by Jim Hicks
Marjorie Main was a veteran actress who appeared in more than eighty films, yet she is remembered primarily for only one role--that of Ma Kettle--a role she played ten times and which brought her stardom, something that most character performers never achieve.
Marjorie was born on February 24, 1890, on a farm near the town of Acton, Indiana, just south of Indianapolis. Her real name was Mary Tomlinson and her father was a minister in the Church of Christ. Early in life she had ambitions to be an actress, but her father disapproved of the theatre. Marjorie was only able to study Drama at Hamilton College in Kentucky by telling him that she was planning to become a teacher.
She did teach, but only for one year. Then she joined a repertory company on the Chautauqua circuit which performed Shakespeare's plays, a fact which persuaded her father to give his approval. She was paid a salary of $8 a week and her first role was Katherine in "The Taming of the Shrew."
After two years, Marjorie decided that she was ready for the real theatre so she went to New York City and tried to break onto Broadway. Unsuccessful at that, she took a job in a stock company in Fargo, North Dakota. Next she started working in vaudeville where she appeared in comedy sketches. It was at that point that she changed her professional name because she knew her family disapproved of her acting career. She chose the name Marjorie Main because she thought it would be easy to remember.
In 1921, she married Stanley L. Krebs, a former minister and doctor of psychology, who spent his time writing and lecturing. They had met eight years before when both were working on the Chautauqua Circuit. He was twenty-six years older than she. For the next several years, she spent most of their time traveling with her husband and helping him with his work. She later said that this period was the happiest time of her life.
Since her husband's work kept him mostly in New York City, she returned to the stage with his approval. She appeared in the theatre with such stars as Pauline Lord, Ethel Barrymore, and Barbara Stanwyck, On one occasion, she even played Mae West's mother although she was only one year older. She also reappeared in vaudeville in a comedy sketch, "The Family Ford," in which she played W.C. Fields' wife.
Dr. Krebs died in September of 1935. Theirs had been a devoted marriage. As she later recalled: "Doctor was a creative man, always writing. We didn't need anyone else. We had each other." So she was fortunate the following month to open on Broadway in the role of a slum mother in Sidney Kingsley's play, "Dead End." She said that she let her sorrow pour out on the audience night after night in this play. It was only a small part but she made such a strong impression that is established her as an actress on Broadway. The following year, she left "Dead End" to appear in Claire Boothe's comedy, "The Women." it was a second big hit for her.
When "Dead End" was filmed by Samuel Goldwyn in 1937, Marjorie was engaged to re-create her stage role. She had played small roles in several films before this but without making any impression. As the worn-out slum woman in "Dead End" who slaps her gangster son (Humphrey Bogart) and calls him "Ya dirty yellow dog, you," however, she achieved recongnition from the critics, the public, and the film industry. The Hollywood Reporter (July 30,1937) commented: "Marjorie Main is superb as the tragic mother, a beautiful bit of character work."
Producer Goldwyn then had her play a similar role as the mother of Barbara Stanwyck in "Stella Dallas" (1937). Again, the reaction was favorable. The Hollywood Spectator (July 31, 1937) declared: "Drab, slovenly, long-suffering, the impression we get of her in the home in which Stella was raised, makes reasonable everything which later is developed in Stella's character. Miss Main is an artist and her contribution to the picture is out of all proportion to the length of her part."
She was then rushed into a number of films usually playing slum mothers or similar types. Occasionally, however, she got an ussympathetic part such as the sophisticated society woman involved in murder in "The Man Who Cried Wolf" (1937). Or a lighter role such as the comic landlady in "Test Pilot" (1938) starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. Or the off-beat part of Walter Connolly's wise-cracking secretary who wears a permanent wave in "Too Hot to Handle" (1938).
Her real opportunity came, how-ever, when she was chosed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to repeat her stage role in their film version of "The Women" (1939). She joined an all-star, all-female cast which was headed by Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine. Ever in this cast, Marjorie held her own and attracted much attention as the sloppy, indolent, comical dude ranch proprietress.
When asked once how she got her brassy, dead-pan manner, she replied that she developed it from "fighting boarding house keepers while touring coast to coast."
