Judge Diane Wild remembers Mama too, but there was the whole deal with the spatula, the cake batter, and the cigarette butts... let's just say it wasn't pretty. Thanks goodness we can always rely on the Golden Age of Hollywood to take us away from it all.
"I would like to be rich the way I would like to be ten feet high. Good for some things, bad for others."—Mama Hansen (Irene Dunne)
George Stevens was one of the great directors of Hollywood's Golden Age. His brilliant career progressed steadily from slapstick shorts to musical comedies (Swing Time), to tearjerkers (Penny Serenade), to more substantial dramas (A Place in the Sun, Giant).
Melodramatic with comedic undertones, I Remember Mama fits somewhere between his earlier, frothier films and later, more serious efforts. As explained in a brief introduction by the director's son, George Stevens, Jr., this was the senior Stevens' first movie after he returned home from World War II, where his experiences included photographing the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. It was produced by the newly created Liberty Films, which Stevens formed with fellow ex-colonels and top-rung directors Frank Capra and William Wyler. I Remember Mama is an oddly fitting post-war movie and a sweetly nostalgic look back at simpler times.
Facts of the Case
Mama opens with Hanson family daughter Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas) reading from her recently completed book. This is the framing device for her as narrator to reminisce about her Norwegian immigrant family in San Francisco circa 1910. They face financial and physical hardships with determination and humor, harbor ambitions of a better life, and maintain close family ties with an array of eccentric relatives.
Father Lars (Philip Dorn, Underground (1941)) works hard to support his wife and four children, but it's Mama Martha (Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth) who is the hub of the family. When Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby, The Waltons) wants to marry a nebbish pharmacist, she relies on Martha to smooth the way with bossy aunts Jenny and Sigrid and overbearing family patriarch Uncle Chris (Oskar Homolka, The Long Ships). When the Hansen's youngest daughter, Dagmar, must endure an operation, Mama defies the doctor in order to keep her promise to visit. And when a discouraged Katrin wants to give up writing, Mama is the one to find her encouragement from a famous author.
Nearly unrecognizable from her sassy, glamorous turns in The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, and My Favorite Wife, where she was paired with the equally sassy and glamorous Cary Grant, Irene Dunne is the heart of this movie—and she carries it well. The Norwegian accent is initially disconcerting, as is her broken-English catch phrase "is good," but the warmth of her portrayal makes this much more than a caricature.
Stevens got great performances out of his ensemble cast, four of whom were nominated for Oscars in 1949—Dunne, Bel Geddes, Homolka, and Corby. The direction is assured, with beautifully framed shots that never distract from the human tale onscreen.
The emotions and experiences in the movie ring true, and are in fact based on the real-life experiences of author Kathyrn Forbes (as detailed in her book "Mama's Bank Account," and on the later play by John Van Druten). This realism excuses the overriding sentimentality, as does the structure of having the story filtered through young Katrin's eyes. She is encouraged to "write what she knows," and I Remember Mama feels like her real-life counterpart took that advice as well.
At 134 minutes, Mama is a longer time commitment than you might expect from such a character-driven movie. Its charm never wavers, but the plot does sometimes flag. However, the movie plays like a series of vignettes, which means that another captivating scene is always around the corner.
Its structure and loving family dynamic reminded me of Little House on the Prairie. This episodic nature allowed the characters to take on new life in a long-running television show after the movie's success (although the parts were played by different actors).
While this is a decent transfer, the movie really deserved a better restoration. The black and white picture shows great contrast and black levels, but there are some distracting artifacts, with considerable grain, scratches and vertical lines occasionally marring the picture. The audio is a fine Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track, with no major distortion or background noise evident.
The only extras are the original theatrical trailer and the three-minute introduction by George Stevens, Jr.
I Remember Mama is classic Hollywood filmmaking, combining warmth and humor. It's ideal family viewing and deserves a place on a collector's shelf.
Not guilty. Is good.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical trailer
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