Ma Kettle Revisited
Frank Garro, Texas Tech University
As a child in the 1970s my mother’s generation had begun the job of moving from rural Northern Ohio into nearby cities. My generation would eventually finish that job. At the time we still had a connection to the land and a few family farms with the relatives left and we would occasionally return for family picnics and gatherings. As children were usually hard pressed to hang around the adults much as open fields and dangerous hay lofts beckoned. When it was time to eat we were ushered to one of the tables full of cousins. We would eat then rush back to play always keeping an eye out for that mean rooster that pecked. As my cousins ran off I found myself under the influence of long ears (as my father would say) and lingered over my plate to listen to the secrets and mysteries of adults conversation. Oftentimes an aunt or a adult female cousin would recount a misadventure they recently had in the city. “Oh, we went to a Chinese restaurant,” one began. “They didn’t have knives or forks, only chopsticks.” “I looked like Ma Kettle in the big city and almost starved.” This always brought a chuckle followed by a faux pas hit parade coupled with Ma Kettle citations. It felt as if these women were marking their transition from being rural to being urban. I chuckled quietly so as not to draw attention to my “big ears” even if I didn’t always understand the context or humor.
I was familiar with Ma Kettle from the series of movies made in the 1950s. We would occasionally run into her and Pa on a rainy Saturday afternoon when forced indoors. Watching the local UHF channel showing reruns was a constant struggle. One had to continually adjust the antenna to get a decent picture. Back in those days the Kettles seemed like harmless fun and we laughed the same as we would at Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. Having fifteen children in those pre-Duggar days was humorous. Ma shook her head at Pa as her station, and her family’s way of life depended upon his ups and downs. The fish out of water rubes going to the big city was always good for a laugh. Daughters returning back to the sticks from college were encouraged to play dumb by Ma in order to get a man, and so on. Today I see those movie’s cultural depictions of rural women in a much darker light. The role of Ma Kettle, played by Marjorie Main, portrayed the rural woman as a dependant bumpkin amidst a sea of hack rural entertainment tropes. There was an opposite in the form of the alliterative simple, solid, and saintly one dimensional mother. An example of this would be Beulah Bondi in the Gary Cooper movie Sergeant York. For rural women over the age of twenty one it was typically one Hollywood depiction or the other.
A comic foil in the nature of Ma Kettle risks the development of a detrimental image of rural women a society only familiar with the face of Ma Kettle. This statement might seem like overreach, nevertheless when a character is part of a successful franchise the possibility should be addressed. Ma and Pa Kettle make their first appearance in Betty MacDonald’s bestselling book The Egg and I as well as the follow up hit movie. The characters were a hit and a total of ten Ma and Pa Kettle movies would be made over the course of ten years. There were credited with helping to save Universal Studios from bankruptcy. A case might be made that for a decade in the mid twentieth century Ma Kettle was the face of the American rural woman. It’s only Ma Kettle, but I see her as a slightly less offensive character than that of the earlier African American depiction of Stepin Fetchit. The Kettles, Ma in particular, are an interesting and possibly rich area of study with regard to the cultural history, especially her effect on the outside perception of rural women. She is part of a Genesis like list of character lineage, as in Ma begat the women in the show The Beverly Hillbillies, who begat Petticoat Junction, who begat Green Acres, and on. I don’t include The Andy Griffith show as it leaned more towards the Beulah Bondi type. While the Ma and Pa Kettle movies have fallen by the wayside, the television shows mentioned are still in rerun. Ma Kettle is no longer the face of rural women, but her entertainment genetic legacy endures.
My thought now return to Ohio in the 1970s where I failed to mention the most important part of my remembrance of family’s gatherings. I turn now to the grandmothers and great aunts of my family. These were women born at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century and were contemporaries of Ma Kettle. They were nothing like the character from my rainy Saturday afternoons. Through our eyes these were women made of the same cast iron they wielded in the kitchen. They were famous for keeping the books with the balance never off by a penny. They ran their farms alongside their husbands and they did a bit of everything as part of their daily routine. These women kept the family together as men fought World Wars and as the banks threatened foreclosure during the Great Depression. It was impossible for me to make any sort of connection between these women and the image from the television screen. I saw them in person, and heard the stories told about them through my “long ears” for years after they had gone. Ma Kettle may be a cultural echo with a long lineage today, but I would rather focus on the women I remember from my youth.