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
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:
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