Imitation of Life ★★½

Universal offers up a confused mess of tiresome social-problem narrative and fantasy wish fulfillment for Depression-era audiences in this chronicle of a female entrepreneur named Bea (Claudette Colbert) who teams up with her live-in maid Delilah (Louise Beavers in a now-painfully stereotyped role typical of well-meaning "liberal" films from the era) to sell millions of boxes of pancake mix; their lives change, Bea meets a man but her daughter falls for him, and Delilah's daughter doesn't want to be black. As dated as this obviously is, it's an interesting enough snapshot of the period. The main problem, rather, is narrative incoherence; the film is never sure which of its many threads it wants to concentrate on, so all of them are dreadfully underdeveloped, and the numerous awkward time jumps of years at a time -- while the two leading ladies mysteriously never age -- don't help, and it all wraps up as a terribly mawkish, pandering tearjerker. The performances of Colbert -- controlled, collected, three-dimensional -- and Fredi Washington (sublime, and well-cast; thank goodness they got a person of color to play that part) as Delilah's conflicted, white-passing daughter Peola are all that makes this really worth seeing, though students of vintage Hollywood pretension won't want to miss any movie that fades out with Colbert repeating into the camera, in all seriousness, "I want my quack quack. I want my quack quack!"