Tugging a Little Forcefully at the Heartstrings
The thing is, "write what you know" isn't always good advice. Sticking exclusively to people and places you know cuts down on huge, huge amounts of art. Not just writing, either. Yes, there's great art created from following that advice. If you think about it, [i]Citizen Kane[/i] is writing what you know, inasmuch as he knew William Randolph Hearst. On the other hand, Orson Welles didn't live that life. And while L. Frank Baum certainly found Kansas boring, he never lived in the fantasy world of Oz. Heck, William Shakespeare never left England. Sometimes, you have to step outside what you know. You have to invent. Degas went to the ballet and the horse races, and he painted and sculpted ballerinas and horse. Okay. But those medieval tapestries with the unicorns are certainly not woven from life. Even most nonfiction is based on the past, based on experiences outside the writers' lives.
Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes) is the daughter of Norwegian immigrants. Her parents are poor, but they're thrifty and manage to keep the house and keep food on the table. Mama (Irene Dunne) and Papa (Philip Dorn) moved to San Francisco because that's where Mama's family is. The four children were all born in that house. Nels (Steve Brown) makes it very clear at the beginning of the movie that he's going to continue with school, and by the end, it's stated that he's going to be a doctor. Christine (Peggy McIntyre) doesn't seem to have much ambition, but she is, after all, the Middle Child. Dagmar (June Hedin) is crazy obsessed with animals. Aunts Jenny (Hope Landin) and Sigrid (Edith Evanson) are battle-axes, and Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby) is afraid they'll laugh when she announces her engagement to Mr. Thorkelson (Edgar Bergen!). And over all is Uncle Chris (Oskar Homolka).
It's really an "a bunch of stuff that happens" kind of movie. It doesn't have a real plot. Papa loses his job. Papa gets another one. The boarder, Mr. Hyde (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), spends time reading to the family then absconds, leaving a bad check for his rent. Dagmar gets sick and needs an operation at the same time as Cousin Arne (Tommy Ivo) gets an operation on his knee. Uncle Chris storms in and out of their lives. Mama goes out of her way to find Florence Dana Moorhead (Florence Bates), a Famous Writer, so that she can get good writing advice for Katrin. (She trades recipes for getting Miss Moorhead to read the stories.) And so forth. There are several instances where people Learn Valuable Lessons. The woman Mama's sisters scorn as "That Woman" (Barbara O'Neil, probably?) turns out to have married Uncle Chris several years before. Just everyday stuff from an ordinary immigrant family.
But we in this country have a complicated relationship with immigration. My most recent immigrant ancestor came to this country maybe a hundred years ago, and she was from a people despised throughout Europe and basically hounded from place to place. I think there are still countries with laws on the books against them. However, she was my great-grandmother, and all the rest of the family has been in the country even longer. But there are people who take pride in their family's immigrant status while denigrating others'. It all depends on when their families got here. I've been reading about Prohibition and national sex education and whatever, and so much of it was about Those Types. Blacks, yes, but there's a distrust of immigrants running all through the country's history, since before we've had a country. And perhaps the most interesting thing about the popularity of this movie--it spawned a TV series almost right away, long before most people even had TVs--is that these are people with ties to the Old Country who are still at heart Americans. Immigrants but not foreigners.
And, of course, it appeals to Americans' longing for schmaltz. The saccharine. I think we like to believe that there is an ideal family out there, and maybe we can find it if we just look long enough. And this family Has Hardships But Sticks Together Anyway. Mama budgets out their money meticulously. And even though it was really important to her that her daughter inherit a brooch which her own mother had given her, Mama was willing to trade it instead for a dresser set (with a hair receiver, whatever that is) that's what the daughter actually wanted. And of course the daughter finds this out, weeps a bit, and trades the dresser set back. Because it's important to her that her mother is happy, even if she finds her mother's brooch old-fashioned. Even if All the Other Girls get something fancy and modern, it's okay to get the brooch she thinks is dowdy, old-fashioned and, worse, [i]Old Country[/i]. Really, the story is about what it means to become an American, and the funny thing is that it seems to be in a way people don't much like these days.