Netflix Update No. 5: “I Remember Mama”

April 11, 2009

15180We watched the 1948 movie “I Remember Mama,” a masterpiece directed by George Stevens. I started to watch this on TMC a few weeks ago, but it would have ended at 2 a.m., so I gave up and put it in the Netflix queue. This film was based on Kathryn Forbes’ novel, a fictionalized memoir titled “Mama’s Bank Account.” The novel inspired a play that ran on Broadway for two years. The play led to this rather expensive movie, and the movie led to a successful television series – “Mama” – and an unsuccessful musical play, the last work of Richard Rodgers.

In all cases, the story concerns a Norwegian family living in San Francisco shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The central figure is Martha Hansen, the “Mama” of the title, played in this film by Irene Dunne and in the TV series by Peggy Wood. Irene Dunne was perfect in the role – as was Peggy Wood – and Dunne’s contributions were complemented by the fact that the rest of the casting was just as highly inspired. That included Barbara Bel Geddes as one of the Hansen daughters – Katherine – who narrates the film. Other choices that turned out to be strokes of genius were Rudy Vallee in the poker-faced role of a doctor who performs mastoid surgery on young Dagmar Hansen and Edgar Bergen in the comical role of a funeral director who courts one of Martha Hansen’s sisters.

ELLEN CORBY

ELLEN CORBY

That sister, Trina, was played by Ellen Corby, who later played the grandmother on the TV series “The Waltons,” and appeared in nearly 230 movies and TV shows. In this film, she is charming in her earnestness and naievete. A pivotal member of the cast was the prolific Austrian actor Oskar Homolka as Chris Halverson, the blustering uncle of Martha Hansen and her three sisters – but, it turns out, the most complex figure in the film. Dunne, Homolka, Corby, and Bel Geddes were nominated for Oscars for this film, and Nicholas Musuraca won the award for black-and-white cinematography. He certainly deserved that for the evocative images of both turn-of-the-century San Francisco and the intimacy of a work-a-day home.

Everything about this film was carefully done. It deals with the most commonplace of issues, but does it with profound insight. The story is a reflection on the resources of the human spirit, presented in a manner that is both uplifting and convincing.

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