Director George Stevens’s I Remember Mama offers an amiable portrayal of early twentieth century Norwegian immigrants, revealing their daily challenges, lighthearted moments, and career aspirations. Guided by a foreign-born matriarch who embraces America as she resolves problems with simple, “Old Country” wisdom, the story’s Hanson family works together to manage health care and education on a tight budget and deal with problems arising from marriage, illness, eccentric relatives, and a penniless boarder.
Drawing on author
Irene Dunne scrubbing a hospital floor in I Remember Mama.
Each time Mama reveals something about her past to Katrin in a candid conversation, she offers insights into the goals and assimilation issues of many immigrants. Family, not riches, wooed Mama and Papa from Norway. Aunts Trina, Sigrid, and Jenny had settled in San Francisco before they arrived, following Uncle Chris (
Like many immigrants, Mama and Papa Hanson and their children, Lars, Katrin, Christine, and Dagmar, stretch their limited money by making tough sacrifices. Every Saturday they gather together to apportion Papa’s carpentry earnings for the landlord, grocer, and vital needs. To fund Lars’s education, Papa gives up tobacco, and the siblings take on light work; to buy Katrin’s graduation gift, Mama sells a family heirloom so she will not have to tap into the family bank account. However, after Katrin receives her first publication check, Mama admits that the bank account has been a fictional safety net to prevent the children from worrying.
Mama’s role in the immigrant family is both traditional and pivotal. She supports, encourages, and makes peace among loved ones, often solving problems with her domestic skills. For example, she enters a hospital’s off-limits, postsurgical recovery ward in which Dagmar is a frightened patient by scrubbing the floors to pass as a maid. She boosts Katrin’s writing career by trading a secret homeland recipe for a celebrity writer’s advice and referral. Along the way, Mama helps the family adapt Norwegian customs to America. For example, she smoothes the way for the spinster Trina to wed with neither parents nor a dowry. On porches and over cups of coffee, she curbs teasing, snubbing, and bullying behavior as life and traditions change.
I Remember Mama was popular with post-World War II Americans, first as a play, subsequently as a film, and eventually as a
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. The Scandinavian American Family Album. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Zempel, Solveig. In Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
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