George Stevens: Katharine Hepburn & Irene Dunne Collaborations

by Andre Soares
I Remember Mama Irene Dunne Barbara Bel Geddes Philip Dorn Steve Brown: George Stevens immigrant family drama
I Remember Mama with Irene Dunne, Philip Dorn, Barbara Bel Geddes, Steve Brown: George Stevens immigrant family drama.

George Stevens' film series on Turner Classic Movies continues tonight with a potpourri of films: the romantic drama Alice Adams (1935), the period comedy Quality Street (1937), the family drama I Remember Mama (1948), the tearjerker Penny Serenade (1941), and the light comedy Bachelor Bait (1934).

By now, Alice Adams is already over. The film is a tad dated, but Katharine Hepburn remains impressive as the small-town girl who wants to belong to both high society and Fred MacMurray. Why she'd pine for MacMurray's character, I don't know, but Hepburn beautifully conveys youthful heartbreak. (Not that older people can't feel the same.)

The Best Actress Academy Award that year should have gone to nominee Hepburn; instead, it went to Bette Davis for her work in Alfred E. Green's Dangerous – and as compensation for her having been bypassed the previous year for her star-making turn in John Cromwell's Of Human Bondage.

Hattie McDaniel, for her part, is hilarious as the maid who ruins a most special dinner.

Quality Street (1937) has been panned in some quarters, but I find this comedy of manners thoroughly enjoyable. Hepburn is a delight, and so is an extensive supporting cast that includes Fay Bainter, Eric Blore, and Cora Witherspoon.

I Remember Mama (1948) offers some good performances – especially Best Actress Oscar nominee Irene Dunne as the Mama of the title[1] – while Penny Serenade earned Cary Grant an undeserved Oscar nod for his overly dramatic performance in an overly dramatic role. Dunne plays his wife, and she suffers just as much. Viewers may end up suffering while watching this one, too, but for all the wrong reasons.

Penny Serenade is for those who are into unabashedly sentimental melodrama.

Relatively modest domestic hit was major financial disappointment

Like Gunga Din, I Remember Mama was a box-office-friendly release – as per Variety's estimate, a respectable $2.9 million in domestic rentals – that ultimately lost money for the studio ($1.04 million in the red) because of its hefty production budget ($3.06 million).[2]

In fact, the film was popular enough to lead to a TV series adaptation the following year: Mama, toplining Broadway veteran and future Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominee Peggy Wood (Maytime, The Merchant of Venice on Broadway; Oscar-nominated for The Sound of Music, 1965). Mama ran until 1957.

Oddly, even though Irene Dunne and George Stevens were top RKO names in the 1930s, they never worked together while at the studio. Both went their own way in the early 1940s, teaming up with Cary Grant on the 1941 family melodrama Penny Serenade at Columbia. I Remember Mama was Stevens and Dunne's second – and, as it turned out, final – collaboration.

Irene Dunne Best Actress Oscar nominations

[1] Prior to I Remember Mama, Irene Dunne's four Best Actress Oscar nominations were for the following:

  • Wesley Ruggles' Cimarron (for the period 1930–1931).
  • Richard Boleslawski's Theodora Goes Wild (1936).
  • Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1937) and Love Affair (1939).

'I Remember Mama' inflation-adjusted figures

[2] I Remember Mama figures in approximate 2010 dollars:

  • Budget: $28 million (not including distribution and marketing expenses).
  • Domestic Rentals: $26 million*. The actual box office gross, if in line with reports for future movies, would have been approximately $50 million.
  • Loss: $9.5 million.

* When using the Motion Picture Association of America's estimates (via Boxofficemojo.com) for average annual domestic movie ticket prices (not directly correlated to the Consumer Price Index), I Remember Mama would have earned about $57 million in domestic rentals if released in 2010. Its gross would have been about $105–110 million.

Bear in mind that such estimates are iffy, as they rely on average ticket prices; many major releases earned a large chunk of their grosses at top-price theaters. And when using worldwide box office data, currency exchange fluctuations should be taken into account.

I Remember Mama financial information via Richard B. Jewell and Vernon Harbin's The RKO Story and Jewell's Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures.

George Stevens schedule

Schedule and synopses from the TCM website:

5:00pm Alice Adams (1935)
A small-town girl with social ambitions falls in love with a local playboy.
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Fred MacMurray, Fred Stone, Evelyn Venable Dir: George Stevens BW-100 mins.

7:00pm Quality Street (1937)
A woman masquerades as her own niece to get back at a neglectful suitor.
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Franchot Tone, Eric Blore, Fay Bainter Dir: George Stevens BW-83 mins.

8:30pm I Remember Mama (1948)
Norwegian immigrants face the trials of family life in turn-of-the-century San Francisco.
Cast: Irene Dunne, Barbara Bel Geddes, Oscar Homolka, Philip Dorn Dir: George Stevens BW-134 mins.

11:00pm Penny Serenade (1941)
A woman on the verge of divorce recalls her heartbreaking attempts to adopt a child.
Cast: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Beulah Bondi, Edgar Buchanan Dir: George Stevens BW-119 mins.

1:15am Bachelor Bait (1934)
A romantic starts a marriage agency so he can play Cupid.
Cast: Stuart Erwin, Rochelle Hudson, Pert Kelton, “Skeets” Gallagher Dir: George Stevens BW-75 mins.

Philip Dorn, Barbara Bel Geddes, Steve Brown, Irene Dunne, I Remember Mama image: RKO Pictures.

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