During World War II, director George Stevens served as a Lieutenant Colonel in charge of combat photography. He filmed D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of Paris, and the horrors of the concentration camps.
When he returned home to America he started a production company, Liberty Films, with William Wyler and Frank Capra. For his first film, Stevens chose to look back to the time and place of his own boyhood — early 20th-century California — rather than the uncertain post-war future.
I Remember Mama is the story of a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco. It’s based on the 1944 play by John Van Druten, which was adapted from Kathryn Forbes’s book Mama’s Bank Account, which was published in 1943.
The film opened in limited release on March 9, 1948. At 11:55 AM on that day, director Michael Curtiz sent Stevens a telegram that read:
Dear George: Without exception I think “I Remember Mama” is the most perfect picture that Ive [sic] seen in years. Direction was magnificent and I think all of us can learn [a] great lesson from it. My deepest admiration goes to you and everyone who had any part in this production. Warmest regards. Mike Curtiz.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I Remember Mama is the most perfect film I’ve seen in years, it’s a wonderful movie that’s heart-warming without being saccharine and that’s beautifully acted and filmed, much of it on location in San Francisco.
Of course, Stevens had the benefit of wonderful source material. I’ve never seen the play by John Van Druten that the film is based on, but I read Kathryn Forbes’s Mama’s Bank Account in sixth grade, and so much about it has stayed with me. It’s warm, humorous, and there’s pure magic in its evocation of ordinary life.
Mama’s Bank Account is a fictionalized memoir written from the point of view of a young woman who aspires to be a writer. (Much of the book was inspired not by Forbes’s mother but by her Norwegian immigrant grandmother.)
Barbara Bel Geddes plays Katrin, the young writer who finds her subject when she decides to write about her mother, and she sometimes addresses the camera directly. Irene Dunne plays “Mama” (we never learn her real name, which is as it should be).
Like the book, the film is a series of vignettes. There is the tale of the family’s roomer, Mr. Hyde (Cedric Hardwicke), whom Mama’s sisters warn her might be putting something over on her when he’s always late with the rent, but Mama doesn’t mind so much, because Mr. Hyde reads to the family every night from the classics — A Tale of Two Cities, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Hamlet. Like most of the stories that comprise I Remember Mama, the tale of Mr. Hyde has a bittersweet end, but it’s more sweet than bitter, since his enthralling nightly storytelling sessions kept Katrin’s brother Nels (Steve Brown) off the street the night his friends were arrested for breaking into a shop, and were Katrin’s inspiration to become a writer.
My favorite vignette from both the book and the movie is about Katrin’s Uncle Chris (Oskar Homolka), with his loud voice and his fierce black mustache, who would come down from his ranch in the north and descend upon San Francisco in his automobile, charging up Market Street with ferocious speed, compensating, perhaps, for the limp he still carries from a childhood accident. When Katrin writes a story about her uncle Chris, her teacher scolds her and tells her it’s not nice to write that kind of story about a family member.
I Remember Mama occasionally gets a little schmaltzy, like when Mama impersonates a scrubwoman to get into the children’s ward of a hospital to see her youngest child, Dagmar (June Hedin), and then sings a lullaby that puts all the little girls in the ward to sleep. But for the most part Stevens avoids easy sentiment. Dunne’s performance as Mama is really wonderful, and her line delivery is great. When Katrin asks her mother, “Wouldn’t you like to be rich?,” Mama responds, “I would like to be rich the way I would like to be ten feet high. Is good for some things, is bad for others.”
I Remember Mama was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards, but it didn’t win any — Best Actress (Irene Dunne), Best Supporting Actor (Oskar Homolka), Best Supporting Actress (Barbara Bel Geddes), Best Supporting Actress (Ellen Corby), and Best Cinematography, Black and White (Nicholas Musuraca).