Mothers have always been popular subjects for movies. In the earlier days of films, moms were chiefly portrayed as being saintly, one-dimensional creatures and, as movies matured, they began to be presented with more depth. There are several “mother-themed” films I love to watch, but there are three big screen moms I especially love.
Stella Martin “Stell” Dallas
The 1937 tearjerker Stella Dallas stars the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck as a socially coarse ,working -class girl who falls in love with wealthy Stephen Dallas, played by John Boles. When she fails to measure up to his impossibly high standards, he leaves and she must raise their baby daughter Laurel (played as a teen, by Anne Shirley) on her own.
What “Stell” lacks in class, she more than makes up for in the amount of love she bestows upon her child.. She clearly wants the best for Laurel and realizes that she can never offer the things the girl deserves. She makes the ultimate sacrifice by sending her to live with Stephen, who ,by now, has married a woman more fitting to his “station”, who will be the kind of mother Laurel can be proud of.
At the end, “Stell” watches in secret, outside of her ex-husband’s home, as Laurel marries into wealth and a privileged life, never knowing that her mother has given up the right to ever see her again.
Stella Dallas is pure soap opera, of course, but I doubt that even the most cynical person alive can fail to be moved by Barbara Stanwyck’s superb performance. I personally go through half a box of tissues when I watch this.
While Boles’ performance is respectable, it is Stanwyck who shines brightest.
Sadly, I Remember Mama is a film that doesn’t get the kind of respect it deserves and many people have never even heard of it, but it remains a beautifully crafted film. The story revolves around a Norwegian immigrant matriarch, whose quaint ways dismay her more Americanized daughter Katrin, played by Barbara Bel Geddes.
Martha Hanson or “Mama”, played by Irene Dunne in the 1948 film, is a practical, but loving mother. She strives to look out for her sometimes kooky extended family members, while also desiring the best of her adopted country’s opportunities for her children, especially Katrin, who dreams of becoming a writer. Everything takes place in San Francisco during the early 1900’s.
Dunne gives a convincing performance as the financially-struggling, but proud “Mama”, who makes sacrifices her family will probably never appreciate until years down the road. Dunne’s biggest glory days as a film star had been during the 1930’s and early ’40’s., Although she continued to act in movies after that, her popularity had lessened, by the time I Remember Mama was made. This movie proves that her talent was still intact.
This is a very sweet, uncomplicated movie and a sentimental reminder of a more innocent era.
I venture to say that I Remember Mama will probably be more appreciated by “Boomers”, because we can relate to the sentimental aspects of it a little better.
“Rusty” Dennis, played by Cher in 1985’s Mask, is far from the model mom depicted in past “mother-themed” movies. She’s a motorcycle babe who drinks hard, gets high on drugs and lives in the fast lane. She also has an incredible son- Rocky (Eric Stoltz), who has a severe facial deformity.
Look beyond appearances, though, and you find that,despite all of her personal demons, Rusty is a loving mom, who encourages Rocky to be the best, which he is, academically and personally. He’s a wonderfully sweet kid who manages to get classmates and others, initially turned off by his appearance, to accept him.
It actually seems as though Rocky is the parent sometimes and he gets impatient with Rusty’s self-sabotaging life choices. He hates her drug use and the way she rebuffs Gar (Sam Elliot)- a biker who loves her. Sometimes her good intentions are misplaced, such as when she pays a prostitute to sleep with Rocky for his birthday. He manages to turn an awkward situation into something beautiful, however. Instead of having sex, Rocky and the girl only talk, as he describes his dreams of traveling across the country to her and she, like everybody who gets to know him, is charmed.
Eventually, Rocky goes away to be a counselor at a summer camp for blind kids and he falls in love with Diana (Laura Dern), a blind counselor, who returns his affections. He feels totally accepted by her, because he knows that she judges him by his heart, not by what he looks like.
When he returns back home, it seems as though things are looking hopeful. Of course, you know something bad is on the way and Rusty walks into his room one morning to find him dead. The scene where she expresses her grief with rage, then quiet acceptance, is tremendously poignant.
While Mask is every bit the tearjerker that Stella Dallas is, it is touching, without being cloyingly sentimental. Cher’s performance was amazing. Her character is tough, yet vulnerable and loving.
This one will have you turning on the waterworks, too.
Get Out the Hankies!
Let’s face it. Most of us have a tender spot for all things Mom-related. .
So, pull out the hankies and take a look at these memorable big screen mothers and you may well appreciate your mom even more.