No Place Like Home – Rediscovering ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ (US 1949 – 75 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - March 04, 2014
No Place Like Home – Rediscovering ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ (US 1949 – 75 mins)

Movies featuring large families have been a domestic comedy staple for many years. Good examples have been 1950’s popular ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’, and 1968’s excellent ‘Yours, Mine and Ours’.

‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ is a cosy, comedy sequel to the hugely popular ‘fish-out-of-water’ film; ‘The Egg and I’ (’47), which first featured the over-sized and unruly Kettle family. ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ was the first of nine ‘Kettle’ comedies, all of varying quality. Each movie was made watchable though, by both Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main’s finely honed performances, as the lovable hillbilly parents of 15 children.

In the first of their solo outings, the Kettles are faced with eviction, after 25 years of living in a ramshackle home in Cape Flattery, Washington. Lazy, carefree Pa Kettle enters a tobacco slogan contest, and surprisingly wins, with the prize being a fancy, state of the art home. Even though all Pa wanted from the contest was a new tobacco pouch, the over-sized family leave their run-down dwelling and move into their new home, amid much publicity. With all the modern amenities including a state-of-the-art television, and rows of push button fold-away beds (in which the slightly built Pa almost disappears into!), the gadgetry soon proves too much for Pa who decides to sneakily move back to their old house.

Former theatre player Percy Kilbride came to prominence well into his fifties, when he played Orion Peabody in the 1942 tense drama; ‘Keeper of the Flame’. Percy would star in six of the nine ‘Kettle’ sequels, before retiring after 1955’s ‘Ma and Pa Kettle in Waikiki’. Percy tragically died in 1964 when he sustained head injuries after being knocked down by a car. He was 76. The irrepressible Marjorie Main played the domineering Ma Kettle in all nine sequels. Main had started in vaudeville and later theatre, and had early film roles in such classics as ‘Stella Dallas’ (’37) and ‘The Women’ (’39). After a scene-stealing role in ‘Heaven Can Wait’ (’43), and playing the maid in ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ (’44), Marjorie finally found her niche when she first played Ma Kettle in the 1947 comedy ‘The Egg and I’. Marjorie retired in 1958 and died of lung cancer in 1975, aged 85.

Richard Long played the Kettle’s eldest son Tom in this, his second of four appearances in the movie series. Richard had a long history of cardiac problems, and sadly died in 1974, aged 47. Meg Randall plays Tom’s bride-to-be, Kim Parker, and would return for the 1951 sequel; ‘Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm’. ‘The Egg and I’s busy-body Birdie Hicks, makes a return appearance. Played by Esther Dale, she would return for two more sequels, as the meddlesome arch-rival of Ma Kettle. As the cheerful local businessman Billy Reed, Emory Parnell also reprises his role from ‘The Egg and I’, and would re-appear three more times in the series.

Director and one-time actor; Charles Lamont, had earlier discovered Shirley Temple and was a prolific maker of two-reel comedies in the 1920’s and 30’s. Lamont would go on to direct another three Kettle sequels as well as a number of Abbot and Costello movies. Retiring in 1959, he died in 1993, aged 98.

The ‘Kettle’ films are harmless, watchable entertainments, lifted by two lively performances by stalwarts; Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. They were never going to win awards, but they provided much needed relief in post-war America. This first sequel is one of the best in the series, and gets a lot of mileage out of watching the Kettle’s slapstick attempts at modern living.

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