Marjorie Main, a Domineering Lovable Character

Marjorie Main is one of my favorite character actors. It’s an impossibility to see her in a film and not find I am smiling broadly. With one of the most recognizable voices in movies, Main managed an abrupt, but lovable persona in many of her films. It is a joy to watch her and to honor her with this entry for the What a Character! Blogathon 2019.

Born Mary Tomlinson in Acton, Indiana the daughter of Reverend Samuel J. Tomlinson and the former Mary McGaughey, Marjorie Main changed her stage name to avoid embarrassing her minister father who disapproved of entertainment careers. She chose the name she did because “it is easy to remember.” Main was born with a thirst for entertaining even while growing up on a farm, quenching her thirst through stock companies from an early age. Her studies of the dramatic arts led her from Hamilton School of Dramatic Expression in Lexington, Kentucky onto Chicago and New York. In the meantime Ms. Main toured the vaudeville circuit meeting lecturer Dr. Stanley LeFevre Krebs whom she married in 1921. By that point, Marjorie Main was a Broadway veteran.

Marjorie’s physical look, her mannerisms, dry wit, and that voice! all made a package that was not easy to forget. Main had an impact on audiences immediately. Her stage work included a long stint opposite W. C. Fields in a skit titled “The Family Ford” that brought them all the way to New York’s Palace Theatre, the top vaudeville house in the country. Main’s Broadway shows ranged from “Cheating Cheaters” in 1916 in which she played opposite John Barrymore to playing Lucy the Reno Innkeeper in “The Women,” the role that led her to Hollywood and one she reprised in George Cukor’s 1939 big screen gem. Marjorie Main had taken a break from performing for a few years as her husband’s lecture demands grew, but she returned to the stage after his death in 1935 with a popular turn as Mrs. Martin in “Dead End,” again a role she reprised memorably on film, this time directed by William Wyler in 1937. That happens to be one of my favorite of her performances, by the way. It’s a small, but affecting turn as the mother of killer Humphrey Bogart.

Main and Bogart in the film version of DEAD END

Ms. Main made her screen debut in William Wyler’s A House Divided (1931) as a town gossip, an uncredited role in crowd scenes she’d repeat in several movies in the early 1930s. She was in her forties, unheard of in the youth-centric movie industry, but the roles Main would excel at called for a special brand of loud maturity. Anyway, it was when Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights to “Dead End” and insisted that Marjorie reprise her stage role that her film career seemed destined for attention. That’s exactly what happened. The movie and her performance were instant hits.

Dead End (1937) proved an important movie in Marjorie Main’s career and for Hollywood in general as it introduced the Dead End Kids who, in one way or another, were subjects of about ninety movies in over two decades either as the Dead End Kids, the Eastside Kids, or the Bowery Boys. Marjorie Main made several Dead End Kids movies playing the impoverished mother of these kids from the slums. She was perfect in the part garnering great reviews along the way. Ms. Main never had children of her own so it was somewhat ironic that in the majority of her roles she played mothers to which she said, “That’s acting!”

The same year Marjorie made Dead End, she played another Mrs. Martin, this time as Barbara Stanwyck’s mother in King Vidor’s three-hanky classic, Stella Dallas. This film too was praised as was Main’s performance with the Hollywood Reporter referring to her as “an artist and her contribution to the picture is out of all proportion to the length of her part.” That was probably true for the entirety of Main’s career including her appearance as a nosy boarding house owner in W. S. Van Dyke’s Another Thin Man (1939), the third of six Thin Man movies starring Myrna Loy and William Powell. You may have heard of them.

