Movie Review - I Remember Mama

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George Stevens
RKO Radio Pictures

Book-to-movies are great in theory, but it rarely ever happens that the film is as good as the book, or even the other way around—that the book isn’t inferior to the movie adaptation. In the case of I Remember Mama, however, I found that I enjoyed both. Of course, as with most pieces of media, I couldn’t recommend either one without disclaimers. There are parts of the book that I wish wouldn’t have been there, just like there are parts I wish would have made it into the film; and where the movie differs from the original story, it is a mixture of improvement and awkward moral decline. I Remember Mama isn’t the story of a perfect family, or even necessarily a Christian family, and it’s not a perfect movie, but it is unusually heartening nonetheless.

When the story opens, the first thing you are going to notice is that I Remember Mama is the story of a family that, like so many other families, is a mixture of the Old Country and the New World—Norway and early twentieth-century San Francisco. The second thing you notice will be the family itself. I Remember Mama isn’t about a family that learns how to love and look after one another at the climax of the movie; it’s about a family that, like most of ours, is committed to each other already, and simply goes on working out the details of that commitment as the years go by. And, like our own lives, I Remember Mama isn’t a plot-driven story. It is steady and picturesque, rather than dramatic, with ups and downs but without a single, mid-life finale. There are a few things you need to be aware of, however (besides the possibility of the children in your family talking like Norwegian immigrants for the next week).

You probably ought to be aware of the origins of “Gee willikers,” but on the other hand, it can’t offend you much, if you don’t know what it signifies. Whether ignorance is bliss or not, that is the worst of the minced oaths in the movie.
In the film, actually, not knowing what the words meant led to an assumption in the other direction. One of the more eccentric characters does what I think should not have been done: he teaches a little boy swear words. Now, the meaning of the Norwegian phrase he chose was really fairly harmless, but the little boy probably wouldn’t have used it so often if he had known that.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
Some viewers may find Papa’s pipe smoking offensive; others might find it charming.
One other thing about the family—they were not teetotalers. They serve and partake of port and sherry as an element of hospitality, never drinking to excess. One of the extended family members is rumored to be an alcoholic, and his companionable flask and determination to “finish the bottle” that he had already almost emptied, rather seem to confirm the suggestion. He does, however, fit the Proverbs 31:6-7 criteria on at least one occasion.

The timid, emotionally-sensitive maiden aunt says that she will “jump in the bay” if her sisters laugh at her; though I doubt she meant it. One character is seen dying, peacefully but in occasional pain.


As has already been said, I Remember Mama is about an imperfect family, with imperfect parents. Their failures usually carry their own punishment, however. Mama and Papa reprove their children, but do not discipline them. This results, presumably, in one child’s carefree inattention to them, another’s condescension, and another’s refusal to repent of disobedience; and, carrying on the vicious cycle, Mama and Papa fail to discipline them. Young viewers will, however, recognize that the children’s behavior or attitudes are wrong, because the movie actually portrays Mama and Papa as the wisest ones in the family (an unusual concept in the world of film, even then). Some of the children also give way to supposedly humorous criticism of their aunts which, although true, is still probably inappropriate.

The really positive messages about family economics and mutual encouragement sometimes have some less-than-ideal elements to them; like the subtle drift from scrimping and saving so that Nels can go to high school in the beginning of the movie, to Katrin’s automatic college-or-a-job mindset a few years later. The lesson on the impact of classic literature is marred somewhat (or perhaps accentuated) by the “above all, to thine own self be true” quote from Shakespeare. Uncle Chris’ statement that a woman’s parents give her a dowry because “they are so glad they don’t have to support their daughter, they pay money,” might possibly give younger children a wrong idea. Mama and Papa protect their children from worry by deceiving them on a couple of occasions, and Mama’s own concern for the well being of one of the children causes her to very deliberately break hospital rules.

It’s not that Mama really means to condone wrongdoing, but there are times when she comes close enough to doing it that it’s hard to tell which side of the fine line she’s on. When dealing with situations beyond her control—an already-gone swindler and a relative’s housekeeper that seems to be more to him than just a housekeeper—her in-the-moment solution seems to be to weigh the sin against the practical side of things. The swindler had “paid with better things than money,” in her opinion; her pragmatic “So it will kill me or Dagmar to sit in automobile with her?” focuses on the necessity, rather than the company that comes with it, and the “She looks [like a] nice woman” comment was probably just a jab at her sisters for their concern for decorum over her child’s safety. Nevertheless, that latter situation wasn’t in the book, and it would have been preferable if it hadn’t been in the movie, either, even though it is resolved later.

The character that died “looks happy,” according to Mama, and she wants her daughter to come see what death looks like so she will never be frightened of it. Unfortunately, the spiritual state of the character is not addressed in front of the audience, before or after he died.

I Remember Mama is one of those films that leaves you wishing you knew that the characters were meant to be Christians, but enjoying the picture of family life even with the possibility that it is in an unbelieving household. I do sometimes wish that there had been more explicitly Christian references than the suggestion that being a doctor and helping people who suffer “is to have a little of God in you,” and an ambiguous hint at getting on one’s knees, but then I usually remember one of three things: The books of Esther and The Song of Solomon contain fewer references to God than I Remember Mama does; the movie was directed by George Stevens, so a deeper look into religion probably wouldn’t have turned out all that well, anyway; and biblical principles lived out in the life of an unbeliever are still biblical principles. There is still the possibility, too, if you want to look at it that way, that off screen the characters in I Remember Mama attend church, study the Bible and pray together—that we just don’t happen to see the obvious evidences of their Christian faith.

Whether you want to view the movie with the idea that the Hansens live largely according to biblical precepts and principles because of a religious conviction that exists but isn’t shown, or with the understanding that these characters can be a testament to the beauty of the biblical family model insofar as their actions are consistent with Scripture, even if they don’t realize it; I recommend I Remember Mama. What with one thing and another, however, parents of young children should probably be there to guide their understanding of the characters and what they say.

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