"First and Foremost, I Remember Mama"
What You Need To Know:
I REMEMBER MAMA is a beautifully crafted family drama with humor and many poignant moments. Irene Dunne gives perhaps her best performance. Barbara Bel Geddes excels as the narrator and storyteller, Katrin. Both received Oscar nominations, as did Ellen Corby of THE WALTONS, who plays Aunt Trina. Best of all, I REMEMBER MAMA is a salute to motherhood that also shows family is the bedrock of civilization.
I REMEMBER MAMA is the classic 1948 movie directed by George Stevens about a Norwegian family in 1910 San Francisco and the mother, who holds them together, played by Irene Dunne in one of her best roles.
The movie is based on the memoir MAMA’S BANK ACCOUNT, by Kathryn Forbes. The setting begins in 1910 San Francisco. The irony of the setting should not be missed. Modern-day San Francisco is the philosophical center of familial redefinition incorporating everything from Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate to One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad, and Who’s in a Family? I REMEMBER MAMA is the antithesis of the dysfunctional families portrayed as the normal families in so many of today’s movies, books and television shows. After watching this moving drama of a struggling, hardworking immigrant family from Norway, you will really believe that such families actually existed, and that it’s possible that they can exist again. If this movie teaches us anything, it’s that high standards, faithfulness, commitment to principle, self-sacrifice, love, tenacity, forgiveness, and everyday parental involvement with our children in the end will make good families.
The movie begins with the family’s oldest daughter Katrin putting the final touches on her autobiographical story about growing up in what for many observers would be a less than remarkable family. As Katrin begins to reminisce, we are taken back to 1910 where Mama is preparing the weekly budget. It’s a family affair with the father and children taking part. When Nels, the oldest child, announces he wants to attend high school, each family member offers to sacrifice a bit to help with the costs.
We soon learn that the Hanson’s have an extended family in the area. One of Marta’s sisters, Trina, arrives to announce that she’s marrying Peter Thorkelson, an undertaker. Trina is easily intimidated and calls on Marta to break the news to their sisters Sigrid and Jenny. Trina fears her sisters will disapprove of her choice of the mousey man “from der funeral parlor.” As expected, the two laugh when they hear the news. Acceptance and approval of marriage partners were important to immigrant families. Family pride was at stake. Marta, using her often displayed wisdom, threatens to reveal embarrassing stories about her sisters if they don’t approve of their sister’s choice. As the movie progresses, Mr. Thorkelson turns out to be a loving and understanding husband to the shy and easily intimidated Trina.
While the Hansons don’t have much in the way of material possessions, they do value education. One of the ways to help them financially is to take in boarders. Jonathan Hyde, played wonderfully by Cedric Hardwicke, spends evenings reading classic works to the family. This is a time long before radio and television. Hardwicke’s resonating voice brings the classic work A TALE OF TWO CITIES alive, especially for an aspiring writer like Katrin.
It seems that every family has a loud and domineering family member who has a tender heart. Uncle Chris scares the daylights out of the Hanson children and Marta’s sisters. For all his gruffness, he cares deeply for his nieces and nephews, and he has great respect for Marta. When he learns that Dagmar is severely ill, he insists on taking her to the hospital. The hospital scene is memorable as Marta figures out a way to visit her daughter after she’s prohibited from seeing her by the hospital staff. She disguises herself as the nighttime washing woman. On her knees, scrubbing as she goes, she makes her way to the recovery ward where she finds Dagmar and sings a comforting Norwegian lullaby to her. As quietly as she entered, with no notice from the on-duty nurse, Marta leaves and returns home. It’s truly a touching scene, especially when you see how the other children sit up to listen to the melodious voice that softly fills the room.
It seems that Mama can do anything. When Dagmar returns home, she learns that her cat, Uncle Elizabeth, is very sick. She just knows that her mother can make her well. Instead, Marta sends Nels to purchase chloroform from the local apothecary so she can put the cat out of her misery. To everyone’s surprise, except Dagmar’s, Uncle Elizabeth, while a bit drowsy, is alive and well. The chloroform gave the cat the necessary rest it needed to survive.
When Mr. Hyde moves out, he leaves a check for back rent and his collection of classic books. It seems like an unexpected windfall until the Hanson’s learn that Mr. Hyde has been passing bad checks all over town. Sigrid and Jenny, always ready with a word of denouncement, condemn the man. Marta takes a different approach. While not being able to pay with money, she realizes that their nightly introduction to the classics by this educated and cultured man was payment enough.
There are more everyday happenings portrayed in this movie. One of the more interesting is when Marta learns that her beloved Uncle Chris is near death. She takes Katrin to his home in the country to say goodbye to him. Sigrid and Jenny are hoping to benefit from his estate until Marta tells them that there is no money. She reads from a small notebook that Uncle Chris left behind. It’s revealed for the first time that he has been spending his money helping lame children. Jenny breaks down and cries when she learns that it was Uncle Chris who paid the medical expenses for her son’s operation to fix his crippled leg.
Meanwhile, Katrin, who so much wants to be a writer, is crestfallen when she receives a letter informing her that the story she submitted won’t be published. In one of the most endearing vignettes of the movie, Marta takes some of Katrin’s stories to noted author Florence Dana Moorhead. Marta entices Mrs. Moorhead to take the time to read her daughter’s stories by promising to reveal the ingredients of her prized meatball recipe. It seems that Mrs. Moorhead likes to eat and has written a number of bestselling cookbooks. Just listening to Irene Dunne describe how she makes the delicacy will make your mouth water. It’s a funny scene.
Marta returns home and has a mother-to-daughter talk with Katrin offering both bad and good news. The bad news is that her stories are not good. The good news is that Katrin is a gifted writer. Mrs. Moorhead offers Marta a singular piece of advice for her daughter. Write about what you know, she says. How many times has a teacher told us the same thing? Marta urges Katrin to write a story about Papa. Katrin writes her story, sends it off to a publisher, and is shocked when a check for $500 falls out of the return envelope. The family sits down to listen to Katrin read her story.
I REMEMBER MAMA is a beautifully crafted family drama with humor and many poignant moments. Irene Dunne gives perhaps her best performance starring in the title role. Barbara Bel Geddes excels as the narrator and storyteller, Katrin. Both received Oscar nominations, as did Ellen Corby (THE WALTONS), who plays Aunt Trina. Best of all, I REMEMBER MAMA is a salute to motherhood that also shows family is the bedrock of civilization.