Seven films were released in 1940 featuring Marjorie Main. That should give you a clue as to how much her gruff manner and loud, distinctive voice were sought in Hollywood. This included the beginning of a new screen partnership with Wallace Beery. Main replaced the great Marie Dressler as Beery’s female partner and was successful at it even though it was not an easy task to work with him, “Oh my, I should get two checks, one for the acting and the other for working with Wally Beery.” No matter though because the difficulties did not translate to the screen. The public loved Marjorie. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) noticed the audience’s admiration for Marjorie and had signed her to a seven-year contract on October 8, 1940. It was at MGM that Marjorie Main started on a comedic path to cinema history and she was happy to be given the chance.

Main and Beery in Norman Z. McLeod’s JACKASS MAIL (1942), the third of seven films they made together between 1940 and 1949.

It was the movies Marjorie Main appeared in during the MGM years in the 1940s (give or take a year) that made her a warm part of many a childhood, including mine. These include such memorable lavish films as Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait made at 20th Century Fox and such MGM gems as Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis, George Sidney’s The Harvey Girls (1946), and Cy Walters’ Summer Stock (1950). All are favorites and one recognizes the worth of Marjorie Main to the industry by noting the major Hollywood films she was appearing in at the time. Her brand of humor, her stout build and indelible voice were by this time cemented in audiences’ consciousness. An actor who had started her movie career playing upper class dramatic roles could now be counted on for comic relief as matronly maids or ornery, but funny hillbilly types. The latter portrayal was to be Main’s primary legacy at Universal International, rather than at her home studio, which loaned her out with regularity. It’s interesting to note that MGM had planned a series of films starring Marjorie featuring the character of Tish, which she portrayed in the enjoyable 1942 film of the same name co-starring ZaSu Pitts. That movie made a nice profit for MGM so it’s strange the studio decided not to capitalize on a series. By the way, Tish directed by S. Sylvan Simon is replete with legendary character actors.

Aline MacMahon and ZaSu Pitts restrain Marjorie Main in a scene from the film Tish

Marjorie Main made two movies released in 1947, much less than other character actors popular at the time, but the year proved an important one in her career nonetheless. Released in March of that year was Chester Erskine’s The Egg and I, which garnered Main the only Academy Award nomination of her career, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for a portrayal she would forever be associated with. Charles T. Barton’s The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap was released in October of 1947. Although Wistful Widow is not as memorable an outing as The Egg and I, it pitted Main against the legendary comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, which all but guaranteed the second hit of the year for the veteran character actor with a devoted following.

The plot of The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap was based on an old Montana law, which stated that a man who killed another man was responsible for the care and support of his victim’s family. Well, our story begins when traveling salesmen Chester Wooley (Costello) and Duke Egan (Abbott) stop in the town of Wagon Gap, Montana on their way to California. It takes no time for Chester to be accused of killing Fred Hawkins, a notorious criminal married to the equally infamous Mrs. Hawkins (Main). A trial and a conviction quickly follow and Chester is stuck with the Widow Hawkins and her brood of seven. The widow is immediately hell bent on making Chester Wooley her new husband and works him to the bone until he agrees to marry her. Meanwhile, as is the case in all Abbott and Costello movies, Bud Abbott’s character coasts along taking naps and eating well.

The Widow Hawkins-Chester Wooley situation turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Chester who eventually becomes Sheriff of Wagon Gap simply because every other man in town is afraid to be stuck taking care of the Widow. Let me tell you, the Widow is a doozy in Marjorie Main style. She is flirty, desperate for a husband, a raucous mother and an unapologetic farm lord. Widow Hawkins is such a character, in fact, that she alone keeps the peace at Wagon Gap, which was a notoriously lawless place prior to her falling into widowhood. Although there are many movie instances wherein Marjorie Main plays characters similar to Widow Hawkins, the resemblance is particularly noticeable in William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (1956) wherein she plays the riotous Widow Hudspeth with similar bravado, but with better results. The latter is a better film and resulted in a Golden Globe nomination for Ms. Main as Best Supporting Actress.

