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Based on a play by John Van Druten, which was in turn based on the stories from Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes, I Remember Mama (1948) is the story of the ups and downs of a Norwegian immigrant family in San Francisco, held together by the stoic yet tender matriarch. The film was beautifully crafted by director George Stevens and Irene Dunne played the title role. Although long in production and expensive to make, the end result is a film that even today retains its potent sentiment without being overpowering. It was nominated for five Oscars, and spawned a successful television series, Mama, which ran on CBS from 1949-57. The film also inspired a musical stage show of the same name, which premiered on Broadway in 1979.
George Stevens, who was famous for his attention to detail, poured the same meticulousness into I Remember Mama. Every second of the 134-minute running time was devoted to creating the mood; as critic Penelope Houston pointed out: ". . . [by] taking the film at a slow, reflective pace, he constantly emphasized its reminiscent quality, so that it seemed less like something actual and more like something affectionately remembered." Such was the genius of Stevens; he was responsible for such films as Gunga Din (1939), Woman of the Year (1942), and Shane (1953). He won Oscars for A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1956). In 1945 Stevens, along with three of his contemporaries, Samuel Briskin, Frank Capra, and William Wyler, started their own production company, Liberty Films. I Remember Mama began production under the Liberty umbrella, with distribution rights going to RKO. Only a couple of years after its inception, however, Liberty Films fell on hard times and was bought out by Paramount in 1947, which took over 25 percent of the grosses for I Remember Mama. Liberty Films' sole producing credit was Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
So effective was her performance, it's difficult to imagine the role of Mama being played by anyone other than Dunne. The part was initially offered, however, to Greta Garbo, who turned it down. Dunne had some conditions of her own before accepting the role; she had a selection of only five directors that she would work with, but fortunately Stevens was one of them. They had worked together previously in Penny Serenade (1941). Dunne was lauded for her performance as Mama, particularly for the consummate Norwegian accent. Although 50 at the time of filming, Dunne had retained her youthful appearance; the make-up artists for I Remember Mama reportedly had to age her for filming. Mama was Dunne's favorite role; in an interview years later she recalls, "I thought she was a wonderful woman. It was probably the only time I played a real character part. It will always be very special to me." Dunne was nominated for Best Actress for I Remember Mama, her fifth and last nomination. Although she never won an Oscar, she was honored by the Kennedy Center for her film contributions in 1985.
The supporting cast of I Remember Mama was outstanding as well, with three Oscar nods among them. Barbara Bel Geddes played daughter Katrin and also functioned as the story's narrator. Bel Geddes was best known as Miss Ellie, the matriarch on the television series Dallas, but she also starred as the original Maggie the Cat in the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (a role performed by Elizabeth Taylor on film). Ellen Corby, another nominee, was best remembered as Grandma from the long-running television show The Waltons. Other supporting players included the famous crooner Rudy Vallee, acclaimed character actor Sir Cedic Hardwicke, and the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (minus his dummy, Charlie McCarthy).
Despite emerging from the Oscar ceremony with no awards, and weathering the collapse of its original production house, I Remember Mama remains one of the most emotionally moving representations of American immigrant life today. So poignant was its effect that even the often-acidic columnist Hedda Hopper declared, "As long as we turn out pictures like I Remember Mama we don't have to worry about the future of Hollywood."
Producer: Harriet Parsons
Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: De Witt Bodeen, based on the book, Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes and the play by John Van Druten
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Albert S. D'Agostino
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Costume Design: Gile Steele, Edward Stevenson
Film Editing: Tholen Gladden, Robert Swink
Original Music: Constantin Bakaleinikoff
Principal Cast: Irene Dunne (Mama), Barbara Bel Geddes (Katrin), Oskar Homolka (Chris), Philip Dorn (Papa), Cedric Hardwicke (Mr. Hyde), Edgar Bergen (Peter Thorkelsen), Rudy Vallee (Dr. Johnson), Barbara O'Neil (Jessie Brown), Florence Bates (Florence Dana Moorhead), Ellen Corby (Aunt Trina).
BW-135m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Eleanor Quin