Monday, January 4, 2010

Old MacDonald had a farm


Back in July of last year, TCM devoted a Friday night to the first four “Ma and Pa Kettle” films (Ma and Pa Kettle [1949], Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town [1950], Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm [1951] and Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair [1952]) in the popular movie series from Universal, and I have to admit that I got a huge kick out of watching them despite the fact that they’re a bit on the corny side and hardly befitting an individual of my sophisticated tastes. (Yeah, I didn’t think that would fly, either.) Despite their rough edges, I prefer the cinematic antics of the Kettles to Universal’s Francis films—a series that really wears out its welcome after the first one.

But oddly enough, I’d never seen the movie that introduced the bucolic family to motion picture screens—1947’s The Egg and I. TCM ran this one yesterday afternoon, and while I was entertained by it I can certainly see why the Kettle family moved on to their own series; Marjorie Main, Percy Kilbride and the rest of their brood were far more delightful than the picture’s stars, Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. Well, I should make that star. I loved Claudette.

Based on the best-selling novel by Betty MacDonald, Egg casts Colbert and MacMurray as Betty and Bob MacDonald, a married couple who packs up their troubles in an old kit bag and leaves their Manhattan dwelling to start a new life on a chicken farm in upstate New York. Bob is pretty gung-ho about the enterprise, but Betty gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop in trying to adapt to a life for which she’s clearly not suited. Complicating matters is neighboring factory farm owner Harriet Putnam (Louise Albritton), who’s most assuredly not timid about her agenda to steal Bob away from his wife; as a result, tension begins to build in the MacDonald’s marriage to the point where Betty kicks Bob to the curb and runs off with their newborn daughter to her mother’s (Elisabeth Risdon). Naturally, we can’t have a movie that ends on a note of unhappiness so the two get back together in the end…even though the real-life couple had gone their separate ways before Betty’s book had hit the Barnes & Nobles of their day.


Having not seen Egg until yesterday—and completely unaware that the real Betty and Bob bid one another a fond adieu—I had some difficulty watching the movie because I found myself rooting for Colbert’s character without knowing why. Egg is a troubling film at times; I think Claudette is simply wonderful in her determination to soldier on with the farm despite it being obvious that she’s 100% miserable—and in the same vein, I found myself filled with loathing with MacMurray because his character is a clueless jerk. There are one or two sequences in the movie where Fred’s character redeems himself—the spur-of-the-moment dinner where Betty decides to get gussied up and Bob does the same immediately springs to mind—but for the most part, I warmed up to the film only in scenes where Bob is shown to be an obnoxious chauvinist porker (I’m talking about the sequence where he chops away at a tree, assuring Betty that it won’t fall on the chicken house because he knows what he’s doing…you can probably guess what happens after this) and Betty the hapless heroine who stoically puts up with his chicken shi…er, feed. The most egregious example of Bob’s complete tool-like qualities comes towards the end: Betty decides to swallow her pride and return to Bob, but because she’s refused to open any of his letters she’s a bit out of the loop and is unaware that the douchebag has bought Putnam’s spread so naturally she’s out of sorts when the cab driver drops her off at the Putnam residence. The two of them start another verbal donnybrook and Bob informs his better half that it’s all her fault because she never responded to any of his letters. Is that the way it works, Bob? You never tell your wife that you left her at the county fair because you wanted to take a gander at Harriet’s place…and then when she’s too pissed to answer your mail, well, that’s the whole ballgame? You forgot where her mother lived? No telephone on your property? Trains don’t depart from your neck of the woods? (No wonder she divorced this clown.)


