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Film / I Remember Mama

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"I would like to be rich the way I would like to be ten feet high. Is good for some things, not for others."

I Remember Mama is a 1948 drama film, directed by George Stevens, from a screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen, adapted from the 1944 stage play by John Van Druten (which was itself based on Kathryn Forbes' 1943 novel Mama's Bank Account). The film stars Irene Dunne in the title role; also featured in the cast are Barbara Bel Geddes, Oskar Homolka, Cedric Hardwicke, Philip Dorn, Ellen Corby, Rudy Vallée, and Edgar Bergen.

Aspiring writer Katrin Hanson (Bel Geddes) recollects her life growing up in early-20th-century San Francisco with her Norwegian immigrant family, who combine traditional Norwegian values with "modern" American ways. The story centers around Mama (Dunne) and her detailed, pennywise household budget. We follow the Hansons' small joys, sorrows, and aspirations, with the boisterous antics of Uncle Chris (Homolka) serving as counterpoint.

The film received five Academy Award nominations, while Ellen Corby won a Golden Globe for her supporting role as Aunt Trina. A TV adaptation, simply called Mama and starring Peggy Wood in the title role, aired on CBS from 1949–57.

This film provides examples of:

  • Accentuate the Negative: Aunt Sigrid tends to do this. When Jenny says Nils is growing tall and Martha says proudly "almost as tall as his papa", all Sigrid can observe is that he's "outgrowing his strength"note  and that Dagmar looks pale. (She's not underfed; she's sick, but we don't find that out until the next sequence.)
  • Book Ends: In-universe. Katrin's story starts and ends with a description of the family's weekly bookkeeping scene and the line "We do not have to go to the bank."
  • Chekhov's Gun: After Dagmar is safely delivered to the hospital in Uncle Chris' automobile, he is briefly seen writing something in a tiny notebook. When he dies later in the film, Mama reads the book to her sisters. He left no money because over the years he has paid for surgeries for children — only two of them related to him — and kept track of their progress.
  • Counting to Three: Uncle Chris does this when Aunt Jennie and Aunt Sigrid block his way out of the house. They comply before he can say "three".
    Uncle Chris: Sigrid, if you do not get out of the way of that door before I count three...I throw you out. And Jenny too, as big as she is.
  • Dowry Dilemma: Played with. Aunt Trina's fiancé asks uncle Chris for a dowry which the latter strictly denies, cleverly talking Torkelson into agreeing with him.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: The story is told through Katrin's eyes but the protagonist is her mother.
  • Foreign Cuss Word: Little cousin Arne, the son of Aunt Sigrid, is in the hospital after surgery for a fractured kneecap. When Uncle Chris comes in to visit, he teaches Arne what he says is a Norwegian swear word: "dumme gjet." (His explanation is that the swearing helps ease the pain. Off the back of some recent research, that's Truth in Television.) When a shocked nurse upbraids him for teaching a kid to swear, he informs her that "dumme gjet" actually means "stupid old goat." note 
  • Forgotten Framing Device: We see Katrin in the opening scene flashing back to the events of the story. A couple of times during the narration are we returning back to present day but the story ends without a final nod to the Framing Device.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Uncle Chris dies peacefully in his bed after a final drink. Lampshaded by Mama when she urges Katrin to go and see the dead uncle for his happy look.
  • Immigrant Parents: Mama, Papa, the three Aunts and Uncle Chris are from The Old Country.
  • Janitor Impersonation Infiltration: The hospital staff is so strict that mother isn't even allowed to see Dagmar after visiting hours. So she comes back after shift change, goes to the mop closet, brings out a bucket of water and a sponge, and on her hands and knees, proceeds to scrub her way to the ward where her daughter is staying. Needless to say, every nurse there who sees her only notices some woman scrubbing the floor, and presumes it's the cleaning lady.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Uncle Chris may be a jerk on the outside, but he does care for others as shown in his scene with Arne at the hospital and by evidence of the notes in his ledger that Mama reads out.
  • Large Ham: Uncle Chris.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Katrin is an aspiring writer through whose eyes the story is being told.
  • Must Have Caffeine: The movie is full of references to coffee. One of the subplots is about deciding when you're old enough to drink it. Even tiny children get "coffee-sugar", a sugar cube dipped in the sacred brew. (Truth in Television for Norwegians, as also related by Garrison Keillor.)
  • The Old Country: The story holds a couple of references to Norwegian customs.
  • Please Wake Up: Heartwarmingly subverted with Uncle Elizabeth. "Are you still asleep? Y'old sleepy cat. Wake up. S'morning..." And he does! It's beautifully set up. Make him live, Mama. Please.
  • Quick Nip: Uncle Chris takes a nip from a bottle he carries around whenever the situation allows.
  • That Poor Cat: ´
  • Title Drop: The Arc Words "I remember Mama" are from Katrin's story about her mother and we hear her sounding it out several times.
  • To Be Continued... Right Now: Lampshaded by Boarder Jonathan Hyde who reads to the children every night from a collection of classics:
    Mr. Hyde. "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!" [shuts book] .... To be continued in our next.
    Children. Awwwww!
    Mr. Hyde. If you're interested...
    Children. Oh, yes, Mr. Hyde!
  • Write Who You Know: In-universe. The famous writer Florence Dana Moorhead advises Katrin to write about things she knows. And she does.
  • You No Take Candle: The Norwegian-born charaters speak English this way, often omitting "the", "a/an" or "it".
  • Your Tomcat Is Pregnant: Dagmar has a cat named "Elizabeth". Even when told that he is a tom, she refuses to change the name, instead amending it to "Uncle Elizabeth".