Her performance in "The Women" led MGM officials to believe that she might be a success co-starring with Wallace Beery as actress Marie Dressler had been before her death in 1934. So they cast her opposite Beery as a lady blacksmith name Mehitabel in "Wyoming" (1940) The results delighted the MGM executives and they were impressed by the range of here work including a dramatic performance in Republic's "The Dark Command" (1940) in which she is an austere, brooding woman who shoots her outlaw son after calling him a "dirty murdering snake." The MGM officials decided that she would be a splendid addition to the studio stock list of players so they signed her to a long-term, exclusive contract on October 8, 1940.
When she was welcomed to MGM by studio boss Louis B. Mayer, he told her that he liked everything about her except her name. She agreed with him since she had come to dislike it, too. They "huddled" about changing it but, as she later said, they "both agreed it was too late to do anything about it."
Columnist Damon Runyon had shared somewhat this same view about her name and once wrote: "It is difficult for me to reconcile the name Marjorie with Miss Main's appearance, and her manner. She has a dead pan, square shoulders, a stocky build, a voice like a file, and an uncurried aspect. She had a stride like a section boss. She has bright, squinty eyes. She generally starts off looking as if she never smiled in her life, then suddenly she smiles from her eyes out."
Her first film under the new contract was "The Wild Man of Borneo" (1941) with Frank Morgan but she was soon reunited with Wallace Beery in "Barnacle Bill" (1941). And they proved to be a popular--if not congenial--team. The New York Times (July 25, 1941) declared: "Wallace Beery has found the perfect foil in Marjorie Main, all right. And, perhaps more than either he or his Metro bosses bargained for, a competitor who comes close to stealing some of his best scenes in the film."
Marjorie was not entirely happy about the teaming, however, since working with Beery was not easy. One of the reasons for this was that he refused to stick to the script and she never knew what he was going to say. She told an interviewer in 1941 that she should get two salaries when she worked with both Beery and Leo Carrillo, as she had in her first two Beery Films. "One salary for the actin'," she declared, "the other for workin' with those two. I deserve it every time I come out alive."
She did continue to work with Beery but not with Carrillo. She and Beery made a total of seven films together. Four of these were westerns. So, evidently, they were somebody's idea of a perfect frontier couple. Their last film together was "Big Jack" (1949), which was also Beery's last picture. He was ill during its filming and he died a few months after it was completed.
When Marjorie moved to Los Angeles, she lived first in an apartment off Hollywood Boulevard filled mostly with her husband's books and papers. She road to work on the bus and ate most of her meals at a cafeteria close to her apartment. In the evenings, she liked to sit on a bench on the boulevard and watch the people go by.
Then after she was signed to a contract by MGM, Marjorie bought a bungalow in Cheviot Hills, a pleasant neighborhood near the MGM Studios. She also bought a car but she often perferred using the bus to go to work. She said that she liked to mix with people so that she could talk with them and study them for her work.
Her career accelerated during the 1940s and she made a number of movies in addition to the ones with Wallace Beery. MGM cast her in such roles as a grim housekeeper in "A Woman's Face" (1941) with Joan Crawford, a divorce court judge in "We Were Dancing" (1942) with Norma Shearer, and a frontier woman in "Tennessee Johnson" (1942) with Van Heflin.
She had a particularly appropriate part in "Honky Tonk" (1941) starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner. Marjorie played a minister's widow who owns a boarding house and then later is part of a reform movement that runs Gable out of town. In one scene, Gable flirts with her and pinches her cheek. She tells him: "I'm young enough to like this stuff but too old to believe it."
Marjorie Main also appeared with such other MGM stars as Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor in "Undercurrent" (1946), Red Skelton in "The Show-Off" (1946), and Greer Garson in "The Law and the Lady" (1951). She acted in three films with Judy Garland--"Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944), "The Harvey Girls" (1946), and "Summer Stock" (1950)--and she played a cook in all of them.
These were small parts in big pictures in support of the studio's top stars. But she was also given leading roles in several "B" movies such as "Tish" (1942) with Zasu Pitts. This story had originally been acquired for Marie Dressler but despite that fact the results were not very satisfactory and one reviewer (Los Angeles Daily News, November 20,1942) even suggested that: "Marjorie Main would do well to buy up the prints." She had better success with "Gentle Annie" (1944) co-starring James Craig and Donna Reed. In this western, she has the title role of a loveable Southern lady bandit who robs trains because they belong to Yankees.
