Director: George Stevens
Writer: DeWitt Bodeen; based on I Remember Mama (1944) by John Van Druten
Cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca
Producer: Harriet Parsons and George Stevens
by Jon Cvack
A friend recommended I read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1943) last summer which I added to a book list and later received as a birthday present. For those unfamiliar, it’s the coming of age story about a young girl growing up in New York City, taking place from 1910 through the mid 20s, and it was one of the best pieces of fiction I read all year. The story reminded of the greatest of coming of age stories, Little Women (1933; I haven’t read the book, though I know it’s regarded as the very best), Persepolis (both the book (2000) and the movie (2007)), or even Now and Then (1995); providing the rare glimpse of a universal story told from a female’s perspective. Coincidentally, the one thing they all have in common is a central character who grew up to be a writer.
I Remember Mama is a tragically underrated story of the same form, told from the perspective of a young and aspiring first generation Norwegian-American Katrin Hanson (Barbara Bel Geddes), opening up by explaining how she had always wanted to be a writer while staring out a window as she completes the last lines of her autobiography. The story flashes back to 1910 as Katrin, her siblings, and father Lars “Papa” Hanson (Philip Dorn) sit before the true head of the household, Marta “Mama” Hanson (Irene Dunne). She’s going over the finances, hoping to put some money away in the “bank” and hopefully one day buy herself a new coat. Their eldest son Nel (Steve Brown) then asks to go to high school, and needing the materials and lunch money, the bank once again gets drained for the needs of her children.
Like Diner (1982), the film then enters into a series of relatively unrelated anecdotes about each of the characters. When Marta’s sister Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby) announces she’s marrying an undertaker, the fiance then requests a dowry. Though given that they have no money, they have to more or less hold in their laughs at the idea.
When Katrin’s sister Dagmar (Ellen Corby) gets mastoiditis, landing her in the hospital (which my quick glance seems to be a weird infection of the skull before antibiotics could cure it), it further eats into their limited funds, until by some miracle, Marta’s alcoholic brother Uncle Chris (Oscar Homolka), who while rambling drunk most times, is also quite wealthy and opts to pay for the operation and save the girl’s life.
In a later chapter, after Katrin nabs a role in "The Merchant of Venice" at a local theater, Marta again gives up her brooch to buy an heirloom dresser set as a reward. Katrin then learns that she traded off the dresser for the coat, once again. Upset, she gives the dresser set to Christine, which upsets her mother even more; providing a deeply touching moment when a child grasps what it means to be an adult. As a right of passage, Nel and Marta offer Kristin her first cup of coffee. Overwhelmed with emotion and embarrassment, she runs out of the room to be alone.
Uncle Chris then falls ill, providing a grueling, though heartfelt scene as he shares his last moments with his sister and wife, even allowing Kristin in to visit where he explains that he unfortunately has no money to leave as he’s donated it all to help those in need. He then shares one last drink with Marta and his wife, requesting that they lower the blinds to prevent the afternoon sun from falling upon his face; and in that brilliant way the classic era of filmmaking occasionally accomplished - in which the images are as beautiful as anything created today - we watch as the sun splashes against his face while the blind’s shadow draws down upon his face and he fades off to death.
The story rounds out as Katrin begins to send her stories out for publication and experiences the initial rounds of seemingly endless rejection. She rounds up most of her stories, though on the verge of destroying them and quitting forever, her mother stops her; asking why she can’t just go visit a famous author she loves, which being a teenager, is the stupidest idea she’s ever heard. Matra tries any way, finding the famous gourmand author Florence Dana Moorhead who she asks to provide any notes she can. Florence resists, until Matra explains her expertise in Norwegian cooking, detailing recipes and offering an exchange, which Florence accepts.
Returning the manuscripts with a note, Florence explains that, like most early writers, she is much too concerned with attempting to replicate her favorite writers and their stories rather than finding her voice and writing what she knows, leading her to her creative eye toward her family. After writing a short story about her family, it gets accepted by some publication which pays her $500, which even by today’s standards, seems like an extravagant sum of money for a young writer (according to inflation this would equate to about $5000 today; not too bad). Her mom can finally buy the coat she always wanted. The family then listens as she reads it aloud.
Shortly before this moment director George Stephens plays out a long sing taken, with the camera positioned in the hallway, as each member of the family enters and exits rooms; the father and son working on an weighted-rising bathroom window through a gutted wall, which keeps falling at precisely timed moments as the family converses; even though it appears no one’s operating it. As simple as the coming of age element is, the craft of the movie is incredible; with each scene providing a brilliant blocking of characters and composition.
I was left thinking of when, if ever, a movie like this could succeed again; entirely focused on the immigrant experience. It seems as though the success of both the play and the film was in conveying the immigration experience. Similar to "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", providing that particular insight into a specific culture; in the ways that only someone growing up in such a situation could possibly understand. I can’t think of the last film which explored migrants coming across seas for the American Dream. It was a period of storytelling only possible because of the policies in place. It seems like now’s a pretty good time to revisit it.
BELOW: Not much on the YouTube front so here's the trailer
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