In 1910s San Francisco, young writer Katrin Hanson (Barbara Bel Geddes) reflects on growing up with her close-knit Norwegian-American family. Although each of her relatives is memorable in his or her own way, the person who’s had the greatest impact on Katrin’s life is her mother, Marta (Irene Dunne). A strong, tenderhearted, selfless woman, Marta is motivated, above all else, by her love for her family, and Katrin’s stories illustrate the many ways this love has manifested itself over the years.
To some degree, I Remember Mama — released in 1948 and directed by George Stevens — reminded me of one of my previous Blind Spot Series picks, How Green Was My Valley (1941). Both films are narrated by now grown-up characters looking back on their early years around the turn of the twentieth century, and, perhaps inevitably, both are prone to sentimentality. However, under its veneer of nostalgia, How Green Was My Valley is really quite harsh, full of tragedy and loss. I Remember Mama is much gentler. Not every situation works out perfectly, but the Hansons, and Marta in particular, are able to make the best of things in one way or another.
Although she’s not forced to go to the same lengths as Mildred Pierce or Stella Dallas, Marta is the quintessential self-sacrificing mother. Again and again, she puts her family’s needs, comfort and happiness before her own: sneaking into the hospital to see one of her daughters after an operation, selling a treasured heirloom to buy a graduation present for another. In fact, she moved to the United States from Norway solely because her sisters and other relatives were already there. Family is everything to her, yet instead of expecting her daughters to become devoted wives and mothers and nothing else, she does whatever she can to support Katrin’s literary aspirations. Is she too good to be true? Perhaps. (The viewer does see her through Katrin’s admiring eyes, after all.) Still, Irene Dunne manages to make her believably human in spite of her saintliness. When I think of Dunne, I think of screwball comedies like The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). Here, she barely seemed like the same actress, which is a testament to her skill.
I’m glad that I ended up watching I Remember Mama in May, just a few weeks after Mother’s Day. That day, I rewatched Yasujirô Ozu’s The Only Son (1936), another movie about a self-sacrificing mother, but very different from I Remember Mama — and Mildred Pierce (1945), for that matter — in its particulars and its tone. The more movies I watch, the more connections I can draw between them, and I find both the similarities and the differences endlessly fascinating.
This post is part of the 2016 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.