movie is presented in its original 1:33:1 aspect ratio, taken from a brand new 4K transfer created by Universal Pictures; note that this release presents the movie in its re-release form from 1938 and is missing the original titles and prologue card from the original 1934 release. Film grain, fine details and gray scale appear to be faithfully presented with only minor cases of scratches, tears and dirt present here. Overall, this release is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video and surpasses its previous incarnations on DVD and Blu-ray.

Audio: 5/5

The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a PCM track for this release. Dialogue, the Oscar nominated sound mix, and Heinz Roemheld’s music score are all presented faithfully with only minor cases of distortion, crackling, hissing and popping present. This release is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video and surpasses the previous Universal DVD and Blu-ray releases of it.

Special Features: 3.5/5

Introduction by film historian Imogen Sara Smith (24:11) – Smith looks at the film in comparison to Stahl’s silent era work featuring Black characters in this interview.

On Passing and Blackness (19:58) – Author Miriam J. Petty analyzes the complex and complicated nature between Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington’s performances and the overall context of the era in which the movie was released in this new featurette.

Theatrical Trailer (1:15) – The unprecedented for its era trailer cut by Universal for the segregated Black theaters during the movie’s initial release.

Foldout feat. an essay by Petty

Special features on the 2015 Universal Blu-ray that were not carried over here include a featurette on the making of both this movie and the 1959 remake and a commentary track by African American cultural scholar Avery Clayton.

Overall: 4.5/5

A keystone film in depicting racial issues in mainstream Hollywood, Imitation of Life still packs an emotional wallop even after nearly 90 years. Criterion has done another quality job here, with a terrific HD transfer and a nice yet small set of special features (the commentary track from the Universal Blu-ray unfortunately didn’t cross over here) looking into the film’s significance. Very highly recommended.

Mychal has been on the Home Theater Forum’s reviewing staff since 2018, with reviews numbering close to 300. During this time, he has also been working as an assistant manager at The Cotton Patch – his family’s fabric and quilting supplies business in Keizer, Oregon. When not working at reviewing movies or working at the family business, he enjoys exploring the Oregon Coast, playing video games and watching baseball in addition to his expansive collection of movies on DVD, Blu-ray and UHD, totalling over 3,000 movies.

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t1g3r5fan

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Mychal Bowden
Was the missing original titles on the earlier Blu ray, or are they lost to time?
I can't say, since I don't have the earlier Blu-ray of both versions. I do have the earlier Universal Legacy Collection DVD of both versions, but it's been ages since I viewed it.
 

DarkVader

Second Unit
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Carlos
I'll most definitely be picking this up. I'm surprised Criterion didn't pick up the remake. It was directed by Douglas Sirk and they've released "Written on the Wind", "All That Heaven Allows" and "Magnificent Obsession" which are also Universal/Sirk films.
 

AlanP

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BAP
Love Susan Kohner in the remake as SaraJane ! And no one gives GLAMOUR like Lana Turner in the remake !!!
 
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