The Hanson family is lower middle class but gets by. They have an elderly boarder, Mr. Hyde (Cedric Hardwicke), who is behind on the rent but compensates by reading classic novels to the family each evening. Martha has three sisters that live nearby: bossy Aunt Jenny (Hope Landin), whiny Aunt Sigrid (Edith Evanson), and wallflower Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby). Trina, the most likable of the three, hopes to marry unromantic milquetoast undertaker Thorkelson (Edgar Bergen).
Martha also has an Uncle Chris (Oskar Homolka) who pays occasional visits. The loud and tactless Chris nonetheless has a soft spot for children, even though he usually frightens them. His mistress (Barbara O'Neil) is agreeable but considered a scandal by his gossipy nieces.
One-time bandleader Rudy Vallee shows up as a doctor who clashes with the willful Uncle Chris.
The story is told from the perspective of oldest sister Katrin, but Irene Dunne as Mama is the star. She sacrifices and schemes for the benefit of her children, but does so with modesty. She is also beautiful for a 50 year old, and has a fine singing voice.
How others will see it. This RKO production had a lavish budget of $3 million. The sentimental, nostalgic movie drew critical praise, and received a remarkable four Oscar acting nominations (Dunne, Homolka, future "Dallas" matriarch Bel Geddes, and future "Waltons" grandma Corby).
The imdb.com user ratings are very high, ranging from 7.4/10 for men 30-44 and 9.3/10 for women over 45. The intended audience is adult women, and the character-driven story gives them what they want: the ideal Mama. Papa is nearly as perfect. The only sour notes are Aunt Jenny, Aunt Sigrid, and middle sister Christine, who are capable of petty behavior.
How I felt about it. Sour notes don't bother me, although Aunt Jenny in particular is too dislikable to be credible. A few things seem implausible: a short story by unpublished author Katrin would not command 500 Wilson-era dollars, and nobody, not even Uncle Chris, goes from sitting-up and lucid to dead in his sleep within the space of ten seconds. Bel Geddes is also perhaps a decade older than her character. Would Uncle Chris keep his ledger (with "walks now" after each entry, as if that happens immediately after the operation) in the open for Martha to examine? And would the saintly Martha pry into it? Can a dying cat be saved by a good night's sleep? Why don't any of the three teenagers have any interest in dating?
One scene is highly impressive. Coming of age Nels has a pipe in his mouth. His father knowingly stokes it until Nels is gasping from the cloud of blue haze he has created. He runs to an open window to vomit, but although the rest of the family buzzes around them, Nels' humiliation is only known to Papa, who secretly enjoys it. Perhaps the real adults are the ones who don't smoke, after all.