Colbert’s Betty is unhappy, but I like how that doesn’t keep her from establishing strong ties with her neighbors—particularly Main’s Ma Kettle. The bond between these two women is one of the most admirable components in Egg; I love how Colbert never condescends by criticizing Ma Kettle’s unorthodox methods of running her household, but instead reacts with genuine amusement and a sense of wonderment as to what will happen next. It’s as if Betty reaches out to Ma in a real we-have-to-help-one-another manner because both of their husbands are real pieces of work (though Pa comes off as only slightly less of a jerk than Bob), and her unselfishness in submitting one of Ma’s quilts for competition at the county fair reaps tremendous benefits for both Ma and the eldest of the Kettle brood, Tom (Richard Long), who will now be able to attend college with the prize money. I also got a kick out of seeing the softer side of Main in Egg; in the later Kettle movies, being that she’s the main character, she comes across a bit overbearing but in the first movie she tones this down quite a bit while still reminding viewers that she’s definitely the head of the household.

Seeing Richard Long in this film is another reason why I enjoyed Egg; I wasn’t aware that many of the characters that appear in the later Kettle films—Billy Reed (Billy House), Birdie Hicks (Esther Dale) and her mother (Isabel O’Madigan), Geoduck (John Bierkes), Crowbar (Vic Potel) and Emily (Ida Moore), the dotty old dame with the invisible husband—made their debuts in this one (some of the actors reprising their parts, others taking over due to death or unavailability). All in all, Egg is an entertaining vehicle that makes first-rate use of its supporting players (including Donald MacBride, Samuel S. Hinds and Fairmont, WV’s own Fuzzy Knight) and is a marvelous introduction to the Ma and Pa Kettle series—though it would have been nice to feature Colbert’s character in one of the films; maybe looking for a new husband after that tragic incident with Bob falling into a grain silo.


Before Egg came on yesterday, TCM telecast a film that I wrote about back in April 2007 and that I enjoyed getting the chance to once again revisit; the 1969 film The Reivers, which stars Steve McQueen as Boon Hoggenbeck, a “Mississippi swamp rat” who borrows the brand-new automobile of the grandfather (Will Geer) of young Lucius McCaslin (Mitch Vogel) and lights out for a road trip to Memphis with Lucius and his distant cousin Ned (Rupert Crosse) in tow. Boon introduces his ward to the pleasures of the flesh by visiting a cathouse (run by Michael Constantine and featuring Sharon Farrell, Diane Ladd and Ellen Geer as courtesans), and as the film heads toward the homestretch the three men have to win a horserace to guarantee the return of the car. The evocation of the early 20th century South is expertly handled by director Mark Rydell and there are top-notch performances not only from those named but by character greats Juano Hernandez, Clifton James, Dub Taylor and Allyn Ann McLerie. The Reivers is just another reminder of how sensational Hernandez could be in virtually every film he was in, and how much I took Geer for granted all those years (the ‘rents and I watched TDOY favorite Winchester '73 [1950] over the New Year’s weekend and I still think he’s the best Wyatt Earp on the silver screen).

(While trolling the Net for some photos to jazz up this review, I came across this splendid piece originally written in May of last year at one of my favorite blogs, Matinee at the Bijou. Promise me you’ll check it out ASAP.)
Bookmark and Share

5 comments:

KC said...

I had no idea the Egg and I was anything other than a bumble around the farm kind of movie. Now I'm curious to see this. I know what you mean about corny movies like the Kettle series. It seems like they'll be too corny to enjoy--but that often ends up being the reason that you like them. Corny can be surprisingly funny!

Laura said...

Enjoyed reading your impressions of THE EGG AND I and your humorous comments. It was fun to see it for the first time in years a few months back.

Best wishes,
Laura

jimkitt said...

an older movie I love and have watched many times and cannot convince my grown children that they should watch it and if they don't they will be missing a great display of comedy from genius's from Grant to Loy to the paint contractor. What can you do?

jimkitt said...

I just looked at my comment above, and I see I left out the movie I was referring to. It was MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE, with Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and many other really talented character actors.

7tavern admin said...

Hi,

We've browsed through your reviews and thought that they are really original and interesting! We would like to invite you to publish your reviews on 7tavern.com, which provides an alternative platform for promising movie reviewers to showcase their talents. In addition, you'll find a growing community of bloggers who share the same passion for excellent movies! Based on the merit of your reviews, we intend to offer you exclusive publishing privileges on our website!

Cheers,
7tavern Team
admin@7tavern.com