“Is Good:” An Afternoon with I REMEMBER MAMA

iremembermama2We might still be a little while off from Mother’s Day, but you’d hardly know it from this afternoon’s showing of I REMEMBER MAMA (1948) at the Chinese Multiplex. Richard Corliss, film critic for Time since 1980 and author of the TCM-commissioned book Mom in the Movies: The Iconic Screen Mothers You Love (And A Few You Love To Hate), made an encore after his appearance this morning to provide a valuable introduction in which he placed the film in context with two other major memoir-based family studies from the same period, Meet Me in St. Louis and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

However, this particular one (from a semi-autobiographical book by Kathryn Forbes, Mama’s Bank Account) stands out because of its distinct lineage in the arts, first adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein as a stage play featuring a very young Marlon Brando as lone son Nels. Itiremembermama later became a stage musical in the late ‘70s, too, and was adapted again as an early TV series.

The film version was helmed by George Stevens, who had just come off the film unit of the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. No doubt he was looking for something lighter and more sedate than the physical trauma he had been witnessing, and it’s this need for escape that strongly informs one of I REMEMBER MAMA’s most memorable scenes, a serene demise that teaches one character not be afraid of death.

Of course, Stevens was already a seasoned director by this point with films like Gunga Din, Swing Time, and Penny Serenade under his belt, with his famous five-film punch of the 1950s still to come. Casting the role of Mama (or Aunt Martha) proved to be a little tricky, with a retired Greta Garbo turning it down and a campaigning Marlene Dietrich passed over as being “not material enough,” to quote Corliss. Even Katina Paxinou was considered with the possibility of turning the source novel’s Norwegian family into Greeks, but ultimately the nationality stayed the same with Irene Dunne getting the lead role.

As any TCM viewer can tell you, Dunne is best remembered for her glamorous appearance in both screwball comedies and intense dramas ranging from The Awful Truth to the aforementioned Penny Serenade.  Here she’s almost unrecognizable at first her hair pulled around in a tight braid and makeup kept to a bare minimum, with a convincing Norwegian accent (“Is good!”) to boot.

This is hardly a one-woman show, though, with the underrated Dutch actor Philip Dorn offering solid support as Papa (and doing some fine physical comedy late in the film smoking a pipe with his son). He isn’t a household name, sadly, but you can still catch some of his other great work on TCM regularly in such films as Random Harvest, Passage to Marseille, and Underground. Then there’s Katrin, the slightly fictionalized version of Kathryn Forbes, played by a very young Barbara Bel Geddes. Needless to say, it’s a little peculiar seeing her against the film’s constant backdrop of San Francisco locales just a bit more than a decade before she returned to the Bay for Vertigo.

Of course, the real plum role of this film is actually the “wicked” Uncle Chris, the mischievous, heavy-drinking imp who stirs discontent against the family aunts (including a young Ellen Corby, way before her famous grandmother role on TV’s The Waltons). Oskar Homolka has a field day in the role (which earned him a much-deserved Oscar nomination, an honor also bestowed on Dunne, Bel Geddes, and Corby) and gets the juiciest lines, and it’s actually surprising he only gets a real scene opposite Dunne near the end of the film.

Fans of George Stevens can also have fun here looking at him refining his craft after some time off in the trenches, including the experimental framing device of presenting Katrin writing her short story about mama (and later reading it at the end) while we see the action depicted through a mirror. Stevens even indulges in a little bit of Hitchcockian suspense for the memorable hospital sequence, which finds Dunne masquerading as a washerwoman to sing a lullaby to her fever-stricken daughter and almost giving herself away courtesy of a metal bucket. The film still plays like a charm, earning its share of both laughs and tears courtesy of this rare 35mm screening, and there’s little doubt movie lovers will keep on remembering it for generations to come.