Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Remembering Irene Dunne in “I Remember Mama”

In 1948, Irene Dunne was a very youthful looking 50-year-old actress. When she made I Remember Mama, Dunne was fitted with padding to make her appear overweight and makeup was applied to make her look older. It’s hard to believe that Dunne wasn’t the first choice for Marta Hanson because her performance as the matriarch of a clan of Norwegian Americans is one of the great screen characterizations of all time.

I Still Want To Be Left Alone
Before Dunne signed on to the project, the property had been bought with hopes of coaxing Greta Garbo out of retirement. Garbo had also turned down Alfred Hickcock around the same time she was being considered for I Remember Mama. Hickcock wanted Garbo to play a murderess in The Paradine Case (1948). She supposedly said “No murderesses, no mamas” and remained in retirement. Marlene Dietrich expressed interest in the role, but producers didn’t think she had enough warmth to portray the character effectively. When Dunne was onboard, everything fell into place.

Director, George Stevens
George Stevens at the Helm
I Remember Mama was director George Stevens’s first major production since The More The Merrier (1943). Having served overseas during World War II, observing and filming the liberation of several Nazi death camps, Stevens wanted to return to a simpler time. Stevens was one of the top directors of his day. He directed Gunga Din (1939), Penny Serenade (1941), and Woman of the Year (1942).

The Most Perfect Picture in Years
Based on the play by John Van Druten, which was based on the short story, Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes, it recounts the trials and tribulations of the Hanson family in the San Francisco of the 1910s. For her role, Dunne studied with a dialogue coach to get her accent just right. Supposedly, she stayed in character while she was filming, speaking to friends and family in her newly acquired Norwegian accent. On screen, Dunne is completely lost in her characterization. There is no artifice or anything untrue in her portrayal of Marta. In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther said this about Dunne’s performance: “As Mama, the wheelhorse of the family, Irene Dunne does a beautiful job, in a blonde, braided wig and in dresses which actually appear to be worn. Handling with equal facility an accent and a troubled look, Miss Dunne has the strength and vitality, yet the softness, that the role requires.” Michael Curtiz, the Academy Award winning director of Casablanca said I Remember Mama was “…the most perfect picture in years…”

Last Great Role
Philip Dorn, Barbara Bel Geddes, Steve Brown, and Dunne

For this, her last great screen role, Dunne received her fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The film was nominated for four more awards, but was shut out in every category.The Best Actress race of 1949 was a competitive one. The other actresses in the running included Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, Olivia de Haviland in The Snake Pit, Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry Wrong Number, and eventual winner, Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda.

Lasting Legacy
Dunne would end her career without that coveted Oscar, but she left us with an extraordinary film legacy as a testament to her unique talents.
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