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Tag Archives: Marjorie Main

The Egg and I (March 21, 1947)

Chester Erskine’s The Egg and I begins with Claudette Colbert dressing down a comical, goggle-eyed Pullman porter. (Was there ever any other kind of Pullman porter in the movies?) The poor fellow drops an egg on the floor of the train car. When he says, “It’s just an egg,” Colbert flips her wig and exclaims, “Just an egg?!?” She asks him if he’s ever stopped to consider how much work it takes to bring an egg into this world. After the chastened porter scurries out, she addresses the camera directly and says, “And I’ll bet you think an egg is something you casually order for breakfast when you can’t think of anything else. Well, so did I once, but that was before the egg and I.”

And then, after the opening credits roll, we’re introduced to Betty MacDonald (played by Colbert), who goes along with her goofily happy, wild-eyed husband Bob’s plan to move out to the country and run a farm.

Bob MacDonald (Fred MacMurray) served in combat in Okinawa, and he’s so happy to be back home that he’s going to make good on his foxhole promise to himself to devote himself to growing things from the soil and raising livestock. Returning to the land. Getting back to basics. The whole nine yards.

Bob actually seems a bit crazy. If this wasn’t a light comedy, I’d say Bob was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder manifesting as mania. But since it’s a comedy, his zeal is played for laughs. He’s insensitive to everything going on around him. When Betty falls off the roof into a washbucket, he looks down and asks, “What are you doing down there?” He also buys a dog named Sport who’s already bitten everyone in town and can’t be too near livestock. (I hope he didn’t pay too much for him.)

The Egg and I was based on the 1945 best-seller by Betty MacDonald, the author of the popular series of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children. The Egg and I detailed her real-life experiences as a young woman living on a small chicken farm in Washington State with her first husband, Robert Heskett, from 1927 to 1931. I haven’t read the book, but by all accounts it’s more witty and acerbic than the film adaptation, which suffers from an overabundance of broad comedy.

If you’re in the mood for a slapstick barnyard comedy, however, The Egg and I offers everything you’ll expect — goats eating hats, ramshackle structures, leaky roofs, beds with rusty springs, leaky buckets, rotten boards, Betty sawing off the limb of the tree she’s sitting on, Betty wrestling with a sow and ending up in the mud, and hillbilly stereotypes galore, such as Bob and Betty’s neighbors, “Ma” and “Pa” Kettle, whose front yard has a hand-painted sign that says “beware of the childrun.” When Betty discusses the oldest boy, Tom Kettle (Richard Long) with Ma, and says, “He ought to go to college,” Ma responds, “College?!? What fer?”

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride’s earthy performances as Ma and Pa Kettle were so popular in The Egg and I that they went on to star in nine more films as the characters, Ma and Pa Kettle (1949), Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950), Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951), Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952), Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation (1953), Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954), Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955), The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956), and The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm (1957). Main was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ma Kettle in The Egg and I. (Unsurprisingly, she lost out to Celeste Holm, who co-starred in Gentlemen’s Agreement.)

While The Egg and I was a huge hit in 1947, I can’t say I really enjoyed it. It relied too much on slapstick humor, and Colbert and MacMurray were both much too old for the roles they were playing. I thought it was mostly dumb, and you couldn’t pay me to watch any of the Ma and Pa Kettle films that followed it.*

*This is actually a lie. If you’re interested in paying me to watch any of the Ma and Pa Kettle films, please contact me.

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Undercurrent (Nov. 28, 1946)

Undercurrent
Undercurrent (1946)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The next time you and a friend see a turgid, overlong thriller with too many twists and turns, bogus storytelling, and good actors wasted, and your friend says, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” you can show your friend Undercurrent and prove that they make ’em exactly like they used to.

Pound for pound, Undercurrent might have boasted more talent than any other mystery melodrama in 1946. Director Vincente Minnelli and cinematographer Karl Freund were both gifted craftsmen with numerous acclaimed films under their belts. Herbert Stothart’s music is moody and evocative, especially the film’s haunting theme. Actors Robert Taylor and Katharine Hepburn were both stars of the highest magnitude, and hadn’t been seen onscreen for some time. Taylor had just finished his term of service as a flying instructor in the U.S. Naval Air Corps and Hepburn hadn’t appeared in a movie for a year and a half.

So what’s the problem? While studio tinkering could have played some part, the problem seems to mostly be Edward Chodorov’s screenplay, which was based on a story by Thelma Strabel. In a word, it’s silly. As soon as a promising situation is established, the story goes in a different direction, which serves to undercut the tension. The review of the film in the November 11, 1946, issue of Time called the plot “indigestible,” and said it was like “a woman’s magazine serial consumed at one gulp.”

Hepburn plays a young woman named Ann Hamilton who lives with her father, chemistry professor “Dink” Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn). Ann is herself chemically inclined, and prefers to spend time tinkering in the laboratory than entertaining proposals from eligible young men. All that changes when the handsome, mustachioed, and fabulously wealthy Alan Garroway (Taylor) enters her life. Alan is the inventor of the Garroway Distance Controller, which helped win the war.

