Director George Stevens’ big, sentimental rendering of John Van Druten’s stage hit is a classic nostalgia piece. Of course, as Yogi Berra might have said (but probably didn’t), “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.” The “mama” in “I Remember Mama” would now be the age of a great, great grandmamma or someone even older. You see, more time has passed since the making of this movie than passed from its period setting of 1910 to its release in 1948. Think of that.
But no matter. We still get the idea, and it’s still grand, nostalgic moviemaking. Van Druten based his stage play on Kathryn Forbes’ book “Mama’s Bank Account,” which continues to be read and enjoyed by thousands of people today. DeWitt Bodeen adapted the movie’s script from the play. And George Stevens took on the directorial chores as his first movie after the War. According to his son, George Stevens, Jr., his father was looking for a change from the lighter-weight material he had been doing, things like “Gunga Din,” “Penny Serenade,” “The Talk of the Town,” and “The More the Merrier.” the movie version of “I Remember Mama” gave him a chance to tackle a more realistic yet still hopeful and inspiring story. The director would go on to make equally big, serious things like “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane,” “Giant,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” but none of them may have a place in the heart quite like “Mama.”
“I Remember Mama” is the kind of movie that sneaks up on you. It starts slowly, and for the first ten or fifteen minutes you wonder if anything is going to happen at all. Then, you start warming to it, getting to know and admire the characters and their situations. And before long, you’re sharing their dreams and their joys and their heartbreaks.
“Is good, yes?” –Mama
The story takes place in the early part of the twentieth century, 1910, in San Francisco, where an immigrant Norwegian family, the Hansons (mother, father, four girls, and a boy) have taken up residence on Larkin Street. Their story is told by one of the daughters, Katrin Hanson (Barbara Bel Geddes), who has just written a book about her family and is proofing it as she narrates in flashback.
The movie is just as much about Katrin as it is about her mother; they are both central figures in the story. If the father tends to disappear into the woodwork, it isn’t because he’s not a strong and noble character, but because Katrin remembers her mother best and feels closest to her. Martha, the mother, is played by Irene Dunne, a wonderfully human character who is looked up to by her children as being able to do anything.
The experiences of the Hansons are probably close enough to the experiences of most immigrant families in America for the last two centuries to appeal to anyone even remotely close to the situation. Like the characters in the movie, my own maternal grandparents immigrated to America from Norway at the beginning the twentieth century (and my paternal grandparents from Sicily at around the same time), so the film is of more than a passing interest to me personally. Yet even if a viewer’s lineage runs back two thousand years through Native Americans, the personal stories contained in “I Remember Mama” are so universal, they should entertain and inspire almost anyone.
This is a movie of individual character studies, starting with Mama and Katrin, of course, both of them trying so hard to succeed in their new home, but of other family members as well. A standout is Uncle Chris (Oscar Homolka), the oldest member of the family and thus its titular head. He’s a big, loud, gruff fellow with a big, black, bristly mustache, a man who frightens everyone. Everyone but his niece Martha; she stands up to him, as she stands up to every difficulty; and, of course, Uncle Chris turns out to be a lovable rogue after all.
Phillip Dorn plays the father, Lars, a simple carpenter with great aspirations for his children. Ellen Corby is yet another standout as Martha’s spinster sister, Trina, who at age forty-two has decided to get married. Her fiancée is a timid little Chaplinesque man, Peter Thorkleson, played by Edgar Bergen (of Charlie McCarthy fame but in one of his straight roles without the dummy). The actors are too numerous to mention, but one other character of special merit is Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Jonathan Hyde, a boarder at the Hanson house who reads to the family from the classics each night and inspires Katrin in particular to appreciate literature and take up writing as a profession.
The movie covers several years in the lives of the characters. Among the incidents to cherish involve asking Uncle Chris for a dowry for Trina; an operation on the youngest daughter; Uncle Chris’s teaching his nephew several swear words in Norwegian; the mother’s bossy sisters; chloroforming the cat; Katrin’s graduation and her graduation gift; Uncle Chris’s passing; and, naturally, the development of Katrin as a writer.
The movie may be a little too long for its subject matter at 134 minutes (or perhaps too short for the many episodes), and the whole thing tends to sag a little in the middle. But there is always the compensation of the lovely location shots in San Francisco and the fine recreations of the old City on the studio lot.
Still and all, the movie’s greatest compensation is its characters. “I’d like to be rich like I’d like to be ten-feet high,” says mama. “Good for some things; bad for others.” The movie made me smile and laugh a great deal, and yes, it put me on the edge of a tear more than once, as well. It is memorable moviemaking.
The black-and-white video quality may come as a minor disappointment to viewers now spoiled by some of Warner Bros.’s restored DVD transfers. This print was one that WB undoubtedly found in its vaults, a very good print, but one that does not appear to have been firmed up, sharpened, and cleaned by digital processing; at least, not to any great extent. So, what we have is a good but slightly soft, blurred picture, with B&W contrasts that are strong in the actual black and white fields but not in the many shades of gray in between. Darker areas of the screen can sometimes appear murky, admitting less than perfect detail; and a few age spots, apparently at the ends of reels, creep in from time to time. There is a small amount of grain here and there and a couple of instances of line shimmer. Overall, however, I doubt that most people will mind the film’s small video imperfections, the story itself being so compelling.
The sound is a typical monaural of the day, nicely refurbished via Dolby Digital 1.0 mono processing. The dialogue comes through clearly and cleanly, with almost no discernable background noise, so there is nothing much else to talk about. As expected, there is little of the frequency range or dynamic impact one comes to expect of modern audio, but, then, there is little need of anything more than a crisp mono soundtrack for dialogue, either.
There is not much in the way of extra materials on the disc. The only two bonus items of note are a new introduction by the director’s son, George Stevens, Jr., and a theatrical trailer. The intro crams a lot of affectionate information into three minutes, and it’s best to wait until after the film to watch it. Beyond those two things, there are twenty-nine scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
A best-selling novel, a hit Broadway show, and a popular and critically acclaimed motion picture were not the end of the story. Actors Irene Dunne, Barbara Bel Geddes, Oscar Homolka, and Ellen Corby, plus cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca all went on to earn Academy Award nominations for their work in the movie. And the stories of Mama and her family continued in a long-running television series from 1949-1957.
I’m a sucker for well-drawn character studies, especially when they have as much heart as this one does. “I Remember Mama” is a sweet, tender, sentimental tale, richly alive with old-fashioned humor and charm.
Write about what you know best, Katrin is advised, what you remember best. She does, telling us “first and foremost, I remember mama.”
“Is good?” Yes.