Friday, September 13, 2013

Ma And Pa Kettle: Serving Up Classic Comedy

Here we go again:
Warning! There will be spoilers! Warning!
Warning! Spoiler haters beware! Warning!

Every so often, when I was growing up, these old black and white movies starring a back woods country family called the Kettles would show up on television. I just loved them. I never knew just how many Ma and Pa Kettle movies there were. But I happily watched them whenever they were on.

When I discovered The Internet Archive, one of the first things I did was search for every favorite old movie I could think of. I was thrilled to find that two of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies were free for the viewing in the Public Domain.

So just who were Ma and Pa Kettle and how many movies were there? Well, in 1945, a woman named Betty MacDonald wrote a memoir called The Egg and I. The popular book spawned a movie starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert as a city couple who move to an old farm in Washington state to start a chicken ranch. I don’t care for The Egg and I movie, because the husband is blindly self centered and never even considers consulting with his wife about his plans and she just merrily goes along with him for most of the movie. But apparently that was how author Betty MacDonald and her family really were. However, the book and movie did introduce the MacDonald neighbors, the Kettle family.

The Kettles are basically “eccentric country bumpkins” who live on a “ramshackle farm in rural Cape Flattery, Washington.” Ma Kettle (actress Marjorie Main) is loud and large and obviously the heart and backbone of the Kettle family. She spends all her time cooking and taking care of her large family even though she often forgets her kids’ names. She’s a bit smarter than Pa and often directs him in what to do but she still often gets fooled or confused. Pa Kettle (actor Percy Kilbride) is a slow moving, slow talking, slow thinking, and lazy man. He spends all his time either “borrowing” things or avoiding work and occasionally winning contests. His favorite expression seems to be “I’ll have to fix that one of these days.” Ma and Pa Kettle have a huge, unruly family of fifteen “childrun.” Most of the Kettle kids are just a large rowdy mob, only eldest son Tom ever plays an important part in the movies. Most of the Kettle movies are of the “fish out of water” or “innocents abroad” type and show the Kettles having absurd adventures based on their confusion or misunderstanding of modern 1940s-1950s life.

Ma and Pa Kettle and their family of fifteen kids were so popular with movie goers that the studio, Universal-International, spun the Kettles off into their own movie series. From 1949 to 1957 there were nine Ma and Pa Kettle movies:
1). Ma and Pa Kettle (1949)
2). Ma and Pa Kettle go to Town (1950)
3). Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951)
4). Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952)
5). Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation (1953)
6). Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954)
7). Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955)
8). The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956)
9). The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm (1957)

Two of the movies are in the Public Domain and are free for the viewing at The Internet Archive:
4). Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951)
6). Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation (1953)



Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm

In the first movie Pa Kettle won a contest and the family got a huge ultra modern house that caused all kinds of confusion. In the second movie Ma and Pa take a trip to New York City and get involved with crooks. Now in the third movie, Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm, the Kettles are back home and settling into their new house. Their eldest son, Tom, is married to Kim and they are expecting their first baby. There’s a very funny sequence when Pa Kettle misunderstands a message and thinks the “Mrs. Kettle” having a baby is actually Ma. There’s another funny sequence when Pa apparently becomes “radioactive” because of suspected uranium on their farm.
But most of the movie revolves around the conflict between Ma and Pa and their down home life and Kim’s refined Bostonian parents. Kim’s mother is over the top rude and snobbish and takes over so completely that the Kettles are literally run out of their own house and Kim and Tom are on the verge of breaking up. Mrs. Parker (Kim’s mother) actually has a very nasty rant about some of the Kettle close family friends. Pa’s best friends are two Native Americans named Geoduck and Crowbar. When Geoduck and Crowbar and some of their family show up with presents for the new baby, Mrs. Parker calls them “germ carriers” and tells them to “get back to your wigwams where you belong.” This scene is doubly offensive because the Native Americans seem to belong to the tribe called “Stereotypical Stock Hollywood Indian”. They have nothing to do with the Pacific Northwest and everything to do with Hollywood’s vision of the Great Plains. Very offensive and uncomfortable for modern viewers.
On the other hand, I think the overall relationship of Geoduck and Crowbar and Ma and Pa was probably quite open minded for the time. Ma and Pa consider them to be friends and equals and are outraged at Mrs. Parker’s attitude. Ma yells at Mrs. Parker: “These Indians are friends of mine and if you don’t like it, you know where you can go.” A bit later, Pa apologizes to Geoduck and Crowbar and explains that: “She’s from Society, she don’t understand us kind of folk, claims her ancestors came over on the Mayflower.” Geoduck gets the last dig in when he replies “Huh. That nothing. Mine here to greet them.” The movie ends with a hilarious car chase as Ma, Pa, Tom, and Mr. Parker race to stop Kim and her mother from leaving on the train. Mrs. Parker undergoes a remarkable transformation and the Kettles happily dig into their next meal.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, there are some really funny sequences, especially when Pa demonstrates that 5 goes into 25, 14 times. This is a classic comedy sketch and will have you wondering if Pa’s math is really correct. But the racism of Mrs. Parker is jarring and offensive and she never really gets a comeuppance that I felt she deserved. The picture quality of the movie is good if a bit fuzzy around the edges and the sound is loud and clear.




Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation


In this movie, Mr. and Mrs. Parker invite Ma and Pa Kettle to go to Paris, France with them. There’s no sign of Mrs. Parker’s original disdain, she likes and enjoys the Kettles every bit as much as her husband does. This movie is very much in the vein of the  “innocents abroad” but combined with a spy adventure. Pa strikes up a conversation with a stranger on the plane and agrees to carry a letter for him. Naturally there are spies after the letter which contains secret plans. Ma and Pa have various misunderstandings about Parisian life: Pa tries to get “French postcards,” Ma intervenes in an Apache dance because “that ain’t no way to treat a lady,”  Pa overreacts at the sight of flaming crepes suzette, and Ma refers to Parisians as “Paris-sites.” Pa gets recruited by the American Consulate to help set a trap for the spies but gets confused about who are the spies, who are the G-men, and who are random Frenchmen. There’s a very funny chase scene after Ma and Mrs. Parker get kidnapped. Pa tries to get the French police to go with him to rescue the ladies but they can’t understand him. So he knocks a hat to the floor and breaks a window to get them to chase him. Along the way, as Pa passes more policemen, he stomps on their feet and pulls their hats over their faces, until he has a large mob of irate police chasing him. There’s also a funny scene when Ma takes matters into her own hands, literally. The movie ends with Ma trying to introduce “culture” to her kids: “I’m gonna have culture in this house if I have to beat it into them.” She quickly discovers she can dress up the kids but they’re still an unruly mob.

I enjoyed this movie, too, but it is much more mild than the other one. There are funny scenes involving Ma and Pa wearing fancy dress and Ma dancing
and the final kidnap and chase sequence is very good but there is nothing that is really classically funny. There are no more offensive scenes like Mrs. Parker’s rant in the other movie and Geoduck and Crowbar are only in the movie for a few short scenes. But they are still “Stereotype Indians.” Sound quality is, again, loud and clear and picture quality is, again, good if a bit fuzzy around the edges.


On a side note, after I watched these two movies on The Internet Archive, I was talking with a friend about them. I suddenly remembered that, a little while ago, when I had a very long hospital stay, I had treated myself to a buying spree of some of my favorite old movies. I went on a search and, lo and behold, I had apparently bought, and never watched, two boxed sets of the complete Ma and Pa Kettle adventures. I don’t know whether to blame my faulty memory on age or strong hospital drugs but I am now watching the movies chronologically, including The Egg and I. I still have a couple of movies to go but it is fun to revisit these old favorite movies from my childhood.

So, give Ma and Pa Kettle a try with two of their movies free for the viewing at The Internet Archive.
Click this link to watch Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm.
and
Click this link to watch Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation.
If you enjoy these movies, then you can purchase the rest of the Kettle adventures at certain select websites or maybe even at your local stores.

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