Though the characters of Ma and Pa Kettle first appeared in the Fred MacMurray – Claudette Colbert winning comedy The Egg and I, it is here in the first of 9 films that they embarked on their own series of lovable adventures once again played by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride.
The Kettles and their brood of fifteen children live on a run down farm overrun by weeds, chickens in the kitchen and general chaos. Main as Ma is a big strong willed woman while Kilbride as Pa is a meek tiny man and hasn’t worked a day in years. “Not since that lumbago set in.”
The town counsel of Cape Flattery wants the Kettle farm condemned and just before they make good on the threat, Pa wins a slogan contest from the King Henry Tobacco Company winning the family a model house of the future. It’s a second chance for Ma and the kids to get out of the poverty they seem to be living in. Upon moving in it’s Ma who carries Pa over the threshold.
The bulk of the film makes light of Pa and his feeling lost in a home of the future. There’s a switchboard of buttons for lights and beds that fold into the wall keeping him continually lost as to how everything works. While shaving he makes the tragic mistake of turning on a set of sun lamps thus guaranteeing himself a “red as a lobster” sun burn. Pa’s had enough and moves back to the farm.
While all the comical shenanigans are going on we have Richard Long as the eldest of the Kettle children who is now a college grad and hoping to make something of himself in the business world. Love is in the air when he meets Meg Randall as a beat reporter looking to do a story on the Kettle clan and their windfall.
Jealousy from a fellow town resident results in Pa’s contest slogan being called in to question to keep the plot moving along which serves only to highlight the wonderful presence of Percy Kilbride. His Pa Kettle is just one of those on screen characters that strikes my funny bone dead center. It’s really a wonderful character he has created with his lazy demeanor and delivery.
When Pa is nominated to be the chairman of the county fair he’s a bit put off. “Take much work?” It’s an honorary position. No work at all.” he’s told. Without skipping a beat he’s quick to respond, “I accept.”
Universal-International turned the Kettle clan into a winning series that lasted till 1957 with Kilbride skipping the final two installments. No, they’re just not as good without him though Arthur Hunnicutt does his best as a relative of Pa’s who seems to have the same work ethic in the second to last title.
Studio director Charles Lamont was assigned to this series opener and would do the first follow up as well, Ma and Pa Kettle Go To Town which for my money is the best title of the series.
It’s the classic fish out of water story in the vein of Tarzan’s New York Adventure. Lamont would also direct many of the Abbott and Costello features that the studio was putting out at this time. Not just handling duties on the Kettle series, Lamont was also taking care of the Francis series finale minus Donald O’Connor, Francis In The Haunted House.
Tune into the Kettles series of films for old fashioned fun starring the familiar face and shape of Marjorie Main and the hilarious laid back approach of Percy Kilbride.