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November Family Portraits: Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954)

As the holidays approach and we spend more time with our families, sharing meals, remembering the good old days, or squabbling, we will examine films from the classic era which depict these complex, formative relationships. Today Rodney and Samantha discuss Ma and Pa Kettle at Home.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: The eldest Kettle son (Brett Halsey) has entered a writing contest for which he is a finalist. In his essay, he waxes lyrical about his idyllic farm, but the reality is rougher, more dilapidated, though no less happy. The judges will decide between Elwin's piece and Sally's (Alice Kelley), the neighbor girl that Elwin is in love with. Ma (Marjorie Main) and Pa (Percy Kilbride) decide they must get their farm into ship shape to impress the judges and to keep their son from being called a liar.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: It’s a pretty simple premise, but it’s no less fun because of it. Audiences knew and loved the Kettles (Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride were consistently in the top 25 most popular stars during the 10 year run of the series), so it’s logical that by this, the seventh entry in the series, if one counts The Egg and I, that a lot of plot wouldn’t be necessary. This is an easy and breezy series entry.

MANNERING: For a city bred man, I have a remarkable instinct for growing things. That's one of the reasons our publisher selected me as one of the contest judges. CROSBY: Oh, it's a cinch for your brother-in-law to pick you. MANNERING: Naturally, with my ability.

SG: This is a charming film full of corny jokes done well. One of the young Kettle boys has a frog which features in many jokes. The Kettle's bull wears a derby to go courting with Sally's family cow. The kids wear scrub brushes on their feet and go skating across the floor in a scene ala Mary Pickford in Through the Back Door. The woman slipping around in the overflowing merengue "just like Sonja Henie" is clearly not Main, but we forgive this glaring use of a stunt double in the name of fun. There are white people playing native characters who begin as the butt of jokes, but end up being a pretty important part of the action, and good laugh-getters.

RB: A quick note about the obvious use of “redface” among the actors portraying Native Americans: While this is something that gives us pause today, rightfully so, I’d argue, it’s also important to note that one of the running gags in the film is one of the magazine contest judges being frightfully afraid of them, convinced that he will be scalped or worse by the “savages”. Pa Kettle’s Native American friends often look at each other sarcastically at the notion of this, doing everything short of rolling their eyes. It’s considered ignorant and uneducated to believe that the Natives are wild, uncivilized beings without a command of American customs.

SG: Yes, it seems innocently offensive rather than malicious. At the end when they lean into the stereotypes to spook Mannering, they point out the absurdity of their costumes, referring to themselves as resembling cigar store Indians.

RB: Of course, there’s lots of other fun stuff, like you mentioned. The slapstick and sight gags come fast and furious over the course of the 80 minutes and while we’re not exactly dealing with high brow situations (anything but!) they are clever, and you never get a chance to get bored, even if you can tell what’s coming moments before it happens.

PA: Ma, what did we ever do to get such a smart son? MA: For one thing, we got married.

SG: The Kettle's house may not look appropriately rustic and quaint according to their son's essay, but it is a mid-century modern dream! The minimal staircase, the floor to ceiling windows, the beautiful doorknobs, the expandable kitchen table, and the sleek kitchen cabinets with the rounded shelved end cap all had my eyes popping. I imagine the bathroom appliances were some shade of pastel. I'm envious.

RB: Right in the first scene, you can spot some Pyrex in action as Ma Kettle is baking using one of those popular, giant yellow four quart mixing bowls that so many of us relate to baking and holidays with our parents and grandparents (that particular style was made until the late 60’s, so there certainly were, and are, plenty of them around. I think we have four in our house serving assorted duties).

The Kettle films had a sort of loose continuity, and this house was a prize won in a radio slogan contest in an earlier entry. The trope of rural folks living in a beautiful modern home was ripe for comedy, and reminds me of the house that B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie lived in during this time period of the Dick Tracy comic strip.

SG: What the Kettles lack in money and opulence they make up for in warmth and joy. It is clear their family is rich in love, and that Sally's family withers under the rule of a tyrannical patriarch. The Kettles are easy to love because they seem like real people, not movie stars with trained accents. Of course they were, and very popular too. This was the last of the Kettles films with Kilbride as Pa, although Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki was released after this one. Two more came after before the series ended.

RB: The Ma and Pa Kettle series is a popular property still, which doubtlessly explains why Universal reissues the films for home viewing every several years. It’s easy to understand why. For the corniness and predictability of them, these are warm, comforting characters and movies. The kind of nostalgic junk-food that we all crave from time to time.

SG: I give this film 3 stars.

RB: I also give this three stars, which is exactly what I expected to give it as soon as it started. It delivered on that note, and many more. I enjoyed it and am likely to circle back and watch the rest of the series within a short period of time.

'Tis the night before Christmas but it won't be so quiet, not with us Kettles. We make such a riot.

This film ends with a Christmas gathering, which previews our next series. Happy holidays everyone!

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