Mother’s Day is May 9th this year. I thought I’d give it a headstart with one of my favorite films. I Remember Mama 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 the normal families in so many of today’s films, books, and television shows.
After watching this moving drama of a struggling, hard-working immigrant family from Norway, you will believe that such families existed and that it’s possible 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, will 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 a bit 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 her sisters will disapprove of her choice of the mousey 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 borders. 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. When Dagmar returns home, she learns her cat, Uncle Elizabeth, is very sick. She just knows that her mother can make her well. Instead, Marta sends Nels to purchase chloroform from the local apothecary so she can put the cat out of her misery. To everyone’s surprise, except Dagmar’s, Uncle Elizabeth, while a bit drowsy, is alive and well.
When Mr. Hyde moves out, he leaves a check for back rent and his collection of classic books. It seems like an unexpected windfall until the Hanson’s learn that Mr. Hyde has been passing bad checks all over town. Sigrid and Jenny, always ready with a word of denouncement, condemn the man. Marta takes a different approach. While not being able to pay with money, she realizes that their nightly introduction to the classics by this educated and cultured man was payment enough.
There are more everyday happenings portrayed in this film. One of the more interesting is when Marta learns that her beloved Uncle Chris is near death. She takes Katrin to his home in the country to say goodbye to him. Sigrid and Jenny are hoping to benefit from his estate until Marta tells them that there is no money. She reads from a small notebook that Uncle Chris left behind. It’s revealed for the first time that he has been spending his money helping lame children. Jenny breaks down and cries when she learns that it was Uncle Chris who paid the medical expenses for her son’s operation to fix his crippled leg.
Katrin, who so much wants to be a writer, is crestfallen when she receives a letter informing her that the story she submitted won’t be published. In one of the most endearing vignettes of the film, Marta takes some of Katrin’s stories to noted author Florence Dana Moorhead. Marta entices Mrs. Moorhead to take the time to read her daughter’s stories by promising to reveal the ingredients of her prized meatball recipe. It seems that Mrs. Moorhead likes to eat and has written some best-selling cookbooks. Just listening to Irene Dunne describe how she makes the delicacy will make your mouth water. It’s a funny scene.
Marta returns home and has a mother-to-daughter talk with Katrina offering both bad and good news. The bad news is that her stories are not good. The good news is that Katrina is a gifted writer. Mrs. Moorhead offers a singular piece of advice: Write about what you know. How many times has a teacher told us the same thing? Every writer knows it’s true. Marta urges Katrin to write a story about Papa. Katrina writes her story, sends it off to a publisher, and is shocked when a check for $500 falls out of the envelope. The family sits down to listen to Katrin read her story… I’ll save the ending for you.
• Mr. Thorkelson is played by Edgar Bergen, the voice behind Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and the Looney Tunes character Beakey Buzzard. Bergen is also the father of actress Candice Bergen. Bergen appeared as Grandpa Walton in the original The Waltons movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971). Ellen Corby, who plays Trina, also starred in The Waltons as Grandma Walton.
• Oskar Homolka was the only member of the Broadway cast of I Remember Mama to reprise his role in the film version.
• The film version of I Remember spawned a long-running CBS TV series that ran from 1949 through 1957. Mama, not to be confused with Mama’s House, starred Peggy Wood in the title role with Judson Laire as Papa and Dick Van Patten as brother Nels. The show was produced live.
• Peter Thorkelson is the real name of Peter Tork of the Monkees.
Worldview Points to Ponder
Question: What is the relationship between good parenting, family government, and a righteous society?
Answer: Parents are the sovereign delegated rulers in family government. Authority has been delegated to parents from God, and parents ought to reflect the image of God as “Our Father who art in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). The Triune God is a model for family government. God the Father gives us “life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). Parents give good gifts to their children as a reflection of their heavenly Father’s good gifts (Matt. 7:9–11). Alex L. Peterson writes in his Elements of Civil Government, a textbook that was used in public schools around the time the events in I Remember Mama take place, states that “the family . . . is a form of government, established for the good of the children themselves, and the first government that each of us must obey. The family exists for the rearing and training of children, and for the happiness and prosperity of parents.” The family should be the training ground for future leadership. Church leadership is cultivated in the family. The church leader “must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Tim. 3:4–5). Civil leadership also develops out of family leadership. The choice of rulers in Israel was based on prior leadership in the family and tribe: “Choose wise and discerning and experienced men from your tribes…” (Deut. 1:13; cf. Ex. 18:17–26; 1 Sam. 2:12–17, 22–36). Paul gives us a hint of the extension of godly leadership into the world: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Cor. 6:2).