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Ma and Pa Kettle
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Ma and Pa Kettle

Ma and Pa Kettle (1949) was the first official film in Universal's highly popular Ma and Pa Kettle comedy series following the Kettles' (Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride) debut as supporting characters in the 1947 film The Egg and I starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. This time out, Ma and Pa Kettle are the stars. On the brink of eviction from their ramshackle farmhouse, the Kettles and their 15 children are saved when Pa wins a new house in a slogan contest for the King Henry Tobacco Company. The house is a state of the art "home of the future" with every possible modern convenience. The Kettles, however, are used to their old hardscrabble existence and have a hard time adjusting to their new environment.

Leonard Goldstein, an executive producer at Universal Studios, was the person who originally got the idea to give the Ma and Pa Kettle characters their own film series. When The Egg and I opened in 1947, Goldstein noticed that even though Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray were the stars, audiences were responding more to the comic relief of Ma and Pa Kettle. According to the 2006 book Marjorie Main: The Life and Films of Hollywood's "Ma Kettle" by Michelle Vogel, Goldstein visited several theaters where The Egg and I was playing in order to observe how people were reacting to it. In a 1949 interview Goldstein explained, "I noticed something intriguing at the previews of The Egg and I. Every time the Kettles appeared on the screen, the audiences would perk up and lean forward in their seats. Main and Kilbride were stealing this picture and it suddenly occurred to me. Why not a low budget series based on the Kettles?"

Universal struck a deal with author Betty MacDonald, who wrote the book The Egg and I on which the film was based, for exclusive rights to use the characters of Ma and Pa Kettle in a film series. In exchange, MacDonald would be paid $10,000 per film. The deal turned out to be one of the studio's shrewdest moves as the success of the series over the next decade ultimately helped save Universal from bankruptcy.

Marjorie Main had been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting actress for her performance as Ma Kettle in The Egg and I, but she declined at first to make a Ma and Pa Kettle spinoff film. Main, who was a contract player at MGM at the time and had to be loaned out to Universal for the Kettle series, felt that she deserved to be paid more than her standard contract salary to do Ma and Pa Kettle. She believed that she (along with co-star Percy Kilbride) was crucial to the success and popularity of the characters. In a 1969 newspaper interview Main recalled, "When they sent me the script for the first Ma and Pa Kettle movie, I turned it down. But, I was under contract with MGM at the time and they told me I had to go to Universal and do it. After the success of that one, the scripts just kept on comin' and I kept on doin' 'em." Eventually Main happily embraced the character of Ma Kettle with which she would become most identified throughout her career. "I would rather make people laugh than anything else," she said.

During the filming of Ma and Pa Kettle Marjorie Main suffered from a serious sinus condition that made her very ill. Her doctors advised her to take some time off to recuperate, but Main refused to miss a day of work. Instead she took a steady dose of penicillin and frequent rest breaks to get through the shoot, which she did without incident.

Audiences loved seeing the Kettles as the stars of their own film and flocked to see Ma and Pa Kettle when it opened in April 1949. Its success spawned the follow-up Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950) and seven more films after that. Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main were asked in 1956 why they thought the Ma and Pa Kettle films had been so popular. "I think it's because anybody, even the lowliest bum," said Kilbride, "can feel superior to the Kettles." Marjorie Main answered, "I'll be hanged if I can understand why so many people like the Kettle comedies. Critics don't like 'em. Nobody seems to like Kettle comedies but the people."

Producer: Leonard Goldstein
Director: Charles Lamont
Screenplay: Al Lewis, Herbert Margolis, Louis Morheim; Betty MacDonald (characters)
Cinematography: Maury Gertsman
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Emrich Nicholson
Film Editing: Russell Schoengarth
Cast: Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle), Percy Kilbride (Pa Kettle), Richard Long (Tom Kettle), Meg Randall (Kim Parker), Patricia Alphin (Secretary), Esther Dale (Mrs. Birdie Hicks), Barry Kelley (Mr. Victor Tomkins), Harry Antrim (Mayor Dwiggins), Isabel O'Madigan (Mrs. Hicks' Mother), Ida Moore (Emily), Emory Parnell (Bill Reed), Boyd Davis (Mr. Simpson), O.Z. Whitehead (Mr. Billings), Ray Bennett (Sam Rogers), Alvin Hammer (Alvin), Lester Allen (Geoduck), Chief Yowlachie (Crowbar), Rex Lease (Sheriff).
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