Hepburn and Taylor in the shadow of Mitchum

Alan and Ann marry, and he takes her away with him to Washington, D.C., where she feels completely out of her depth in high society. Meanwhile, Alan starts making sinister insinuations about his brother Michael, who supposedly went missing years earlier with a large sum of money embezzled from the family business, and who is offscreen for most of the picture. The film seems to be setting up “What happened to Michael Garroway?” as the central mystery, but if you’ve looked at a cast list with character names, this plot thread won’t be that mysterious for you.

When Alan takes Ann away to his lovely country home in Middleburg, Virginia, the film threatens to settle down and become a solid Gothic melodrama. The estate has no phone line, and Alan’s behavior is increasingly bizarre. And as one critic noted, the central theme of Gothic fiction seems to be, “Someone is trying to kill me, and I think it may be my husband.”

True to form, however, the film goes in yet another direction, with Ann going off to explore Michael Garroway’s ludicrously appointed mansion-cum-bachelor pad, where she explores his musical instruments and books of poetry with copious underlinings, and seems to be falling in love with a man she has never met. I’m sure a good film could be made about a love triangle with one-third of the equation missing for most of the film’s running time, but this isn’t it. As Bosley Crowther said in his review of Undercurrent in the November 29, 1946, issue of the NY Times, “And if that also sounds a trifle senseless, let us hasten to assure you that it is.”

Robert Mitchum — one of my favorite actors of all time, ever since I saw him host Saturday Night Live in 1987 and asked my mom, “Who is that?” — is also in Undercurrent, but he doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the film’s running time, and only has a few scenes.

I may have made Undercurrent sound terrible. It’s not. It’s mediocre popcorn entertainment, and I had fun watching it. And it’s no worse than most of the “neo-noirs” that littered multiplexes throughout the 1990s … it’s just not much better, either.

The Harvey Girls (Jan. 18, 1946)

In 1876, a 41-year-old entrepreneur named Fred Harvey opened a string of restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway line. The eateries catered to middle-class and wealthy travelers alike, and at the height of the franchise’s success, there were more than 80 Harvey House restaurants. Harvey died in 1901, but the Fred Harvey Company continued to build restaurants into the 1960s.

A restaurant chain might seem an unlikely subject for a big-budget, Technicolor, Hollywood musical, but clearly the young, attractive waitresses in their crisp black and white uniforms were enough of a hook. The film opens with the following portentous prologue:

“When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Santa Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had known … the Harvey Girls. These winsome waitresses conquered the west as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons — not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee. To these unsung pioneers, whose successors today still carry on in the same tradition, we sincerely dedicate this motion picture.”

If all this is to be taken seriously, then who wouldn’t want to lionize these distaff settlers? I haven’t read Samuel Hopkins Adams’s 1942 novel that this film is based on, but it must have been a good story for Hollywood to want to pick it up. Or maybe it was just that Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren realized what a catchy rhythm the phrase “on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” had.

After the prologue and credits, the film opens on a shot of a moving train. Susan Bradley (Garland) is standing on the deck of the caboose, singing a forgettable song about love. She is heading out west to marry a man whom she only knows from the florid love letters he has written her. When her suitor, H.H. Hartsey (Chill Wills), turns out to be a functionally illiterate cowpoke who had a friend play Cyrano for him by penning the letters himself, Susan parts with him (mostly amicably), and becomes a Harvey girl.

The dramatic conflict, such as it is, comes from the local saloon and gambling house, which also features dancing girls. The owner of the palace of sin, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), and his star attraction, Em (played by a young and foxy Angela Lansbury), fear that the opening of the Harvey House will usher in a new era of respectability and crush their business. In real life of course, Trent’s girls would have been prostitutes and Em would have been their madam, but in the world of 1940s M-G-M musicals, dancing the cancan for hooting and hollering cowboys was about as scandalous as they could get.

Garland and Lansbury both give good performances, and are backed up by a large and talented cast. Virginia O’Brien (as the Harvey girl “Alma from Ohio”) is tough and sassy, and Ray Bolger, most famous for playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939), here gets to play the Cowardly Homosexual, a popular character type in Hollywood pictures for decades. While his sexual preference is never identified outright, Bolger’s character’s effeminacy and fear of any butch labor (such as shoeing horses), as well as his spirited prancing, leaping, and tap dancing make it clear that he doesn’t have any designs on the ladies.

The Harvey Girls is an entertaining mix of musical and western. But if director George Sidney aspired for it to be anything more than breezy entertainment, it doesn’t show. Judy Garland is always a delight, but Vincente Minnelli’s ability to coax a nuanced performance from her and to tell an engaging story from beginning to end in a musical is sorely missed here. The Harvey Girls is enjoyable, but it’s no Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Also, aside from the standout song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (which won an Academy Award for best song), no musical number in the picture really stands out.