MGM lent her out to other studios for some of her most memorable roles. In Paramount's "The Shepherd of the Hills" (1941) starring John Wayne, she has only a brief part but she has one important scene. She is Granny Becky, a blind mountain woman who after an operation gains her sight. The scene where she sees for the first time is a moving and effective one as Marjorie underplayed it with a soft voice and quiet demeanor. She is totally different in this role from the type of performances she is best remembered for today.
Other roles in films made on loan-out include the brassy, nouveau riche Mrs. Strabel, the wife of a Kansas beef tycoon. in Ernst Lubitsch's "Heaven Can Wait" (1943). This period comedy in Technicolor gave Marjorie a chance to wear fancy clothes in a film which was unusual for her. And one of her favorites among her own roles was that of the boisterous Gashouse Mary in "Johnny Come Later" (1943), a film made by James Cagney for his own production company. Her character was described as a madam by some reviewers but is not so delineated in the film itself.
In Paramount's "Murder, He Says" (1945), a comedy starring Fred MacMurray, she had perhaps the weirdest role of her whole film career. She is a hillbilly woman named Ma Fleagle who is a sort of crazy Ma Kettle who runs around with a bull whip to make her half-witted sons behave. Fred MacMurray gave a brilliant performace in the film and Marjorie matched him all the way. She pulled out screen exhibiting no restraint at all. Her voice ranges from a whiney purr to a raucous bellow. She never gave a wilder or funnier performance on the screen. It may be that this performance led to her getting the role that was her most popular.
That was, of course, the role of Ma Kettle. Marjorie was loaned out to Universal-International to play this role first in their film version of "The Egg and I" (1947). The film was based on a best-selling book by Betty MacDonald which told of her experiences when she and her husband ran an egg farm. Included in the book were stories about their neighbors including the colorful Kettle family. Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, a popular team in a number of movies, starred in the film. Percy Kilbride joined with Marjorie to play Mr. and Mrs. Kettle, the parents of thirteen (the number changed in later films) children, best known as Ma and Pa for obvious reasons.)
While the film was a "watered-down" version of the book, it proved to be a popular success and was the biggest box-office hit in the history of Universal to that date. Marjorie got the best of the critical notices. For example, James Agee (The Nation, May 10, 1947), who did not like the film, declared that "Marjorie Main, in an occasional fit of fine, wild comedy, picks the show up and brandishes it as if she were wringing its neck."
Marjorie was nominated for an Academy Award in the Supporting actress category for her performance. And she later told The Saturday Evening Post (November 12, 1949) that it was her favorite role for two reasons. The first reason was that "Ma was good for a lot of laughs and...I would rather make people laugh than anything else." The second reason was that she got to work with Claudette Colbert which she "thoroughly enjoyed."
Universal quickly borrowed her for two more films. First, she had the title role in "The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap" (1947) as the "leading lady" to the studio's top comedy team, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Contrary to the title, she is not wistful but rather a rowdy mother of seven children who tries to catch Costello as her new husband. Next she was re-united with Percy Kilbride to support Donald O'Connor in a hillbilly comedy. "Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fighten'" (1948). Marjorie is a lady mayor and got to wear some fancy clothes, but the film is not especially memorable in any other way.
MORE "KETTLE" FILMS
Then Leonard Goldstein, associate producer of "The Egg and I" came forward with an idea. He had noticed that the audience response to the Kettles had been particularly strong so he suggested that he produce a movie about the Kettles. Universal agree. "Ma and Pa Kettle" (1949), which cost $250,000 and grossed nearly $2,000,000 was a huge success. As a result, Universal decided to make more Kettle films and it released one a year for the next eight years. The reason for this success was probably explained by a reviewer for The New York Times (July 12, 1952) when he wrote that, at their best, the films were "both touching and genuinely amusing."
Marjorie originally did not want to do the Kettle fims but was told by MGM that she had to do them on loan-out. So she was somewhat lukewarm about them at first, but as time went by she became more enthusiastic. She did her own costumes as she had in some other films and even wrote some of her own dialogue. She kept a close watch over the scripts and demanded the elimination of anything that she felt was suggestive. And she refused to play a scene in one film which called for Ma Kettle to be slightly tipsy. She claimed later that she refused because her grandmother was on the founders of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. But this may just show how closely she came to identify with Ma Kettle.
