The Times of India ran an interesting little article yesterday (I tried searching for it online, but sorry – can’t find it), as part of its run-up to Mother’s Day. It was a little piece about a mother who found herself reduced to a pair of hands – “can you open this?”, “can you fix this?” and so on – often completely ignored unless her children needed something done. She was feeling a bit blue, when a friend, who knew what she was going through, gifted her a book on the cathedrals of Europe – with a little note. On how cathedrals aren’t built in a day, they take years of very hard work, and nobody knows, years later, who made them. That, said the note (and the article) is how it is with mothers.
So, on Mother’s Day, a tribute to mums across the world. But, most especially, a tribute to my mum, whom I simply adore, and who is the sweetest, kindest, most gentle person I know. I love you, Mama.
Interestingly, Irene Dunne’s character in I Remember Mama reminded me in many ways of my own mother – she’s sensitive (sensitive about her own feelings, but equally importantly sensitive about those of others), very hard-working (“I never saw her unoccupied”, as her daughter says later), emotionally mature, and the backbone – financially, emotionally, physically, and in every which way – of her family.
But, more about the film. Though the bulk of the story happens in 1910, the film itself begins a few years later. Katrin (Barbara Belle Geddes) is typing out the final sentences of her book – a book about her mother. She types The End, and then turns towards the camera and starts reading out the story.
This is the story of the Hanson family. Mama, Marta Hanson (Irene Dunne) is the mother:
And Papa, Lars (Philip Dorn) is the father.
They have four children. The eldest is the son, Nels (Steve Brown):
Then comes Katrin…
…followed by Christine (Peggy McIntyre):
And the littlest, Dagmar (June Hedin) – who loves animals and has a pet cat named Uncle Elizabeth.
Mama and Papa were both born and brought up in the ‘Old Country’ (Norway), but shifted to the US, and San Francisco, because Mama’s sisters had come here, to the land of opportunity. All three of Mama’s sisters live in San Francisco too, and are frequent visitors to the Hanson home. There’s bossy, stern-eyed Aunt Jenny (Hope Landin), who is always criticising everybody and ticking them off for not conforming to her standards.
There is Aunt Sigrid (Edith Evanson), who is always with Aunt Jenny, but instead of being strict and bossy, is a whiner – always going on about how she’s put upon, how bad things are, and so on. To some extent, she’s probably right because fate does seem to have dealt her a bad hand: her only son, little Arne (Tommy Ivo) has fractured his knee cap and limps badly as a result of that.
Then there is their youngest sister, the still unmarried Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby), who is a nervous, frightened little wisp of a creature. Aunt Trina is so timid that when she falls in love – with an undertaker named Mr Thorkelson (Edgar Bergen), she is too terrified to even approach Jenny and Sigrid with the news. Instead, she comes to Marta – Mama – and tells her, begging Marta to be her champion and tell the rest of the family.
Even more terrifying – and not just to timid little Aunt Trina, but even to the children – is Mama’s Uncle Chris (Oscar Homolka). Uncle Chris is a wealthy man who lives on a ranch and comes to San Francisco once a year, driving up to the Hanson house in an automobile that he drives like a maniac, frightening half to death all the carriage-horses and pedestrians on the street.
Uncle Chris is very loud, literally. He thunders and roars, yelling at everybody in sight and pounding impatiently on any door that won’t open to him at first pound. About the only person he does seem to like and respect is Marta, possibly due to the fact that Marta is the only person who has the nerve to tell him, to his face, that she is not frightened of him.
There is another person whom Uncle Chris doesn’t intimidate, and that is his housekeeper Jessie (Barbara O’Neil) – a dignified and beautiful woman who now, to the horror of Jenny and Sigrid, is living in with Uncle Chris. He even brings her to San Francisco, but not into the Hanson home, when he visits them. (Mama, unlike Jenny and Sigrid, has no compunctions about being seen sitting in the same automobile as ‘that woman’; she even goes as far as to say she thinks Jessie looks like a nice woman).
Lastly, there is Mr Hyde (Cedric Hardwicke), the old gentleman who rents an upstairs room in the Hanson home. When the story opens, Mr Hyde hasn’t paid his rent in several months, but Mama – who thinks it would not be ‘good’ to ask him for the money – has kept quiet about the debt. Mr Hyde, however, is very popular with the Hansons because every night, after dinner, he reads to them. A Tale of Two Cities, The Hound of the Baskervilles… all are grist to Mr Hyde’s mill, and he reads them in thrilling, awe-filled tones to the Hansons as they cluster around. It is thanks to Mr Hyde’s obvious and deep love of books that Katrin realises she wants nothing as much as to be a writer.
