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I Remember Mama

I Remember Mama
Warner DVD
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 134 min. / Street Date December 7, 2004 / 19.97
Starring Irene Dunne, Barbara Bel Geddes, Oskar Homolka, Philip Dorn, Ellen Corby, Cedric Hardwicke
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction Carroll Clark, Albert S. D'Agostino
Film Editor Robert Swink
Original Music Roy Webb
Written by DeWitt Bodeen from the novel Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes and the play by John Van Druten
Produced by Harriet Parsons, George Stevens
Directed by George Stevens

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The experience of war can have strong effects on artists, and it certainly can be felt in the films of George Stevens. He finished his European duty helping to compile docu footage to be used at the Nuremberg war trials. On his return he formed Liberty Pictures with Frank Capra and William Wyler, with the idea of a new kind of Hollywood producing entity based on directorial talent. Capra made It's a Wonderful Life, a film that turned out to be a financial bust. With capital and distribution hard to come by and administration overhead a budget-killer, the Liberty directors sold their services instead of producing their own films.

Once known for lighthearted comedies, Stevens took a career about-face as sharp as that envisioned by John L. Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels. I Remember Mama is his changeover to serious themes and social issues. At a time when post-war anxieties were reflected in noir-ish films about insecurity and chaos, Stevens chose to do an amusing but sober look backwards at the values that he thought were typically American - the values of earnest immigrants grateful for their place in the United States of the early 20th Century.

I Remember Mama is taken from a sentimental novel about a young writer's childhood and could easily have been comedy fluff or a simple tear-jerker. But despite its old-fashioned title it's a lot more than that, a moving portrait of family ties that makes us nod with approval. Once upon a time there were families like this - because there still are.


Katrin Hanson (Barbara Bel Geddes) remembers her childhood in 1910 San Francisco by relating several incidents revolving around her Norwegian immigrant mother Martha (Irene Dunne). Little sister Dagmar goes to the hospital for ear surgery. Skittish Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby) becomes engaged to the undertaker, Peter Thorkelson (Edgar Bergen). There are sick cats and troublesome aunts to contend with, along with the feared head of the family, the 'black Norwegian' Uncle Chris Halvorsen (Oscar Homolka) who lives 'in sin' with his housekeeper on a ranch to the North. Katrin aspires to be a writer, and her mother helps by seeking advice for her from prominent novelist Florence Dana Moorhead (Florence Bates).

I Remember Mama begins with a brief framing device of a mature Katrin Hanson seeing her younger self in a mirror, an optical trick atypical of George Stevens. It's his way of showing the relationship of the past to the present. Our ancestors are supposed to live on through us, even though most Americans can barely remember back two or three generations. To the citizens of 1948, 1910 was no farther away than 1966 is now, but it seems to be a different age entirely.

Through Katrin's narration we learn the basic family setup. A hardworking father isn't in the house much but is quiet and dependable. The only relatives are three disagreeable, nosy aunts and an overbearing Uncle who frightens the children with his loud voice. Katrin is labeled "dramatic," just as her older brother Nels is typed as "kindly." Two younger sisters are appropriately competitive and obsessed with pets. At first glance there's nothing remotely exceptional about the brood. In Katrin's memory it is Mother who holds everything together, the family problem solver, arbiter, bookkeeper and judge. She takes personal responsibility for everything and is the kind of adult that children don't appreciate until they mature. She's the conscience of the family.

Stevens and his writers stay focused on the details of family living even when a crisis comes up. Mother defends the timid Aunt Trina from her cruel sisters, and has to bully Uncle Chris to stop him from antagonizing a generous and kindly doctor (a subdued Rudy Vallee). There's a great episode where the parents find themselves unprepared to chloroform Dagmar's sick cat. Mother is the center of every problem. She has to pull the family together when little Dagmar needs an operation, and then finds herself stymied by the cold hospital staff when she's refused visitation rights.

Detractors of I Remember Mama unfairly cite the scene where Mama sneaks into the hospital ward disguised as a washerwoman as evidence of Stevens' going overboard with sentimentality. 1946-1948 must have been cynical days at the movie theater (this was the heyday of film noir) as contemporary criticism of It's a Wonderful Life was even more harsh. The scene in question, with Irene Dunne singing a lullabye to an entire ward, now seems subdued. The simple point is made that Mama promised her child a visit after the operation, and wouldn't rest until she'd fulfilled it. Critics sometimes can't see the distinction between people who are simpletons and people with uncomplicated values.

If anything, Stevens undercuts scenes that in another movie would be played for stronger heart-tugs. Katrin and Mama take a walk on the steep San Francisco hills, and it's an ordinary stroll with discussions about coffee, the old country and being rich. When Katrin retreats to her room after receiving a rejection for one of her stories, Stevens holds on a very modern composition that shows bits of two rooms while staring at dad's carpentry work in the bathroom. The shot goes unbroken for a couple of minutes while the dramatic focus happens slightly out of sight, off screen to one side, while other bits of business play out. The clever staging is surprisingly natural.

Barbara Bel Geddes (Caught, Vertigo) was just getting started as an actress and in I Remember Mama makes a fine journey from shy teenager to an enthusiastic young woman. Among the many Oscar nominees, Ellen Corby and Oscar Homolka stand out as eccentric characters just real enough not to be cartoonish. We soon forget about the Norwegian accents. Cedric Hardwicke is a slippery tenant honored for his animated readings of great books. Finally, Irene Dunne is one of the great underappreciated actresses of her day, an amazing singer in Sweet Adeline and the 1936 Showboat and equally adept at screwball comedy as she was at drama. The movie is almost entirely hers and she easily makes us feel that Mama is as ethical and inspiring as her daughter says she is.

Proof of the way Stevens avoids schmaltzy material comes at the conclusion, with a lesson in understatement from which many sentimental filmmakers could profit. Katrin's literary sale turns out to be not about father but about Mama, and while Katrin reads the opening paragraphs Mama hovers around the table, finally ending up looking out a window (along with mirrors, windows figure heavily in the story as portals into the past). The last image is Dunne's face, deep in shadow through a lace curtain. Katrin is telling her story, and she appears to be fading into a memory as we listen to the words that will immortalize her. It's very touching, and uncommonly restrained. If audiences cried over this scene, the tears were honestly earned.

Warners' DVD of I Remember Mama is a fine transfer from RKO source materials, with scratches here and there but mostly in tip-top shape. The audio is robust. The only feature is a brief video introduction by George Stevens Jr., now the gatekeeper to most of his father's films; for better or worse, his influence is controlling the great director's legacy.

We can thank this watchdoggery for the inclusion of George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey and George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin along with the more commercial titles from the RKO years. I Remember Mama may not sell as big as Gunga Din (which I hear is sold out in some areas) but it is a masterpiece of the same caliber. 1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, I Remember Mama rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Introduction by George Stevens Jr.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 19, 2004


1. Unfortunately, genre fans unaccustomed to checking out vintage nostalgic fare like I Remember Mama may instantly be reminded of a horror film of the 1970s that was retitled with the campy monniker I Dismember Mama.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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