Would you believe a pair of middle-aged yokels was one of the hottest comedy properties of the 1950s?
When Universal Pictures adapted Betty MacDonald's humorous memoir The Egg and I into a 1947 romp starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, they had no inkling that it would be the supporting cast of energetic townsfolk who would ultimately steal the show. Although the film focuses on city dwellers/newleyweds Colbert and MacMurray as they attempt to set up an egg farm in Cape Flattery, Washington, it's that vivid array of locals that leaves the most lasting impression. There was the town busybody and her elderly mother, a pair of stoic Native Americans, and a glad-handling traveling salesman. Counting among the couple's neighbors was a rambunctious brood known as the Kettles, headed by Percy Kilbride's laid-back, no-nonsense Pa and Marjorie Main's commandeering Ma. From 1949 to 1957, the Kettles would spin off into a hugely successful franchise of nine films, all of which are included in this five DVD set.
First and foremost, the main reason to check out the Ma & Pa Kettle movies lies in the perfectly cast Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. It might be tempting to slot the characters of lazy Pa and harried Ma (the lady's habit of forgetting the names of her 15 kids is a running gag) as hillbilly stereotypes, but the two actors have such warmth and chemistry that it's easy to accept them as a real couple. Their easygoing charm drives these efficiently produced comedies - even when the situations get contrived and cartoony. The films are generally a hit-or-miss bunch, but the performers' commitment never lags.
With The Ma & Pa Kettle Complete Comedy Collection, Universal has corralled all of the Kettle flicks into one convenient, single DVD-sized package. While it's true that all of the films have already been commercially released before (with the final two outings, The Kettles in the Ozarks and The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm, being an exclusive at the Turner Classic Movies website) this is the first time one can get the entire Kettle experience in one fell swoop. At under $20 MSRP, it's a fun and affordable way to meet one Hollywood's most beloved classic comedy franchises.
The Egg and I (1947): The long and short of it - Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray open a farm! Most of The Egg and I's humor comes from the elegant Colbert attempting to adjust to this wild new venture of MacMurray's. Her character also has to contend with MacMurray trying to learn the finer points of chicken raising from a beautiful lady farmer, played by Louise Allbritton. The supporting cast of eccentric locals are vividly portrayed; even the assorted weirdos who attempt to dance with Colbert at the town hoedown are nicely played. Main and Kilbride are a hoot as Ma and Pa Kettle, joined by Richard Long as the eldest, educated Kettle son, Tom. On its own, The Egg and I is an enjoyable "city slickers go rural" outing. It's also interesting to see how many characters stick around for more entries in the Kettle series: Main and Kilbride, of course, as well as Long as Tom, Esther Dale as busybody Birdie Hicks, pushy salesman "Smiling" Billy Reed (Billy House here, later to be replaced by Emory Parnell) and friendly Indian duo Crowbar and Geoduck (introduced here by actors John Berkes and Victor Potel, played by several caucasian actors over the series' course).
Ma and Pa Kettle (1949): Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride take the spotlight in the Kettles' maiden voyage, a featherweight entry in which Pa wins a brand new home in a jingle writing contest. The Kettle clan's awkward transition from unkempt farm to state-of-the-art push button technology makes this is one of the series' better entries. There's also a lukewarm subplot with Richard Long's Tom sparring with, then falling for lady reporter Kim Parker (Meg Randall). Part of this film's charm is that it brings back many of the The Egg and I's townsfolk, including the eccentric widow (Ida Moore) who always has her husband nearby, Harvey style. I wonder what Marjorie Main (who allegedly held long conversations with her dead hubby) thought of that?
Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950): With the Kettles settled in their futuristic home, another opportunity arises when Pa wins another jingle writing contest. This time, Ma and Pa are awarded a trip to New York City. Before they leave, they entrust a wayward poet (Charles McGraw) to care for their kids. The man, a gangster on the lam, asks Pa to take a bag to people he knows in town; the bag is full of stolen cash and eventually gets misplaced. Before you can say "jumpin' Jehosaphats," Ma and Pa get mixed up with gangsters. This was a briskly paced yet bland entry, one in which the formula was already settling in. Universal tried several times to transplant Ma and Pa to far off locales, but the Kettles tended to work better when staying close to home.
Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951): Back on the Farm represents an enjoyable detour into domesticity, as Ma and Pa adjust to son Tom and his new bride Kim as they welcome a third generation Kettle into the fold. This one introduces Ray Collins and Barbara Brown as the snooty in-laws Jonathan and Elizabeth Parker. A goofy subplot about uranium found on Pa's farm somehow gets shoehorned into the proceedings, but the more memorable scenes involve crusty Ma coming to blows about "child rearin'" with the haughty Elizabeth. A slight, but cute, entry. This was the last appearance of Richard Long and Meg Randall as the young marrieds, to be replaced by other actors filling in the "cute young couple in love" slot.
Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952): More down-home country goodness as the county fair enters Cape Flattery. The hijinks begin as Ma, thinking she's entering the pie baking contest, actually places an entry in the horse trotting competition. Ma and Pa don't harbor much hope for their old mare Emma to win - but since Ma's rival Birdie Hicks has her own horse entered as well, the Kettles buckle down and help turn Emma into a champion with the help of their Native pals Geoduck and Crowbar. There's also a forgettable subplot involving Lori Nelson as hitherto unseen daughter Rosie and her neighbor/love interest Clem, played by James Best. This manic-paced entry is probably the most typical Kettle film, along with the original Ma and Pa Kettle; the more wacky and slapstick-oriented humor makes it a great starting point for those with a passing interest in the Kettle universe.
