Initially, I Remember Mama comes off underwhelmingly. It’s overlong, there’s little conflict, and some of the things the story spends time teasing out seem odd and inconsequential at best. Still, within that framework is a narrative that manages to be rewarding for its utter sincerity in depicting the life of one family–a family that feels foreign in some ways and oh so relatable in many others.
In this case, the Hanson’s are a family of Norwegian immigrants circa 1910 and the story gleaning inspiration from two earlier works features a post-war George Stevens at the helm with Irene Dunne anchoring the cast as the titular character.
And it’s true that the film is rather like a eulogy, memorializing this woman who was such a strong, stalwart example despite her unassuming ways. It is her daughter Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes) who looks back fondly at her mother, as she, now being an author sees her mama as a worthy protagonist for a story. Because, after all, this is their story, personal, individual, and unique.
The film feels anecdotal as much as it is serial, taking galvanizing moments, little snippets of that time and place and crafting a very distinct picture of what life was like back then. And that’s part of the simplistic beauty of I Remember Mama just like Marta Hanson herself.
In the opening moments, the adult Katrin recounts vividly the evenings at the dining room table where the whole family would gather around to count out the weekly expenses. They scrimp and squeak by with the meager funds at hand so mama never has to go to the bank. Meanwhile, the timid Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby) looks to marry the local undertaker and she calls on her sister to rein in their two other sisters Sigrid and Jenny who are both rather unfeeling.
Other happenings include the entrance of the boisterously quirky Uncle Chris who blusters his way into their lives initially frightening the children with his antics which secretly mask a generous spirit. Young Dagmar subsequently goes in for an operation and Mama goes to visit her breaking hospital protocol to keep a promise to her little girl. This instance reflects exactly the character that Marta imbues.
She also appreciates the influence of the families’ elderly lodger Mr. Hyde who reads each evening from his many editions of classic literature from Dickens and “Fenimore Kipling” as mama recounts erroneously. She sees this as a gift not only to herself but also her children, opening them up to thoughts, ideas, and even a little bit of culture that she can never give them. The fact that he leaves behind his books in lieu of rent receives only her gratitude while her sisters become puffed up with contempt.
Again and again, she exemplifies that almost all-knowing love of a parent. While never perfect, there’s an innate understanding of what is best for each one of her kids and she is continually willing to work and sacrifice for the sake of her family. To say what those things are would be precisely against the ethics of such a person as Mrs. Hanson and so I will refrain. See them for yourself and you too will understand as Katrin does what makes this woman great.
This is yet another feather in the cap of Irene Dunne, confirming my belief that she is one of the most underrated actresses of the 20th century. At times she’s almost unrecognizable hidden behind that accent and a certain amount of stern, straightforward, and still motherly charm. Look at her character and you see a woman of such a phenomenal stock and integrity.
Nicolas Musuracas’ crisp black & white photography lends an authenticity to the San Francisco street corners as well as the interiors helping to develop a healthy aura of nostalgia. And you get the sense, that perhaps George Stevens was intent on tapping into a bit of that old-fashioned goodness because the post-war world was a far different, far darker place. I Remember Mama is a film of tremendous virtue and inextinguishable light.
There’s also a bit of a personal connection to this film as well because half of my ancestors were, themselves, Norwegian immigrants. Although I doubt they came through San Francisco there are some familiar touchstones and it’s easy to imagine that these people pictured up on the screen could share the contours and backgrounds of my own kin from bygone generations. Wishful thinking perhaps but it’s also incredibly exciting and that’s part of the reason that I left this story feeling as if I gained something from it.
So Stevens and Dunne succeed excellently with what they set out to achieve providing a character study that is nuanced and still evocative in its pure depiction of the sacrificial love of a parent. Some would say that there’s no greater love than that.