Mom in the Movies: The Iconic Screen Mothers You Love (and a Few You Love to Hate)

[9 June 2014]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

'Mom in the Movies' is a Scattershot Cinematic Overview

Above: Albert Brooks and Debbie Reynolds in Mother (1996)

“M” is for the Movies that you’ve starred in. “O” is for how much we Owe you. “T” is for the times you Terrified us. “H” is for a Heartstrings that you pull. “E” is for the Errors in your judgment. “R” is for making it Right in the end. Put them all together and they spell “M-O-T-H-E-R”, one of the most endearing and enigmatic figures to ever overly complicate our lives. More so than Dad or the siblings, Mom becomes the mortar that glues a family together, providing both compassion and confrontation when such stances are necessary. So naturally, mothers symbolize something special in our cultural dynamic.

They also are an excellent subject for media overviews, especially a new book from Turner Classics Movies and Time magazine film critic/author Richard Corliss. Specifically, this coffee table overview of how matrons have been treated in the cinema offers up some stellar insights and some obvious narrative gaps. While the examples may seem obvious, or even a bit pat, the overall effect is both educational and entertaining. Too bad the approach is so scattershot.

Starting off with a Foreward by Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fischer, Mom in the Movies: The Iconic Screen Mothers You Love (and a Few You Love to Hate) quickly offers a sneak peel of classic era females (Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Anne Revere, etc.) before settling into a chapter-by-chapter breakdown based on era and or/genre. This set-up initially works well for Corliss, since he gets a chance to highlight actresses from the silent and pre-code eras that many modern moviegoers may not be familiar with.

Sure, there are those who might recognize the name Mary Pickford (at one time known as “America’s Sweetheart”) but how about Florence Lawrence? Lillian Gish was one of D. W. Griffith’s most prized performers, but how did she compare to Anna May Wong, who starred in an adaptation of Madame Butterfly entitled The Toll of the Sea?

The Pre-Code era offered its own complications, stressing more and more extreme narratives in order to manufacture its melodrama. Even as quickly as the early ‘30s, Hollywood understood how to wring tears out of sentimental moviegoers, and Mom was the primary focus of many fictional tragedies. Corliss calls them “martyrs” in this section, suggesting that they are forced to suffer on screen so that their eventual catharsis (or comeuppance) can provide some relief to a Depression weary and morose public.

In fact, a lot of Mom in the Movies deals with how complementary contemporary morays—adultery, politics, divorce, remarriage—affected the portrayal of parents overall. For example, 1930’s Sarah and Son deals with the loss of a son via hokey histrionics while, four decades later, a movie like Kramer vs. Kramer would handle such “custody” issues with legitimate legal context.

As with many cinematic subjects, the concept of Mother was refashioned and reconfigured by World War II. Returning GI’s wanted memories of apple pies and feathered bedding, not storylines featuring struggles for survival. Movies like The Grapes of Wrath and Mrs. Miniver did indeed highlight the hardships endured, but they did so with one eye on the tragic and the other on personal triumph. Later on, serialized franchise like the Andy Hardy films and the Ma and Pa Kettle movies created tireless, even timeless portraits of matronly perfection.

Corliss then steps away from a discussion of classic Moms (Stella Dallas, Anna Karenina, Delilah and Bea from Imitation of Life) to address supplementary subjects like Aunts, Surrogates, Stepmothers, and perhaps most importantly, Mammies and Nannies. Corliss drops the ball a bit here, only offering up six meager pages to discuss the portrayal of race in cinema as it came to servants.

He hits on the notable names—Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Ethel Waters—but then quickly jumps to current hits like The Help. Instead of going back and addressing how minorities were marginalized in the movies, instead of explaining the kind of mindset that would reduce non-Caucasian talent to sickening stereotypes, he stays with his theme and moves on.

Even the alternate Moms out there are given short shrift. ‘Stepmoms’ get a page and a half mention. ‘Surrogates’ warrants three. By the time the book moves into movies featuring mothers dealing with their adult kids (Marty, The Catered Affair, Albert Brook’s Mother), we sense the author having little more to say.

This is confirmed in a horrible underdeveloped section of “Bad Seeds” (aka “Bad Children”). Mildred Pierce is name checked, as is the movie this chapter is named after. Then, out of nowhere, Yashujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story is thrown in, if only to up Corliss’ cinephile factor. For those who’ve seen this classic, categorizing it as part of the “Bad Seed” section seems specious, at best.

At least the ‘Malevolent Moms’ section finds a few interesting examples, such as The Silver Cord (1933), before bringing out the tired old examples (Now Voyager, The Manchurian Candidate) that everyone knows. Things then turn genre as Corliss discusses Horror and Crime matrons before taking on the subject of science fiction. In each instance, he misses obvious picks (Pamela Voorhees) while giving too much credit to current parents both pro (The Conjuring) and con (Mama).

By the time we get to the backwards complimenting of Tyler Perry (whose drag act Madea is called out). Corliss has kind of worn out his welcome. It’s not just that Mom in the Movies fails to dig deeply into its subject (at over 230 large print pages with ample pictures, it’s skim worthy and superficial), it fails to come to a considered conclusion. Yes, it’s a fun read, but only for those without a working knowledge of the history of movies.

Sure, anyone can go through a list of specific character types and point out the plotlines, the narrative turns, and the basic meaning they provide. It’s another to do something different, to twist the main thesis so that Moms come across as less than representative. It’s as if Corliss wrecked his brain, determined the maximum number of movie Moms he would address, and then settled on mere synopsis.

Again, Moms in the Movies is fine if you know little about the matron in the medium. For those with a more working knowledge of the archetype, alas, this is old news.

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