Newly published author Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes) reminisces about her beloved Mama (Irene Dunne), matriarch of a close-knit Swedish immigrant family in 1910 San Francisco. Together with her equally kind-hearted Papa (Philip Dorn), Mama works hard, saves every penny and makes countless sacrifices to ensure a bright future for Katrin and her siblings: stroppy Christine (Peggy McIntyre), aspiring doctor Nels (Steve Brown) and animal obsessed youngest sister Dagmar (June Hedin). Enduring everyday hardships and family dramas she sees to it that what her children lack in material goods they make up for with boundless love.
Adapted from Kathryn Forbes' semi-autobiographical novel "Mama's Bank Account" the original Broadway theatrical production of I Remember Mama was produced by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein and marked the debut of none other than Marlon Brando in the role of Nels. For the feature film adaptation director George Stevens originally offered the title role to Greta Garbo who balked at playing a motherly type. So Stevens instead cast Irene Dunne whom he last directed in Penny Serenade (1941). Ditching her usual glamorous image Dunne disappears into the role of the prim yet warmly maternal and selfless Mama and pulls off what for the time was an understated and convincing Swedish accent. The results earned Dunne her final nomination for Best Actress among the film's five Academy Award nods although sadly the star nicknamed the first lady of Hollywood never took home an Oscar.
Given the immigrant story of persevering through hardship towards eventual prosperity is so central to Americans' self-image it is unsurprising I Remember Mama resonated with post-war audiences looking to reaffirm traditional values. That said the film was not a huge success on initial release and only turned a profit after its re-release in 1956 in the wake of a spinoff radio drama with Peggy Wood. Stevens' film celebrates salt of the earth blue collar migrant values: a strong work ethic, self-sacrifice and fiscal responsibility, married to compassion and maternal love. While heavily episodic the narrative flows beautifully thanks to Stevens' fluid camera-work and subtle visual trickery both ingenious and poetic, complimenting the story’s earthy realism. It is the best kind of stage adaptation; one that expands the material into a fully fleshed out world. Vivid and lively the vignettes presented are more often than not humorous with the occasional skip into sentimentality. Nevertheless this is tempered by the utmost sincerity of the screenplay alongside its deft observation of familial interaction. Alongside Irene Dunne's radiant turn we have Barbara Bel Geddes, later her own distinct maternal archetype on interminable Eighties soap Dallas, here soulful and achingly sincere. Oskar Homolka scored his own Oscar nomination as bellowing authoritarian Uncle Chris whose fearsome exterior belies his inherent kindness and decency. He proves central to perhaps the film's most well directed and acted sequence wherein the assembled busybodies come to realize they have misjudged the old man. Eagle-eyed viewers can also look out for Ellen Corby, later grandma on The Waltons (seems like almost all the women in the cast went on to pay strong mother figures), as timid Aunt Trina desperately seeking Chris' approval for her impending marriage, and famed crooner Rudy Vallee as a kindly but exasperated physician. But it is really Irene Dunne's show and the scene where she sneaks into hospital to sing a lullaby to her ailing youngest only to be embraced by other adoring children miraculously circumvents sentimentally to prove genuinely affecting. It is a testament to Stevens' delicate handling and Dunne's perfectly pitched performance. "Is good."