Those are the dramatis personae. They’re all important, to some extent or the other, to the story. They flit in and out of this episodic narrative, some characters appearing in one mini-story, others in another; but the central character – the one around whom the Hanson household revolves – remains Mama. She is introduced to us as the banker of the family, the one who, every Saturday, gets out the accounts, accepts Papa’s earnings for the week, and balances the income with the outgo…
And, after the grocer’s bills, the odds and ends needed by the children, Papa’s pipe tobacco, etc has been paid for, Mama is the one who sits back with a contented sigh and says “Is good. We will not have to go to the bank.” The bank account, the children know, is only for the direst of emergencies – they will touch that only if there is no other option. Meanwhile, for smaller unforeseen expenses, there is the ‘little bank’ at home: a small box in which any savings – invariably, only a few dollars, perhaps not even that much – go. When the little bank proves inadequate, the Hansons voluntarily pull together to ensure that they go on: Papa offers to give up his tobacco, Nels decides to take up a part-time job at a local store, and so on.
I Remember Mama is not so much a story of a family, but a series of glimpses of what it is to be part of a family. Of how misunderstandings and individualities (and individual failings such as selfishness and pride) can come in the way of familial happiness. Of how love and loyalty, gentleness and sensitivity to others can help, and – most importantly – what it means to be a mother.
I must admit that I am somewhat more familiar with Hindi cinema of the 50s and 60s than I am with classic Hollywood, even though I have seen a huge number of films from both regions. What struck me when I watched I Remember Mama was the maturity that Irene Dunne’s character shows in the film. This is not your typical Hindi film mother, who was usually shown as fairly one-dimensional: self-sacrificing and loving her children to distraction, making them the centre of her universe – but otherwise not much else as a woman.
True, Marta Hanson is a loving mother – a very loving mother, who is willing to sacrifice one of her most prized possessions for the happiness of a daughter. Or who can be exceptionally creative when it comes to finding a way to circumvent rules that prevent her visiting her child who’s in hospital…
…but Mama’s love is confined not just to her children. It extends to others too. Her sympathy and understanding, especially for those who so clearly need it, shines forth in her interactions with her timid sister Trina, or with the indebted Mr Hyde. And none of this means that Mama is a weakling who allows people to trample all over her. She’s warm and loving, yet she has backbone. Plenty of it.
Through it all, too, Mama’s character is revealed further: an emotionally strong, mature woman, sensitive, wise, immeasurably kind – and with a sense of sly humour that makes her threaten blackmail when Jenny and Sigrid try to ride roughshod over poor Trina.
I Remember Mama remains one of the most heart-warming ‘family’ films I’ve ever seen. It’s sweet (but not syrupy), it is a wonderful insight into what family is all about, and its characters are etched in beautiful shades of grey. True, Mama is mostly all white, no grey to her – but still.
A wonderful little film, which made tears come to my eyes every now and then, whenever I’ve watched it. If you love your mum, don’t miss this one.
What I liked about this film:
Irene Dunne. Though she didn’t win an Oscar for her role as Marta Hanson (she was nominated, as were Barbara Belle Geddes, Ellen Corby and Oscar Homolka), this is one of her finest performances. She fits the character of Marta Hanson to a T, and makes her come brilliantly alive.
The scripting, the story, the way it’s all set up. And the dialogue, now and then, which took me back to my own childhood and my relationship with my Mama:
Mama (going about her work, noting her daughter walking through the drawing room, dragging her feet): “Pick up your feet.”
Daughter (wrapping her arms about Mama, when it looks like the daughter’s cat is dying): “Mama will make him well… Mama, make him live.”
Yes, Mama can do the impossible. Really.
What I didn’t like:
I’m being nit-picking, I admit it. There’s one deathbed scene which I found somewhat unreal, because the person who’s dying looks too alive to be here one moment, gone the next.
That’s too minor, though, to be a real flaw. There is enough in this film for it to be loved for itself – and a lot of lessons, actually, on not just being a good mother, but on being a good human being.