I Remember Mama (1948)

1-sheet poster
RKO Studios purchased Kathryn Forbes novel Mama's Bank Account in 1943 (Forbes was raised in San Francisco and the book details the life of her grandparents).  The project sat for several years before Dewitt Bodeen  was hired to fashion a script from the novel.  Bodeen wrote two drafts of the script before he traveled to New York to see the play I Remember Mama which was penned by John Van Druten.  The play was produced by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein and ran at The Music Box Theater from October 19, 1944 to June 29, 1946 (a very respectable 713 performances).  Oscar Homolka who played Uncle Chris was the only cast member to make it to the screen adaptation.  Marlon Brando made his Broadway debut as eldest boy Nels.

Philip Dorn, Barbara Bel Geddes, Steve Brown and Irene Dunne
The film was co-produced by Harriet Parsons (daughter of famed, or infamous columnist Louella Parsons) and director George Stevens.  Greta Garbo was approached for the title role, but she declined, not surprisingly.  It was Parsons who brought Irene Dunne to the table as a possible for the role of Marta Hansen ("Mama" of the title).  Parsons sent Dunne a copy of the book, who read it and said she would accept if she could give them a list of directors for the project.  Dunne chose Stevens (with whom she'd worked before on Penny Serenade).

The film is chock full of great character actors, Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the lodger Mr. Hyde, the aforementioned Oscar Homolka as Uncle Chris, Ellen Corby as Aunt Trina, Edger Bergen as Mr. Torkelson, Florence Bates as Florence Dana Moorhead and Barbara O'Neill as Jessie Brown.  

Shot partially on location in San Francisco, being a local, I have a very warm spot for this film. Stevens is one of my favorite directors and this film shows what you see so much of in his postwar work, a delicacy, a real depth, genuine heart.  The true heart of the film are Barbara Bel Geddes as Katrin and Irene Dunne as Mama.  

Bodeen recorded that even with the finished script Stevens felt it was fluid and was ever changing.  Initially Jessica Tandy was cast as Aunt Trina and she did not want the part.  Stevens disagreed and tried to keep her on board.  Tandy went to producer Harriet Parsons who then convinced Stevens to let her go.  The story goes that Stevens said, the role can go to the script girl, who happened to be Ellen Corby.  This story might be disputed, Corby had plenty of extra and small bit work under her belt by this time.  Nonetheless, Corby earned an Academy Award nomination for her efforts (she lost of Claire Trevor in Key Largo).

The filming was slow and over budget, which cut into Stevens payout as producer, he seemed not to care.  He was striving for something with the film.  That said, according to studio records, once he was on location in San Francisco, the filming went smoothly and quickly.  Ads were taken out for locals to appear as extras, providing they had their own vintage wardrobe.  Apparently people had to be turned away the response was so great.  

On Liberty Street in San Francisco

For Stevens, working on the film was a way back in to Hollywood and a visitation to his childhood (he hailed from San Francisco).  The film is heavy on nostalgia.  It is a tale of immigrants making their way in the new world.  I like to think this is what my grandparents went through after they immigrated from Russia to Connecticut. 

At the heart, is Irene Dunne, her stillness is the rock to which every character clings.  She is not a plaster saint of a mother, there is a toughness underneath her character, steal rod that holds the family together.  She is the thread that holds all the pieces of the film together.  I find her utterly believable in the role.  Dunne underplays her accent and underplays, never overdoes a moment.  Unlike Loretta Young in 1947's The Farmer's Daughter, Dunne's gentle humor and real warmth shines in this film.  She earned her fifth, and final, nomination as Best Actress for this film.  She lost to Jane Wyman who won for Johnny Belinda

Dunne and Stevens on the set lining up a shot

Barbara Bel Geddes (daughter of great designer Norma Bel Geddes) was also honored with a nomination for her portrayal of Katrin.  Her freshness and youth made her utterly believable as the eldest daughter and the life lessons she learned.  For someone who was young, it's a shining performance.

Barbara Bel Geddes as Katrin

One of the more moving moments of the film are with Oscar Homolka and Tommy Ivo as young Cousin Arne.  The boy while in hospital learns to swear in Norwegian to distract from the pain of his operation.  The second is when the family goes to visit Uncle Chris as he lay dying.  Irene Dunne reads from his accounting of all his good works (of which the family did not suspect him of) paying for operations and such.  His final toast with Marta (who was his favorite niece) and his wife Jesse Brown (beautifully played by Barbara O'Neill).  Homolka plays to the gallery for much of the film, but, it works because he is the beloved and still feared Uncle for the children.  He is loud, uncouth and he does not show his love for them easily.  It's a bravura performance and must have been great on stage.  Also nominated, Homolka lost of Walter Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Oscar Homolka
 I could go on and on about the moments and vignettes that make this film so very special.  Is it sentimental, yes.  Is it nostalgic, yes.  There is a sweetness to the film, so unlike the films coming out of Hollywood in the postwar, film noir climate.  With all of the uncertainty, unpleasantness going on at that time (and even now you could well say) this film is a joy to watch.  Films should not be torture to watch, they are entertainment.  This film is 100% engaging and entertaining.

Not everyone had the good fortune to have a Mama like Marta Hansen.  But, for Mother's Day, you can by letting yourself go and enjoy this look back in time, and the telling of a simple story with a whole lot of heart. 


Tinky said…
Thanks for reminding me of a film for which I, too, have a warm spot. (I also have a permanent crush on Dorn!) Will you be doing "Life with Father" for Father's Day?

Anyway, let's celebrate mothers everywhere, especially when they're Irene Dunne.

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