|'I Remember Mama': Motherhood: All Love Begins and Ends There|
|By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic|
07:44PM / Friday, May 22, 2020
I wish that I were reviewing one of the half-dozen movies certain to be made when this pox upon our house is no more. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.
"Motherhood: All Love Begins and Ends There" — Robert Browning
We were immigrants, which is perhaps why, when I first saw it on TV, I was immediately enamored of director George Stevens' "I Remember Mama" (1948), a heartwarming chronicle of a Norwegian family's trials, tribulations and joys in San Francisco, circa 1910. That rooting interest for those who wash ashore here in pursuit of truth, justice, freedom and the American way, their hearts inspired by the Statue of Liberty's welcoming compassion, has never left me.
If I see a little boy in a family of newcomers about the age I was when I began to dream of all the glorious possibilities that awaited, I want to say hang in there — that the promise is not dead, but only sidetracked by the same greedy charlatans who've been trying to kill aspirations for millennia. Furthermore, I might tell little Ike — let's call him Ike — that America's future as a democracy depends on his very success.
"You see Ike," I'd say, "all too many of the old group of huddled masses yearning to breathe free are no longer tired and poor, but jaded, blasé about their freedom, and may not wish to acknowledge that they were once 'wretched refuse.' Hey, some of them are my best friends. Still, that's why it takes kids like you and their parents, who can fully appreciate both the idea and reality of the Land of the Free, to regularly reinvigorate the Experiment in Democracy.
"You're going to vote for the good guys. That's why the selfish evildoers, enabled by the duped sycophants who'd rather drink the Kool-Aid instead of sacrificing for their children's future, don't want any new, liberty-hungry people spoiling the fetid despotism they've been brewing."
You don't have to explain the dynamic to "I Remember Mama's" Martha and Lars Hansen. It is their raison d'etre, woven into their very being. They are the humble but proud, proof positive of the democratizing process. While they themselves are not very educated, and couldn't verbalize the legal basis of the inalienable rights they venerate, their every effort is aimed at making sure children Katrin, Christine, Dagmar and Nels can avail themselves of every opportunity from sea to shining sea.
Mixing this ethic with large, sentimental dollops of family values, the narrative first saw light as Kathryn Forbes' autobiographical novel, "Mama's Bank Account," was adapted to the stage by John Van Druten and later reworked for the screen by Dewitt Bodeen. Featuring cinematography that was among the five categories garnering Oscar nominations, the homey interior of the wood-framed, single-family house is as expressive of the Hansens' socioeconomic status as the storied bank account Mama regularly references.
It's a family affair as she tallies the weekly account — so much for the rent, so much for the groceries, etc. — ending with her heaving a sigh of relief and announcing in singsong accent, "It's good, we don't have to go to the bank."
While what we are witnessing is striving, genteel poverty, the Hansen abode is by almost every appearance the dwelling of middle-class people, the only giveaway being their boarder, Mr. Hyde. But that's just a fiscal technicality. Portrayed with deft distinction by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, he is ostensibly the scholar-in-residence whose weekly readings from the classics, such as "A Tale of Two Cities," win a reverence around the kitchen table that would be the envy of any teacher.
Mr. Hyde is the example of possibility: This is how educated you can become, and an embodiment of the high ideals you might come to champion on the way to achieving each aspect of the American Dream. And per the author's optimistic detail of that journey, a loving homage to the concept of family is the most essential component.
Everyday problems, small and large, solved by Mama, Papa or one of the kids, earn ennoblement among the tightknit group. Whether it's Mama sneaking into the hospital to comfort daughter Dagmar despite the doc's prohibition, or discovering that Oscar Homolka's cantankerous Uncle Chris has a surprise side to him, the gratifying postulation is that happiness and security are the products of the heroes who live under our roof.
In short, the film is a celebration of goodness, a concept scorned of late by the dog-eat-dog, never give a sucker an even break ethos stemming from Washington…a malodorous scourge that preceded and idiotically helped facilitate the spread of the actual virus now threatening us. Irene Dunne's wonderfully etched title character esteems truth, morality and respect not just because it is proper, but because her DNA knows that such are the indispensable building blocks of a civilized society.
Call me a sap. But I suspect that in their heart of hearts, even the most cynical, callous demeaners of science, ethics and the high ideals that have pulled us from the muck and mire long to right their path, to be one of the good guys. All of which speaks to the universality of "I Remember Mama," an uplifting refresher course in the virtuosity that hopefully will return to fashion as the fog lifts.
"I Remember Mama," an RKO Radio Picture release directed by George Stevens, stars Irene Dunne, Barbara Bel Geddes and Oscar Homolka. Running time: 134 minutes