I Remember Mama

Identification: Film about a fictional Norwegian American family living in early twentieth century San Francisco

Date: Released in 1948

Significance: 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 Kathryn Forbes’s novel Mama’s Bank Account and playwright John Van Druten’s 1944 stage adaption of the book, I Remember Mama utilizes an intimate narrative structure to frame the immigrant story. The film opens with Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes), the eldest Hanson daughter—who has become a writer—typing the final words of her memoir in the attic of the Hanson’s San Francisco home. At first, Katrin serves as narrator, reading fromher memoir and guiding the audience back in time. Later, she joins the story as a much younger Katrin. The vignettes that follow are set mostly within the family home and feature both nuclear and extended family members, including bossy, whiny, and timid aunts, a blustery great-uncle, and a literary lodger. Meanwhile, Katrin gradually comes of age. The film ends with the family sitting around the kitchen table, with grown-up Katrin, having just received a check for the sale of her first published story, reading “Mama and the Hospital” aloud to the family.

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 (Oskar Homolka), the head of the Scandinavian American clan, who ranches outside the city. Mama has become an American citizen, and her American-born children speak fluent English, without their elders’ foibles or foreign accent. Going against the grain of her stodgy Norwegian sisters, Mama calls herself a San Francisco woman.

Like many immigrants, Mamaand 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.

Irene Dunne scrubbing a hospital floor in I Remember Mama
Irene Dunne scrubbing a hospital floor in I Remember Mama. (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

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 television series broadcast by CBS-TV from 1949 to 1957. Four of the film’s actors (including Irene Dunne, who plays Mama) earned Academy Award nominations for their performances. Set in aWest Coast city that was a portal to America for many newcomers, the landmark film brought widespread and positive attention to immigrant family life.

Wendy Alison Lamb

Further Reading

  • 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. 

See also: California; Education; Families; Films; Health care; Marriage; San Francisco; Scandinavian immigrants; Television and radio; Women immigrants.

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