…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
I’ve always revered the great Irene Dunne as one truly classy actress who chose her roles wisely and well. I Remember Mama is no exception. Considering the fact that taking on this role could have been a gamble, it may in fact be one of her strongest portrayals.
Based on a popular play by John Van Druten (loosely based, in turn, on a fictionalized memoir called Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes), the story revolves around a turn-of-the-century Norwegian family in San Francisco. Dunne plays Martha “Mama” Hanson, the matriarch of this family. Included among the cast are worthy supporting-nominated turns by a young Barbara Bel Geddes as Katrin Hanson, the eldest daughter… Ellen Corby as Martha’s scatterbrained sister and the children’s Aunt Trina… and the indomitable Oscar Homolka as (purportedly) mean Uncle Chris, nicknamed “The Black Norwegian” for his blustery, take-no-nonsense manner. The film is narrated as one great flashback by Katrin, who begins the story as a writer putting the finishing touches on her autobiography.
What makes this film work on so many levels is the marked characterization each actor in the film brings to his or her role. It is a delicate film that avoids too much sentimentality, and every character and scene is brought to wonderful realization, weaving together a family tapestry that makes this story, overall, a memorable, genuine, and poignant experience. Perhaps we can credit the skilled hand of the oft-accomplished director George Stevens for this. I confess that, prior to seeing the film and having the knowledge that this play was one of the overdone sentimental favorites of community theaters all over, I was prepared to watch a corny piece of tripe. I was surprised to find myself giggling, smiling, and shedding some slight tears – all in very good ways.
Irene Dunne shines as the heart of the film, handling the Norwegian accent and saddened face of the hard-working and self-sacrificing mother with dexterity. She has moments in the film that are golden – I particularly love a scene where Martha sneaks herself into a hospital late at night after her youngest daughter has had surgery. She has been forbidden by the hospital staff to visit her daughter for 24 hours, but sitting at home and worrying about what her daughter will think when she wakes up from surgery to find her mother not there is far too troublesome for her mother’s caring heart to even conceive. Disguising herself as a cleaning lady, Martha succeeds in scrubbing her way down the hall floors to the room in which her daughter is resting – and concludes the poignant scene with a beautiful Norwegian lullaby. As all of the children in the ward awake and listen to her sing, you cannot help but be touched. And Dunne is radiant.
Oscar Homolka, as gruff Uncle Chris, was also a particular stand-out to me. At the risk of spoiling the plot for those of you reading this – sorry, but I gotta say it – his death scene in this film was probably one of the most moving I have ever seen rendered.
Dunne would lose the 1948 Oscar and her final Best Actress nomination to a touching performance by Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute rape victim in the film Johnny Belinda. Much like Rosalind Russell, it is unfortunate that Oscar eluded such a fine, capable actress as Dunne. She was always a stellar professional and I can honestly say I have never been disappointed by any of her performances (the 1937 film in which she was nominated a third time, The Awful Truth with Cary Grant, remains one of my all-time favorites). She retired from the silver screen in the early 1950s to pursue a philanthropic life with her husband.
If you have yet to see this film and would like to relax with a well-made classic, rent it. Consider watching it with your loved ones – and perhaps even your mother – this Mother’s Day weekend. Believe it or not, I did not intentionally watch a film called I Remember Mama at this particular time. It just happened that way! I have to think, however, that it’s a good thing. This film stirred some of my own loving memories of growing up with my mother… and maybe it will for you too. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who are mothers out there!