Movies at the Library: A ‘five hankies’ film

‘I Remember Mama’ will be shown at the library on February 2.
‘I Remember Mama’ will be shown at the library on February 2.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky observed that the most difficult thing an artist can attempt is to make good people interesting. If that’s the case, then the next film to be shown at Movies at the Library is a truly outstanding achievement.

The movie is the 1948 RKO release “I Remember Mama,” directed and produced by George Stevens, written by DeWitt Bodeen (based on the novel by Kathryn Forbes) and starring Irene Dunne, Barbara Bel Geddes and Oskar Homolka. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, a Golden Globe and three Writers’ Guild of America awards. It will be shown at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, February 2, in the Gill Patterson Community Room downstairs at the library.

The story is about a Norwegian immigrant family, the Hansons, living in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. Marta, the mama of the film’s title, is the stern, protective, resourceful, endlessly energetic polestar guiding her husband, son and three daughters through the rigors of a new country, new city, new — precarious but perhaps better — life.

The family is surrounded by a procession of colorful extended family members: the boisterous, hard-drinking know-all Uncle Chris (Homolka), his common-law wife (Barbara O’Neill) and Marta’s three sisters. The youngest sister, Trina (Ellen Corby), a timid spinster, is about to marry an undertaker, Mr. Thorkelson — played by Edgar Bergen (without a dummy). There’s also an impoverished boarder, Mr. Hyde (Cedric Hardwicke), who “pays” his rent by reading to the family from literary classics.

The vignettes that comprise the story are told from the point of view of Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes), the Hansons’ eldest daughter, whose loving memories include the family’s financial struggles, medical emergencies, including the illness of Uncle Elizabeth, their cat, a hilarious scene of coffee drinking, a poignant death and Marta’s bold encouragement of Katrin’s hopes to be a writer.

The Hansons are exactly the kind of people Dostoevsky thought of as “good”— responsible, cheerful, hardworking, kindly, devoted to old values, despite new-fangled temptations. Not exactly the stuff of shoot- ‘em-ups and gangster flicks. But it was Dostoevsky who also observed, “There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it.” Given the experience of the many waves of immigrants who’ve come to the United States, starting with the Pilgrims, Dostoevsky has it right both ways: the Hansons’ story is both old and new.

Critics also found it enchanting. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called it “irresistible.” Leonard Maltin called it “richly rewarding.” Other critics pronounced it “touching” and “five hankies, worth every tear.”

Happily, there’s also a lot of laughter in the mix.

Wherever your ancestors (or you) came from, “I Remember Mama” is likely to put you in mind of both your own history and of the ongoing struggles of more recent arrivals. The film may also bring to mind the 1950s television series of the same name. Both draw their titles from Katrin’s introduction to her novel.

In the film, she writes “The End,” takes the pages into her hands and reads. “For as long as I could remember, the house on Larkin Street hill had been home. Papa and Mama had both been born in Norway. They came to San Francisco because Mama’s sisters were here. All of us were born here: Nels, the oldest and the only boy, my sister Christine, and the littlest sister, Dagmar. But first and foremost, I remember Mama.”

This classic film runs a little over two hours. Bring a pal. You’ll both enjoy this one — and we’ll add tissues to the treats on hand for its showing.