Irene Dunne in "I Remember Mama"
Lost the 1948 Best Actress Oscar to Jane Wyman in "Johnny Belinda"
After four nominations in eight years Irene Dunne had to wait another eight to grab her fifth and final one, as the Norwegian matriarch in George Stevens' "I Remember Mama." The film was such a smash with the Academy that it managed four acting notices: Oscar Homolka, Ellen Corby, and Barbara Bel Geddes completing the quartet. Even if none of these performances are individually exceptional, the ensemble forms a strong family dynamic – surely the basic requirement for a film which so staunchly promotes cohesion within the home.
Some might call this Dunne's
Hollywood swansong (she made three modest features films after this one) and she certainly radiates that veteran Actress vibe in a way that puts her stuffy showing the previous year in Michael Curtiz’s "Life with Father" to relative shame. The screenplay idolises Dunne's Mama as the Mother of all mothers; a woman struggling to feed her kids properly but whom somehow finds a way to make them all happy, and whom sacrifices her own miniscule pleasures for – among other causes – the sake of daughter Katrin's stage play, and son Nels' desire to go to high school.
Dunne’s perennially-likeable persona is at least present here, in the confines of brave-faced solemnity, and particularly flickering in many of her scenes with the adoring Katrin. It’s the centrally resonant relationship in the film, as Dunne telegraphs Mama’s identification with her plucky, spirited daughter with knowing reverence. She recognises what it means to dream about a better life, and – to some degree – how it feels to achieve it, and allays the film’s emulsion of heritage with able aim. The difficulty for Dunne is that Mama is too manifestly disciplined and wise. She feels bound by the expectations of reliability the film generates for her character, and assumes a role we’ve essentially seen countless times before, in an imitable stab at matronly, Beulah Bondi-style emotional distancing.
Dunne digs out dulcet, groaning tones for her Norwegian accent, skipping prepositions to show that Mama hasn’t quite grasped the English language, and phrasing consternation with low-pitched mechanics. Call it painting by numbers if you will, but for lengthy periods she doesn’t have much of a choice but to dot the 'I's and cross the 'T's of the script, and its crystallised view of foreign settlers as humble family folk with little else to worry about besides holding onto what they have. There just isn’t much to “I Remember Mama” or Mama herself to coax Dunne out of facile, forlorn gestures towards her warring relatives and angst-ridden children, effective in a scene where her daughter retrieves her pawned brooch, but reluctant to give the character any edge.
Dunne isn’t the only person guilty of picking such uniform family drama scripts; “I Remember Mama” and “Life with Father” represent some of the worst work of their directors George Stevens and Michael Curtiz too. While Stevens attempts to rescue his through cavernous camerawork, Dunne does what comes natural and foists the saintly nature of Mama’s firm maternal instinct with delicate charm. For Mama to be a success, she needed someone like Anna Magnani to grab her by the scruff of the neck and add some slovenly realism to her statuesque frame. Instead we get an Actress skating on broodier ice than she’s used to, and opting for single axels rather than triples.