In the end of The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap, Chester and Duke find a way to leave Wagon Gap and continue their journey to California. Mrs. Hawkins gets a new marriage proposal after she is offered lots of money for her farm. It is utterly entertaining to see Abbott and Costello and Marjorie Main together and Universal International was thrilled. Universal had set the mold with legendary monsters in the early 1930s and they had saved the studio’s hide. Later, it was Show Boat (1936) directed by James Whale that had all but kept the studio’s doors open. Now Universal depended almost entirely on comedy, specifically the talents of Abbott and Costello throughout the 1940s and Marjorie Main by way of her most famous hillbilly, Phoebe “Ma” Kettle, a character introduced in Chester Erskine’s 1947 romantic comedy, The Egg and I based on the book of the same name by Betty MacDonald.

Erskine’s The Egg and I tells the story of a young married couple, Bob and Betty MacDonald, who give up city life in order to become chicken farmers. The main characters are played charmingly by Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert. The movie is a pleasant one that shows the couple’s escapades, particularly Betty’s, as she tries to put up with the tribulations of an old farm house because it’s her husband’s dream. The disrepair abounds and the chicks, who need constant care, lend themselves to amusing anecdotes. The result was that 1947 audiences liked the film enough to propel it to one of the year’s big moneymakers. In fact, The Egg and I was Universal International’s biggest moneymaker of the decade. That was due in large part to the raw rural charms of Bob and Betty’s neighbors, Ma and Pa Kettle. While The Egg and I received mixed critical reviews, Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as the Kettles were a hit across the board. Of them the New York Times film critic wrote, “… tops as character players, accounting, by their feeling and understanding of their roles, for high points in the film every time they’re on the screen.” That type of sentiment coupled with the box office success of The Egg and I prompted Universal International to produce nine more films starring Marjorie Main as Ma Kettle in all nine and Percy Kilbride as Pa Kettle in seven of the outings. Kilbride retired after the seventh film in the series and was replaced by Parker Fennelly in the last. The eighth film, Charles Lamont’s The Kettles in the Ozarks, does not feature Pa Kettle.

Let honesty reign. I spent considerable effort watching all nine Ma and Pa Kettle movies in succession and could feel brain cells dropping out onto my shoulders. Before irreparable damage was done I gave up. The jokes grow old and the situations more absurd as the series advances. A highlight for me in the first three films is Richard Long who plays the Kettle’s eldest, Tom. Still, one cannot deny the appeal of the two main characters who propelled the series into one of the most popular in Hollywood history. Audiences simply could not get enough of the hillbilly couple with fifteen children – they picked up two from The Egg and I. Ma is a harsh, domineering, loud woman of considerable opinion and Pa, a slight, slow-moving, slow-thinking man with lazy as a middle name. For all their faults, however, you can’t help but love the Kettles.

Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main as Ma and Pa Kettle

Ma and Pa Kettle had many adventures in film. They went to town, came back to the farm, went to the fair, went on vacation, were just at home, went to Waikiki, were featured in the Ozarks, and finally went to Old MacDonald’s farm. All between 1949 and 1957. Considering they had no formal education (example of Kettle math) and could live comfortably on almost nothing, they were quite adept at living adventurous lives. The entire thing began in Ma and Pa Kettle also known as The Further Adventures of Ma and Pa Kettle, the 1949 sequel to The Egg and I directed by Charles Lamont. Here, Pa writes a slogan for the King Henry Tobacco Company and wins a house of the future. And just in time too because their farmhouse has been condemned as a garbage dump. Many hilarious moments later thanks to the modern gadgets none of the Kettles have ever seen, the lives of the Kettle clan are irrevocably changed and, for several reasons, so are ours. We have never met the likes of them before.

Critics were not thrilled with the low budget Ma and Pa Kettle movies, but who could argue with box office returns, which were over $3 million for the first movie in the series and every one after that hit Variety’s Top Grossers of the Year charts. Overall the Ma and Pa series made over $35 million and is credited with saving Universal International. Who did not reap the financial benefits of the Ma and Pa Kettle films? The actors. Marjorie Main considered breaking her contract at various points knowing full well both Universal and MGM were profiting nicely from her portrayals without extending additional perks to the actors.

