I Remember Mama (1948) is based on the memoir Mama’s Bank Account written by Kathryn Forbes. The setting is pre-WWI San Francisco. The irony of the setting should not be missed. Modern-day San Francisco is the philosophical center of familial redefinition incorporating everything from Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate to One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad and Who’s in a Family?
I Remember Mama is the antithesis of the dysfunctional families portrayed as normal families in so many of today’s films, books, and television shows. After watching this moving drama of a struggling, hard-working legal immigrant family from Norway, you will really believe that such families actually existed and that it’s possible that they can exist again. If this film teaches us anything, it’s that high standards, faithfulness, commitment to principle, self-sacrifice, love, tenacity, forgiveness, and everyday parental involvement with our children, in the end, make good families.
The film begins with the family’s oldest daughter Katrin putting the final touches on her autobiographical story about growing up in what for many observers would be a less than remarkable family. As Katrin begins to reminisce, we are taken back to 1910 where Mama is preparing the weekly budget. It’s a family affair with the father and children taking part. When Nels, the oldest child, announces that he wants to attend high school, each family member offers to sacrifice what they can to help with the costs.
We soon learn that the Hanson’s have an extended family in the area. One of Marta’s sisters arrives to announce that she is marrying Peter Thorkelson, an undertaker. Trina is easily intimidated and calls on Marta to break the news to their sisters Sigrid and Jenny. Trina fears that her sisters will disapprove of her choice of the mousy man “from der funeral parlor.” As expected, the two laugh when they hear the news.
Acceptance and approval of marriage partners were important to immigrant families. Family pride was at stake. Marta, using her often displayed wisdom, threatens to reveal embarrassing stories about her sisters if they don’t approve of their sister’s choice. As the movie progresses, Mr. Thorkelson turns out to be a loving and understanding husband to the shy and easily intimidated Trina.
While the Hanson’s did not have much in the way of material possessions, they did value education. One of the ways to help them financially was to take in boarders. Jonathan Hyde, played wonderfully by Cedric Hardwicke, spends evenings reading classic works to the family. This is a time long before radio and television. His resonating voice brings the classic work A Tale of Two Cities alive, especially for an aspiring writer like Katrin.
It seems that every family has a loud and domineering family member who has a tender heart. Uncle Chris scares the daylights out of the Hanson children and Marta’s sisters. For all his gruffness, he cares deeply for his nieces and nephews, and he has great respect for Marta. When he learns that Dagmar is severely ill, he insists on taking her to the hospital. The hospital scene is memorable as Marta figures out a way to visit her daughter after she is prohibited from seeing her by the hospital staff. She disguises herself as the nighttime washing woman.
On her knees, scrubbing as she goes, she makes her way to the recovery ward where she finds Dagmar and sings a comforting Norwegian lullaby to her. As quietly as she entered, with no notice from the on-duty nurse, Marta leaves and returns home. It’s truly a touching scene, especially when you see how the other children sit up to listen to the melodious voice that softly fills the room.
It seems that Mama can do anything…