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Tag Archives: Irene Dunne

I Remember Mama (March 9, 1948)

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).

Anna and the King of Siam (June 20, 1946)

John Cromwell’s Anna and the King of Siam isn’t nearly as well known as The King and I, the Technicolor extravaganza starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr that was made a decade later. Both films tell the same story, but The King and I does it in the form of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. I saw The King and I when I was a kid, and have strong memories of certain scenes, but not of the film as a whole. So I came to Anna and the King of Siam relatively fresh, and was able to watch it without constantly thinking of Brynner’s iconic performance, at least most of the time. The one big difference — if memory serves correctly — is that the later, musical version of this tale was more of a love story. It’s not as if it ended with a marriage, or Kerr being added to the king’s harem or something, but there was a romance of some sort that grew over the course of the film. The closest Anna and the King of Siam gets is a couple of scenes between Anna and the king that end with the king leering, and seeming to contemplate her in a sexual fashion.

Anna and the King of Siam is the first filmed adaptation of Margaret Landon’s 1944 book of the same name. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly bought the rights to Landon’s book immediately after reading the galleys. As is often the case, the real-life Anna Owens was a considerably more interesting and complicated person than she was portrayed in the book or any of the films about her. This is largely due to her own self-invention. Anna Leonowens was born in poverty in India in 1831, the daughter of Sgt. Thomas Edwards, a soldier in the private army of the Dutch East India Company, and his wife Mary Anne Glasscott, an Anglo-Indian woman. Later in her life, Leonowens took pains to hide her origins, and claimed that her father’s rank was lieutenant (later she claimed he had been a captain), and that she had been born in Wales. It’s important to remember that these fabrications were not merely for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. As a widow and a single mother, Leonowens faced an uphill battle in life, and almost certainly would have faced discrimination if her mixed-race heritage had been known.

While Anna and the King of Siam doesn’t delve deeply into Anna’s background, there is never any intimation that she is anything but the most proper of British ladies. The Anna Owens of the film, played by Irene Dunne, embodies the best values of the “modern” British empire, while King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) represents an older form of governance; repressive, misogynistic, autocratic, and superstitious.

Reportedly, most Thai who saw the picture were shocked and angered by the portrayal of their revered nineteenth century king, and the film was banned in Thailand due to “historical inaccuracies.” It’s hard to argue with this assessment. Landon’s book and Leonowens’s own recollections were by all accounts at least partially fabricated, and overemphasized Leonowens’s role in the king’s life, as well as the harshness of his regime. And there’s the larger question of how well any white actor — even one as talented as Rex Harrison — can portray an Asian character.

Granted, the yellowface portrayals in the film look ridiculous, especially Lee J. Cobb as the “Kralahome,” or prime minister, who appears for much of the film stripped to the waist, covered with dark makeup, and sporting a pomaded pompadour. But, like Harrison, he delivers a nuanced performance, and in their scenes together they drop the stilted line deliveries that they have in their scenes with Anna or her son Louis (Richard Lyon). (They continue to speak English, of course, but the syntactical variance is still a nice touch.)

If one ignores questions of historical accuracy, Anna and the King of Siam is an excellent and involving story of cultural differences and the challenges and rewards of education in the face of adversity. The principal actors all give great performances, especially the beautiful Linda Darnell as the king’s newest and most alluring wife, Lady Tuptim. It’s a role that easily could have been one-note, but Darnell is able to create a sexy yet repulsive character who grows more complicated as the film goes on, and eventually becomes the central tragic figure of the picture. Also, Anna and the King of Siam looks fantastic. It won two Oscars, one for best black and white cinematography and the other for best art direction, and they were well-deserved.

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