Imitation of Life (1934) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • 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.

  • Bea Pullman and her daughter Jessie have had a hard time making ends meet since Bea's husband died. Help comes in the form of Delilah Johnson, who agrees to work as Bea's housekeeper in exchange for a room for herself and her daughter Peola. Bea comes up with a plan to market Delilah's pancake recipe. The two soon become wealthy and as the years go on, their friendship deepens. Their relationships with their daughters, however, become strained. Ashamed of her mother, Peola seeks a new life by passing for white. Bea's love for her daughter is tested when she and Jessie fall for the same man.

  • Following the death of her husband who she admits she never truly loved in a romantic sense, Bea Pullman is having a difficult time with life trying to make ends meet by maintaining his maple syrup business while raising their daughter, Jessie Pullman. The child care side of the equation is addressed when she meets a black woman named Delilah Johnson, who is looking for a housekeeping job primarily for room and board which includes for her light skinned daughter, Peola Johnson. While Jessie and Peola become fast friends, Bea sees in Delilah more than just a housekeeper, but a friend and business partner when she learns that Delilah makes the world's best pancakes, which triggers the idea that they should open a pancake restaurant and sell syrup as a side business. That successful business morphs, based on a suggestion by a down and out customer named Elmer Smith who becomes their partner, into an even more successful venture selling the pancake flour mix for home use. This business makes both women richer than they could have ever imagined, although all Delilah wants is to continue to live with the Pullmans to look after them and Peola. As the girls grow into young womanhood and go away to college - Peola specifically to one catering to blacks in the South - issues arise which threaten to tear each family apart largely as the girls now have the power to do what they will. For the Pullmans, the issue surrounds what may be the first true loves each has experienced in her life, Bea's with Elmer's friend, ichthyologist Stephen Archer. And for the Johnsons, the issue is Peola taking action to run away from her life as a black woman, wanting to pass as white.



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • White widow Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her daughter Jessie (Juanita Quigley as a toddler, Marilyn Knowlden as an eight-year-old) take in black housekeeper Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her daughter, light-complexioned Peola (Fredi Washington) exchanging room and board for work, even though Bea is struggling to make ends meet herself. Delilah and Peola quickly become like family to Jessie and Bea. They particularly enjoy Delilah's pancakes, made from a special family recipe. When Bea is unable to make a living selling pancake syrup (as her husband had done), she comes up with the idea to open a pancake restaurant (using Delilah's recipe and labor) on the boardwalk, which proves to be very profitable. Later, at the suggestion of Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks), she sets up an even more successful pancake flour corporation, marketing Delilah as an Aunt Jemima-like figure. As a result, Bea becomes a wealthy business woman, but all is not found to be well as the story advances fifteen years. Eighteen-year-old Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falls in love with her mother's boyfriend, Steven Archer (Warren William), who is unaware at first of her affections. Meanwhile, Peola (Fredi Washington), ashamed of her African-American heritage, attempts to pass as white, breaking Delilah's heart. Peola eventually runs away from home. While she is away, Delilah falls ill and dies. Delilah wished for a large, grand funeral, which Bea provides for her, complete with a marching band and a horse-drawn hearse. Just before the processional begins, a remorseful, crying Peola appears, begging her mother to forgive her. The film ends with Bea breaking her engagement with Steven because of the situation with Jessie.

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