Ma and Pa Kettle were popular characters in the '40s and '50s films that kept audiences laughing. The beloved films focused on the hillbilly couple navigating farm life with their large family. But did you know that they were based on a real couple?
Betty MacDonald published a hilarious memoir in 1945, recounting her experiences as a newlywed on a chicken farm in Washington state. The Egg and I follows Macdonald's adjustments to farm life as well as her experiences with her slightly offbeat hillbilly neighbors. Readers were incredibly entertained by the main character's "fish out of water" experiences on the farm and the book quickly charted the bestseller list.
The following year, MacDonald's quirky stories made it to Hollywood. Universal Studios purchased the film rights for The Egg and I and released a film inspired by the successful book. The film version of the story follows Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray as Betty and Bob MacDonald and Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as their neighbors, the Kettles. Main brought the character to life so well she earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Viewers were incredibly taken with the Kettles, so much so that the studio made nine more Ma and Pa Kettle movies as well as a radio adaptation of The Egg and I. Apparently the studio was struggling at the time and these films, grossing $35 million at the box office, prevented bankruptcy:
Ma and Pa Kettle
Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town
Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm
Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair
Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation
Ma and Pa Kettle at Home
Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki
The Kettles in the Ozarks
The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm
Main played Ma Kettle in all 10 films from 1947 to 1957. Percy Kilbride played Pa in the first nine films but was replaced by Parker Fennelly in the final film. All of the classic films follow the Kettle family and their fifteen children, their ramshackle farm, and follow their hilarious shenanigans like their entertaining trips to Paris and Hawaii.
The story of Ma & Pa Kettle also made its way to the small screen. A 15-minute episode TV show ran on CBS from 1951-1952 starring Doris Rich and Frank Twedell as the quirky couple. The characters also inspired a short-lived cartoon series for Universal Pictures, "Maw and Paw," voiced by Grace Stafford and Dal McKennon. Though its been years since we've last seen Ma and Pa, America loved the Kettles and all of the laughter and joy they brought their viewers.
This article was originally published in March of 2020.