I Remember Mama

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

Have you heard this, or have you ever said it? Maybe it was those Otto Preminger films, or Some Like it Hot, or Tom Jones or The Pawnbroker or Bonnie and Clyde. It may even be since important European films started getting distributed in N. America in the late 40’s and the 50’s, that people have been saying that they don’t make films like they used to.

That’s at least kind of true. Modes of production and distribution have changed, and are always changing. The world changes too, and our perceptions of what is happening in it, and what it all means.

Of course that’s not usually what we mean when we idealize the past in the face of the dire or dubious present. We’re mostly thinking about hell, and handbaskets. Alas, we say, for the passing of the good old days! Well, we oughta be careful about all that. If you look at all closely you’ll find that any number of old movies contain their own dire and dubious notions. Just like the times that they reflect. There was racism and sexism, for all your complaints about political correctness. They could be inadvertent and unconscious, or they could be out-and-out. And there were lots of other troublesome little things besides. Contemporary film’s interest in any and all subject matters has definitely led us into difficulty, even plenty of it. But it’s also led us into the decent and gainful acknowledgment of important realities, responsibilities, opportunities. Infantilization is not the proper response to perceived corruption!

I guess it’s the best and worst of times, as Mr. Dickens said. I’d say it always has been.

All that said, George Stevens’ version of Katherine Forbes/John van Druten’s I Remember Mama is exactly what that phrase and sentiment that I was mentioning was made for. What a beautiful movie! It’s wise, tender, expansive, emotionally rich. It’s sensitive to the gestures and nuances of family life and interaction. It is an adult movie, with any number of grown-up issues being explored in a manner that’s both discreet and frank. Watching it I find myself thinking, as I look fondly at the happily engaged family members that are sitting around me, that it just wonderfully, across-the-board appropriate.

They don’t make movies like this anymore. The Studio system broke down, partly because of an important US Supreme Court decision that was made in the very year that I Remember Mama was released. And films became more frank, and that was in so many ways a good thing. But all of that craft infrastructure started to give way or dissolve. And we did lose a certain I-don’t-know-what, some combination of artistry and decorum and decency that animated so many old movies, that absolutely comes out of realities that we still experience and bless today—

For the joy of human love,

Brother, sister, parent, child,

Friends on earth, and friends above,

For all gentle thoughts and mild—

I’ll bet that these days aren’t all that worse than those days. Or vice versa. They threw me for loops when I was young, but these days, on my own and on my kids’ behalf, I’m glad for Anatomy of a Murder and Billy Wilder, for Summer with Monika and even the advent of the MPAA ratings system. Or rather, for the kind of movie that made it necessary. But boy, is this old picture, that came out quite a while before any and all of that, ever sweet.