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I Remember Mama

It's nearly impossible to discuss director George Stevens' career without taking into account the stark differences between the films he made before and after World War II. The prewar Stevens was a director who started out working for renowned comedy director Hal Roach, and he displayed a light, ethereal touch with such classics as Swing Time (1936) and Gunga Din (1939). But the postwar George Stevens was quite distinct, taking up such weighty films as A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1959), amongst other titles — all of which he helmed masterfully. War irrevocably changed Stevens, but the first picture he shot in the postwar era was the 1948 melodrama I Remember Mama, which serves as a bridge of sorts — something highlighted by the casting of Irene Dunne, star of Stevens' earlier Penny Serenade (1942). Dunne plays Martha, the head of Hanson family, and a woman fondly remembered by her daughter (and our narrator) Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes). Part of a large Norwegian family that moved to San Francisco in the early 20th century, the Hansons struggle with money and numerous family dramas, mostly revolving around one aunt's wish to get married, medical emergencies, and a family member's death. The film closes cyclically; after Katrin's graduation from high school she gets the itch to become an author. Always worried about money, everyone looks to Martha to hold the family together and occasionally work miracles. An episodic narrative, I Remember Mama is based on the John Van Druten play, which itself was based on Kathryn Forbes' autobiographical book Mama's Bank Account, and it's a curiously low-key narrative. Although a child ends up in the hospital at one point, the biggest crisis revolved around trying to smuggle Martha in to visit the child when she's been told not to. It's a film (and story) of small details, and Stevens is able to make the minutia fascinating. Dunne was nominated for her fifth Oscar for her work here, and she's excellent in one of her last screen roles. But it is Oskar Holmoka as Uncle Chris who steals the show — he gets all of the juiciest scenes, the best when he teaches Martha's daughter Dagmar (June Hedin) how to swear in Norwegian. Though longish (134 minutes), Mama is gentle and charming, full of the love for one's family and nostalgia, and Stevens' invisible hand guides the story well. Stevens was a master at getting good performances while delivering movies that never seemed overly ostentatious. Those tendencies didn't change in his later efforts, but of his postwar films, this is as close as he came to recapturing his old style. Warner presents I Remember Mama in a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a pleasant source-print, with audio in DD 1.0. Supplements include a trailer and a brief introduction by George Stevens Jr. Keep-case.
—DSH



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