Marjoie brought to this role a lifetime of living--years of observation and decades of performing. She was a professsional who gave her best in whatever role she was given--no matter how small the part of how unimportant the film. Because of this, she made the role of Ma Kettle memorable and helped make the Kettle films worth seeing despite their small budgets and corny humor.
Ironically, the first of the Kettle series was released the same month that "Big Jack," her last film with Wallace Beery, was released. One part of her career ended and another began at the same time. Marjorie found working with Percy Kilbride much more congenial that working with Beery had been. Kilbride was a quiet, retiring man who dressed impeccably--unlike Pa Kettle. A life-long bachelor and veteran stage actor, he lived alone and associated mostly with old friends from his days in the theatre. He and Marjorie did not socialize together, but she said that she admired him more than any other actor she had worked with. "I consider Percy the best dead-pan actor in the business," she declared. "And a complete gentleman."
"In between the Kettle fims, Marjorie appeared in a number of other movies including three more MGM musicals. She is Mrs. Cabot, a Palm Springs resort operator in "Mr. Imperium" (1951) starring Lana Turner and Ezio Pinza. She is Fred Astaire's wealthy aunt, Mrs. Phineas Hill, in "The Belle of New York" (1952). And she is Lady Jane Dunstock, a Canadian hotel manager, in "Rose Marie" (1954) starring Ann Blyth and Howard Keel.
She also played a bit part in "The Long, Long Trailer" (1954) starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, fresh from the success of their television series, "I love Lucy." Her last dramatic role was as the mother of a soldier killed in the Korean War in one of the sequences of the all-star film, "It's a Big County" (1952).
In addition, there were two attempts to start other film series with her. MGM put her in a murder mystery-comedy, "Mrs. O'Mally and Mr. Malone" (1950) with James Whitmore in the other title role. And Universal cast her as the cook on a dude ranch owned by Chill Wills in "Ricochet Romance" (1954). Neither did well enough to earn a sequel.
After "Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki" (1955), Percy Kilbride decided to retire. (He continued to live quietly in Hollywood until 1965 when he died as a result of being hit by an automobile while crossing the street.) Universal tried to continue the Kettle films they gave up and ended the series.
Marjorie's contract with MGM ended in 1954 and after that she decided to work less. She played a comical widow with three unmarried daughters in "Friendly Persuasion" (1956) starring Gary Cooper. It was director of her first film success, "Dead End." Her last movie was appropriately the last of the Kettle series, "The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm (1957).
Marjorie made a few appearances on television. She guested as herself on an episode of "December Bride" starring Spring Byington, another popular character actress of her generation. Her last acting job was in an episode of "Wagon Train"," a popular western program with Ward Bond, in 1958.
After that, Marjorie made a few public appearances from time to time such as riding in the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade. And she occasionally gave interviews to the press.
In 1969, Marjorie told reporter Vernon Scott that she was living alone and keeping busy doing her own shopping, cooking, and house-cleaning. She said that she liked to stay up late and watch old movies on television because "I see so many old friends that have passed on." She admitted that, "I'd like to work with the oldtimers again. But they aren't making pictures. And I don't think I'd fit in with the new young set. I wouldn't be at ease with them."
She said that she did regret that she hadn't had lots of children like Ma Kettle. "I loved the role. I always thought of Ma Kettle as a real person," She declared and she added: "I put my heart and soul into tha role. Even spent days shopping for the right material for her wardrobe. Ma Kettle was a grand woman."
Marjorie was one of the many stars who attended the world premiere on May 17, 1974 of "That's Entertainment" to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At the part afterwards, she posed with the other stars for a memorable photograph. Interviewed by columnist Army Archer, she was friendly but declared, "Don't expect me to say anything nice about Wally Beery--because I won't."
REUNITED IN DEATH
Less than a year later, on April 10, 1975, Marjorie Main died of cancer at St. Vincent's Hospital in Los Angeles. She was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hill, where her husband's remains had been moved in 1954. "I've been lonely so much of my life." she said then, "and I'd like to be with him in death."
And so on a grassy slope in the Hollywood Hills not far from Universal Studios where she achieved immortality as the lovable Ma Kettle, next to her husband, lies the remains of the actress. Marking the spot is a tablet on which is printed only these words:
MRS. MARY TOMLINSON KREBS