Ma and Pa Kettle On Vacation (1953): The Kettles journey to Paris, along with in-laws the Parkers, in this weak but mercifully short entry. The slight plot kicks off with plane-bound Pa meeting the mysterious Adolphe (Peter Brocco), who asks Pa to keep an envelope containing sensitive material. Shortly after arriving in Paris, it isn't long before the Kettles are mixed up with spying couple Inez and Cyrus (Bodil Miller and Sig Ruman). Getting the police involved further puts a damper on their sojourn in the City of Lights. This one benefits from nicer production values, including a few glitzy musical numbers (one of which features a young, unknown Rita Moreno). The spying storyline is utter dullsville, however.
Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954): Ma and Pa are back in their element in this heartwarming, strangely muted entry which presents the Kettles as a close-knit clan with surprisingly well-behaved children (!). The story revolves around high school-aged son Elwin (Brett Halsey), who has submitted an essay on why the his family's farm is an ideal place to live in a contest sponsored by a national magazine. In an unbelievable coincidence, Elvin's classmate Sally (Alice Kelley) is also a finalist in the contest. The competition is so fierce that the magazine's stuffy editor (Alan Mowbray) must personally visit each farm to decide the winner. The only problem is that Elvin's essay was an idealized puff piece, leaving Ma and Pa to spruce up the farm in any way they can. The contest is finally settled at a climactic Christmas gathering, with Ma reading a heartfelt poem (a good turn by Ms. Main) hoping to steer the decision in the Kettles' favor.
Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955): A bit of tropical whimsy marks Percy Kilbride's last go-round as Pa Kettle. The Kettles are invited to Hawaii, where Pa's cousin Rodney (Loring Smith) runs a successful pineapple canning business. Rodney, who once romanced Ma in his youth, has invited Pa (whom Rodney mistakenly believes is a lumber baron) over to help with the business while he recovers from an illness. Daughter Rosie, from At the Fair, returns and engages in another romantic subplot. The plot kicks into high gear when Pa gets kidnapped. Ma enlists the help of the Lotuses, a clan who seem to be the Hawaiian Kettles, to free Pa from the silver-hunting captors who abducted him. Quite breezy and fun; the Lotus family is a hoot.
The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956): The Kettles in the Ozarks marks the first of two entries in which Marjorie Main soldiered on without Percy Kilbride. Main is as enjoyable as ever as Ma (really, it's amazing that her characterization is exactly the same as in The Egg and I), but the energy of the prior films is replaced with dumb, sitcom-esque jokes, overacting, and a shrill soundtrack. In the Ozarks finds Ma traveling to Arkansas with her unruly brood to visit Pa's brother Cedric (Arthur Hunnicutt). Like Pa, Cedric has his own ramshackle property full of dust and animals. Ma arrives to help run the place, and to have Cedric finally wed his long-suffering girlfriend Bedelia (Una Merkel). There's also some business with a man who was supposed to help Cedric farm but is really part of an underground moonshine making operation. The film looks handsome in widescreen, but the humor is painfully dumbed-down at this point. Even the unsinkable Main can't save interminable scenes with drunk farm animals stumbling on themselves.
The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm (1957): Final entry. Main is back as Ma, with a new actor (decent Parker Fennelly) filling in as Pa. The Kettles' shenanigans actually take a back seat to young lovers Brad and Sally, played by hunky John Smith and b-movie stalwart Gloria Talbott. Lumberjack Brad and socialite Sally desperately want to wed, but her father won't permit it on the grounds that spoiled Sally won't take to being a farm wife. It's up to Ma to roughen Sally up, while Pa helps raise the cash for the couple's wedding by entering in a shaving contest at the fair. A wild bear gets involved in the proceeding before the series comes to a limp ending. Silly and hard to endure, but at this point one can see a clear line between the Kettles and The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and Hee Haw.
These ten films, each around 80 minutes in length, are presented on five DVDs housed in a single width keepcase.
The original mono soundtracks for these films are clearly mixed and perfectly appropriate for all the fussin' going on. Although the audio quality gets progressively nicer as the films move along, things get somewhat hissy and shrill on those final two films.
Universal has done a good job with the Kettle films - even the frequently screened The Egg and I benefits from a sharp transfer with just a bit of surface noise and artifacts. The films get cleaner as the series moves along, with an impressive if overly bright anamorphic widescreen image on The Kettles in the Ozarks and The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm.
The only extras are original trailers for The Egg and I, Go to Town, At the Fair, On Vacation and At Waikiki. Some contain original footage of Kilbride and Main in character, which is quite charming. Cartoon buffs should note that At the Fair's trailer is partially animated, likely by the Walter Lantz studio.
The Ma & Pa Kettle comedies aren't the most sophisticated films around, but they are solidly entertaining and funny. Even at their most formulaic (On Vacation and the final two flicks), they are brightened by the never boring Marjorie Main and a cheery country flavor. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.