February 24, 1890 – Marjorie Main:
“I got my first dramatic training under the guise of elocution, a term which covered a multitude of sinful things in my youth.”
She broke into films and Broadway at around the same time, with small roles in the play Salvation (1928) and the film Harry Fox And His American Beauties (1929). During the 1930s she moved easily between Broadway and film. Her large size, matronly persona, and distinctive, raspy voice (used well in animation voiceovers), made her in demand, and she worked constantly for decades. She was cast as rich dowagers in her early years, but she was especially talented at playing ill-tempered maids and landladies, and because of her folksy accent, frontier women in musicals and westerns, almost always comical ones.
She did both the stage and screen versions of Dead End (1935,1937) and The Women (1936,1939). You can catch her in Stella Dallas (1937), Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Summer Stock (1950). She made five films with Wallace Beery starting with Barnacle Bill (1941), and of course, the series of Ma and Pa Kettle (1947-1957) flicks.
She was born Mary Tomlinson in Acton, Indiana. Her family moved to Indianapolis where her father was a minister when she was three years old. She eventually changed her name to Marjorie Main to avoid embarrassment to her family who did not approve of her career choice. Despite her father’s disapproval of acting, Main was actually inspired to act from his readings of Charles Dickens, and she would regularly put on performances for the family. Main attended the wonderfully named Hamilton School of Dramatic Expression in Lexington, Kentucky. After graduating she got a job as a drama teacher at Bourbon College in Kentucky.
Her professional acting career began with a tour with a Shakespeare repertory company.
In 1921, she married Stanley Krebs, a 57-year-old psychologist. The couple had an unconventional marriage, living apart and going their own ways when it came to romance. The marriage was brief, and later, Main admitted in an interview to having had many affairs with women, including fellow actor Spring Byington.
In 1940, when she was 50 years old, MGM offered her a seven-year contract, mostly playing domineering women. Her biggest break came in 1947 she played a hillbilly farmer named Ma Kettle in the hit film comedy The Egg And I produced by Universal Studios. Ma and Pa Kettle are a rural couple with 15 children whose lives are turned upside-down when they win a model home of the future in a slogan-writing contest. On the verge of having their farm repossessed by the bank, the Kettles move into the new home that was quite different from their country lifestyle with zany results.
Originally based on real-life farming neighbors in Washington state, Ma and Pa Kettle are the creation of Betty MacDonald in whose bestselling novel, The Egg And I (1947), they appear. The success of the novel led to a film version starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, with Main and Percy Kilbride as Ma and Pa Kettle. Main was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.
Audiences’ were crazy for the Kettles in the film, and Universal produced nine more Kettle films, with Main reprising her role in all and Kilbride appearing in seven. The films grossed more than $35 million (that’s $300 million in 2021 dollars) at the box office and more or less saved Universal from bankruptcy.
“Ma Kettle is a once in a lifetime role. I hope it makes a lot of people happy“.
Ma Kettle is a raucous, hardworking country woman. She is more ambitious and smarter than Pa, but not by much (in the book she is earthier and more profane). Because she has so many children, Ma sometimes gets their names confused. A misspelled sign “Be-ware of childrun” is posted in front of the farmhouse to warn visitors of the rowdy and unpredictable Kettle kids.
Main wrote some of the dialogue for her memorable character and created her own costumes and make-up.
The other Kettle films are: Ma And Pa Kettle (1949), Ma And Pa Kettle Go To Town (1950), Ma And Pa Kettle Back On The Farm (1951), Ma And Pa Kettle At The Fair (1952), Ma And Pa Kettle On Vacation (1953), Ma and Pa Kettle Go On A Swingers Retreat (1954), Ma And Pa Kettle At Waikiki (1955), The Kettles In The Ozarks (1956), and The Kettles On Old MacDonald’s Farm (1957).
Main shuttled back and forth between Universal and MGM. She appeared in MGM musicals during the 1940s and early 1950s, including The Belle Of New York (1952). She is in the studio’s all-star film It’s A Big Country (1951), a most peculiar American propaganda anthology film with seven directors, featuring Ethel Barrymore, Gary Cooper, Van Johnson, Gene Kelly, Janet Leigh, Fredric March, George Murphy, William Powell, James Whitmore, and Nancy Davis. Main had her last role for MGM in the musical Rose Marie (1954). Main more than held her own against Judy Garland in Summer Stock and with Lucille Ball in The Long Long Trailer (1954).
I like the Ma and Pa Kettle movies, but my favorite Main performance is in Friendly Persuasion (1956),a Civil War drama film starring Cooper, Dorothy McGuire and a frequently shirtless Anthony Perkins, directed by William Wyler. The film tells the story of a Quaker family in southern Indiana during the American Civil War and the way the war tests their pacifist beliefs. Main’s performance as the widow Hudspeth brought her a Golden Globe nomination.
Main’s final film appearance was in her best-known role in The Kettles On Old MacDonald’s Farm (1957). Her final acting role was in a 1958 episode of Wagon Train.
Smart with her investments, Main then retired and lived a quiet life in Los Angeles where she owned three homes. He final public appearance was at the premier of That’s Entertainment and MGM 50th Anniversary gala in 1974. She and Byington remained devoted to each other until 1971 when Byington took that final bow. Main was taken by lung cancer in 1975 at 85 years old. You can visit at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.