powered by AFI
When veteran character players Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride proceeded to walk away with every one of their scenes in the rustic Claudette Colbert-Fred MacMurray comedy The Egg and I (1947), executives at Universal didn't need to be hit with a two-by-four to realize they'd uncovered something special. Over the ensuing decade, the studio would churn out an additional nine comedies centered on the bucolic Kettles and their large (and largely interchangeable) brood. The returns only started to diminish once Kilbride left the series with Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955), yet the series' adherents remain fond of the Kettles to this day. The fifth of the series, Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952), proved to be its biggest single grosser, and one most singled out by fans as a favorite.
The plot thrust of Ma and Pa Kettle at the County Fair comes from Ma and Pa's determination that eldest daughter Rosie (Lori Nelson) receive a college education. Ma takes the attitude that she can raise Rosie's tuition by besting Birdie Hicks (Esther Dale) at the various cook-offs at the upcoming county fair; Pa, showing his unique brand of pragmatism, sets off to get himself struck by a car in order to collect on insurance. Once that fails, he gets the bright idea to enter the fair's horse race; with no entry, Pa offers Clem Johnson (Russell Simpson) half of Ma's fair winnings in exchange for Clem's broken-down nag Emma.
While it looks at first that Pa has stepped in it again, it turns out that the snake-traumatized Emma takes off like a shot at the sound of a rattle. The encouraged Pa stakes the other half of Ma's winnings to Billy Reed (Emory Parnell) in exchange for a harness. Come the fair, further shenanigans ensue, including Pa's substitution of cement for baking powder in Ma's bread dough, and an accusation against the Kettles of fixing the race in their favor.
Nelson, the Universal contract starlet best remembered as the heroine-in-peril in Revenge of the Creature (1955), reprised her role as Rosie in Ma and Pa Kettle in Waikiki, and shared fond memories of her screen parents for the fan webzine The Astounding B Monster. "They were pretty much the same characters they played on the screen," the actress reminisced. "He was a very intelligent man, however. Very quiet and sweet. Marjorie was rough and gruff and boisterous."
In her extensive biography Marjorie Main, Michelle Vogel cited a 1947 interview with the actress on how she created the characterization that earned the sole Best Supporting Actress Oscar® nomination of her long and distinguished career for The Egg and I. "I read the script as well as [Betty MacDonald's] book a dozen times. I designed Ma's clothes and bought the materials myself in cheap Los Angeles department stores. I picked up hats from the studio's wardrobe department and altered them to fit Ma's appearance. I figured out the owl's nest hairdo, calling on my girlhood memories of hundreds of overworked farm wives back home in Indiana".
The factors behind the Kettles' popularity and down home charm were not lost on a reviewer for the New York Times upon the opening of Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair. "The surprising thing about the film, as has happened before, is that Pa and Ma Kettle somehow manage to survive this contrived tomfoolery as characters rather than caricatures," stated the review. "Could be Mr. Kilbride's rock-hewn quietness or the kindliness underlining Miss Main's leathery grimacing. At any rate, one sequence in which Mr. Kilbride delivers an impromptu sermon is both touching and genuinely amusing, two qualities that may yet make the Kettle family synonymous with something more than a ticket stub."
Producer: Leonard Goldstein
Director: Charles Barton
Screenplay: John Grant, Richard Morris; Jack Henley, Martin Ragaway, Leonard Stern (story); Betty MacDonald (characters, uncredited)
Cinematography: Maury Gertsman
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Eric Orbom
Music: Frank Skinner (uncredited)
Film Editing: Ted J. Kent
Cast: Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle), Percy Kilbride (Pa Kettle), James Best (Marvin Johnson), Lori Nelson (Rosie Kettle), Esther Dale (Birdie Hicks), Emory Parnell (Billy Reed), Oliver Blake (Geoduck), Russell Simpson (Clem Johnson), Rex Lease (Sheriff).
by Jay S. Steinberg