The Kettle clan in the 1949 movie. One of my life-long crushes, Richard Long, is on the left.

As you’ve seen, Marjorie Main made most of her most famous movies on loan out to Universal. Well, her most famous if you are a casual film fan, but not necessarily her best. For my money her best films were at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer which could afford more expensive productions, which translated into richer films. Marjorie’s contract with MGM ended in 1954 and she finished at that studio playing against type, as Lady Jane Dunstock in Mervyn LeRoy’s Rose Marie (1954). I should mention that the film released before Rose Marie was Vincente Minnelli’s The Long, Long Trailer (1954), which I love. In this one Marjorie stays true to popular expectation as a meddling neighbor of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at a trailer park.

It is fitting that Marjorie Main’s last film appearance came in a Ma and Pa movie, Virgil W. Vogel’s The Kettle’s on Old MacDonald’s Farm in 1957. Ma Kettle gave Marjorie security and comfort while she was able to pursue varied roles elsewhere for many years. Later in life she praised the character for the joy she brought people. Ms. Main’s final acting jobs were in 1958 with appearances on two episodes of Wagon Train. Following that she retired to make an occasional appearance at a premiere or to answer interview questions. Marjorie Main appeared in 85 films over a 26-year movie career.

When one goes back through Marjorie Main’s career you realize she was adept at much more than that character you love to laugh with. However, she invokes an immediate smile like she did my mother who saw her in a movie on TCM recently, “Hey, it’s that old lady!” she said with a smile as big as the sun. That’s not a bad deal at all for a woman who intended to do just that, “I love making people laugh more than anything,” Marjorie Main said. She has been doing that now for about eight decades. I get that Ms. Main could not have known how much she meant to people, but she got an inkling in 1974 at the world premiere of That’s Entertainment celebrating MGM’s 50th anniversary. As the “more stars in the heavens” were being introduced, one of the largest ovations went to Marjorie Main. That was a year before her death of cancer at the age of 85 in April 1975.

What a character, she was. Loud and domineering, but always lovable.

This is my entry to this year’s What a Character! Blogathon, an event I am hosting with Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. Be sure to read the entries honoring character actors or all eras. The Day 1 entries are here, the Day 2 entries here, and Day 3 here.

7 thoughts

  1. As always, I learn so much from your articles as well as learning to appreciate that which I tend to take for granted.

    Indeed, the Kettle pictures were never meant for sustained viewing. Best to return after a long absence when even the worst of them will be a pleasant visit. Nonetheless, I have modeled my housekeeping skills along Ma’s. Just ask my family!

    I had wondered why MGM hadn’t followed up with more of “Tish”. It certainly had all the earmarks of a “pilot.” I wonder if they had similar thoughts for Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone. So many good ideas left sitting on somebody’s desk. Marjorie breaks my heart in Dead End, and in Dark Command as well. It is a tribute to her that she evokes such strong emotions in viewers.

  2. Wow – you sure picked a winner. She was so unique, and she so stood out from the crowd. She was accomplished and bigger than life and proof that character beats beauty any day of the week (and twice on Sunday!).

  3. Great tribute, so well deserved. By coincidence I’ve just been on You Tube and happened to see the premiere of “That’s Entertainment” when all the MGM stars were introduced on stage by Sammy Davis and Liza Minnelli. Marjorie did indeed get great applause.
    Love her in The Women.

  4. Sometimes a low brow chuckle is the heartiest laugh. I cannot help but laugh every time I watch Ma and Pa Kettle in The Egg and I. I’ve watched many of the Kettle films but no doubt that one is the best. I also love Main’s flirty encounter with Nick and Nora as Mrs. Dolley in Another Thin Man. Excellent piece, Aurora!

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