Our Top 5 Classic Mother's Day Movies

By Maureen Lee Lenker

There’s no shortage of memorable movie moms, from the animated (Bambi) to the terrifying (Manchurian Candidate) to the purportedly murderous (Psycho). But this Mother’s Day we want to celebrate some of the screen’s best mothers -- the ladies who will do everything for their children. Classic Hollywood gave us no shortage of sacrificial, noble, well-intentioned matriarchs. So for Mother’s Day, throw on one of these classics and hit the couch with your mom to show how grateful you are that she’s just as wonderful and dedicated a mother as these wonderful ladies...


5. Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Greer Garson won the Oscar and plucked at the heartstrings as Kay Miniver, a British housewife who struggles to keep her family intact during the onslaught of World War II. Miniver weathers class tensions, the enlistment of her husband and son, and violent threats from a wounded German soldier.

As Mrs. Miniver, Garson presented America with an iconic portrait of the stalwart British housewife with a stiff upper lip struggling to keep her family together. 

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Director William Wyler later admitted that when he first started on the project his goal was to awaken then isolationist America to the plight of the British in World War II. Off-screen, Garson took the concept of her “loving mother” literally -- following production she married Richard Ney who played her son on-screen.


4. I Remember Mama (1948)

Starring Irene Dunne as the titular Mama, this film based on both a play and novel follows the trials and tribulations of a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco in the 1910s. The original play ran to great success on Broadway produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Dunne gives us the picture of the sacrificial mother in “Mama,” portraying a woman who does everything for her family from trading her heirloom brooch to buy her daughter a present to sneaking into the hospital to sing to their sick housekeeper.

The film uses the writing of an autobiographical novel as a frame story with daughter Katrin finding writing success about the kindness and generosity of her mother. Dunne threw herself into making herself believable in the matronly role working with a dialect coach for two months, refusing to wear makeup, and wearing extra padding to lend herself some heft.


3. Imitation of Life (1959)

There are two versions of this tale, this one directed by the incomparable Douglas Sirk and starring Lana Turner, and an earlier black and white version starring Claudette Colbert. Both are excellent melodramas about mother-daughter relationships, but it’s hard to beat Sirk’s over-the-top lush imagery and his own predilection for films about the difficult tensions between mothers and their children.

This version stars Lana Turner as aspiring actress Lora Stocker, who often ignores her daughter Susan in her pursuit of stardom.  Juanita Moore co-stars as Lora’s housekeeper and confidante Annie. Annie has her own daughter Sarah Jane who despises her mother for being black while she (Annie) tries to pass as white. Drama ensues throughout as the daughters both seek and rebuff their mother’s love.

The tale is ultimately one of mothers and daughters learning to understand each other as complex human beings rather than merely as mother and child. Its tearjerker ending will make you want to call your mother and tell her how much you love her (or hug her if you’re lucky enough to be watching with her).


2. Mildred Pierce (1945)

Adapted from a James M. Cain novel, Joan Crawford revitalized her career as the titular mother (a role many other Hollywood actresses rejected because of the aging implications of playing a woman with a teenage daughter).

Cain’s Mildred Pierce is the ultimate well-intentioned mother -- her desire to see her spoiled daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) happy, drives her entire life. To ensure Veda has the material things she craves, Mildred becomes a businesswoman, opens a slew of successful restaurants, and even marries a man she doesn’t love to help her daughter achieve the social standing she desires.

The tale is a cautionary one -- Mildred nearly throws away her entire life for her unappreciative daughter -- but it is a picture of supreme motherhood (something Crawford herself had a complex relationship with).


1. Stella Dallas (1937)

So nice, they made it twice -- Stella Dallas is Hollywood’s ultimate tale of sacrificial mothering, both in its 1925 silent version and this classic iteration starring Barbara Stanwyck as a boozy, good-time girl who evolves into a noble mother. Stanwyck delivers an unforgettable performance as the titular mother, dyeing her hair a trashy shade of blonde and crafting a performance that allows her to believably age twenty years over the course of the film. Dallas is a working-class gal who marries far above her station and finds marital discord when she can’t be the classy society dame her husband desires. Despite a divorce, she still believes nothing is too good for her daughter and works to get her all the opportunities in life.

Along the way, she realizes that her own class sensibilities are standing in her daughter’s way. Selflessly, Stella  bows out of her daughter’s life - not out of desertion but the insight that her beloved child may be better off without her. If you’re looking for a devastating tearjerker, this may be the cream of the crop.

So, if you’d like to shake up your Mother’s Day viewing because you’ve watched Terms of Endearment and Steel Magnolias too many times, look no further than one of these five classics.

Maureen Lee Lenker

Classic Film Correspondent

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, and freelance journalist. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies, BitchMedia, LA Weekly, and more.