This year has shown us things about ourselves, positive and otherwise, and it may mean discovering depths and talents we never knew we had. With that in mind I decided to revisit 1947’s The Egg and I. It’s not only based on a true story of a city couple trying to start a chicken farm, but introduced the world to two beloved characters, Ma and Pa Kettle.
Bob (Fred McMurray) is just back from the war and he wants to do something other than be a lawyer. His wife, Betty (Claudette Colbert) is cheerfully open to whatever her husband wants.
Then Bob tells her he’s bought a chicken farm in the mountains of Washington state. Betty’s dubious but goes along, and any hope she might have had for a cute little farm in the country gets dashed when she sees what a wreck the place is, and the house is the worst of all. The front door won’t open. The porch is brittle. The ancient stove is dirty and the doors won’t stay closed. The only bed has a very noisy box spring mattress. And the roof leaks, which gives Betty a cold the first night.
Bob, on the other hand, couldn’t be more pleased with his new acquisition. He smiles and whistles all over the place, cheerfully patching the roof and fixing up all the buildings.
Betty’s not too happy but she makes a go of it, cleaning up the kitchen and painting walls. She’s a bit city helpless at first–the pig, Cleopatra, gets out of her pen and Betty gets muddy trying to pull her back in. However, she makes friends with Sport, the supposedly fearsome attack dog Bob brings home, who turns out to be more lamb than wolf.
Naturally, everyone drops by to see the new arrivals, including pushy salesman Billy Reed (Billy House), Mr. Henty (Donald McBride) the produce dealer, and Geoduck (John Berkes) and Crowbar (Victor Potel), the local Native Americans.
Then there are Birdie Hicks (Esther Dale) and her mother (Isabel O’Madigan), who always says she’s ailing even though she appears to be the picture of perfect health. Birdie seems to like being a prophet of doom, and she tremolously informs Betty that the farm was abandoned for a reason.
Maybe so, but Bob and Betty’s egg business is off to a healthy beginning. Their chickens are thriving and multiplying, so it’s only a matter of time before they’re sitting pretty, right?
Bob and Betty’s most visible neighbors are the Kettles. Pa Kettle (Percy Kilbride) rolls up in a wagon that’s higher in the front than in the back and parks himself on Betty’s new garden. He appears to be a very amiable sponge, “borrowing” some two-by-fours and a pound or two of nails from Bob.
His wife, Ma (Marjorie Main) is a rather formidable person. She’s laid-back in her own way, but she’s not quite as retiring as Pa. When she yells the whole farm can hear her, and that’s a good thing because the Kettles have about a gazillion kids. Ma and Betty become fast friends and when Betty visits, she finds a rundown farm that’s somehow comforting and homey. Pa’s method of saying grace at meals is a simple “Much obliged for everything,” and if something falls off a shelf Ma drawls, “Might as well be in one place as another.”
Ma and Pa’s oldest son, Tom (Richard Long) becomes a fixture at the farm, doing odd jobs and helping get the business running smoothly. He dreams about going to college and becoming an engineer, but thinks it’s not in the cards because Ma needs help and Pa’s kinda flaky. Betty might have a few tricks up her sleeve, though.
Even though they seem to be settling in quite nicely despite a few bumps, Bob and Betty get more than they bargained for. Harriet Putnam (Louise Allbritton), who owns Bella Vista, the ritzy agricultural powerhouse down the road, is flirty to a fault and right from the beginning Betty thinks she’s after Bob. Like any self-respecting wife, Betty has thoughts, but as can happen, there may be more there than meets the eye.
Seattle-ite Betty MacDonald lived this story, and if her name sounds familiar it’s because she’s best-known for the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series. In 1927 she and her new husband, Bob Heskett moved to the Chimacum area of Washington state because Bob dreamed of becoming an egg magnate. Betty hated it because the chickens were mean to each other and financially they just couldn’t get ahead. Betty and Bob divorced in 1935 and Betty went back to Seattle with the couple’s two daughters, Anne and Joan.
On the plus side, Betty accumulated so many funny stories that she was able to put them into a book, The Egg And I, which was published in 1945 and became an instant hit. The rights were snapped up by Universal, bringing in a profit of over five million.
For those who are familiar with the Ma and Pa Kettle series, The Egg and I introduces all the familiar bits that would show up in later episodes, from Frank Skinner’s bouncy theme music to the Kettles’ utter unpretentiousness to the introduction of a possible new star. In this case it was Richard Long, who would be in the next two installments. Percy Kilbride is flaky to a fault, but he’s so nice it’s forgivable. Marjorie Main was the only choice for Ma, and The Egg and I has the distinction of being the only film in the series in which we hear her real first name. Spoiler alert: It’s Phoebe.
Now, granted, the book and the movie are slightly dated. Read any review aggregate (like GoodReads, for instance) and it’s obvious that fans are divided over whether MacDonald was a racist snob or just calling things like she saw them. In fact, MacDonald was sued by some of the residents of her former home because they didn’t like being portrayed as country bumpkins. There was even debate on which family was the real Kettles.
I haven’t read the book yet so I can’t speak to this, but whatever is in the book was probably toned down for the movie. In fact, there’s a scene where Betty freaks out because Geoduck and Crowbar peer in her kitchen windows and Bob brushes it off with, “You’ve been watching too many Westerns.”
Controversy aside, Betty MacDonald’s time in Chimacum is very much a part of the area’s history. Among others to follow Betty and Bob are Jess and Patricia Bondurant, who held on to the Hesketts’ property for thirty-two years. It’s currently owned by Seattle radiologist Phil Vogelzang, his wife, Katy McCoy, as well as her sister Melinda and her husband Peter Walchenbach. They keep it as an active farm, raising cattle, pigs and vegetables.
And The Egg and I is very much a fun part of film history. Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray are wonderful as Bob and Betty, but no one who sees the Kettles will every forget them, that’s for sure.
Another review is on the way Monday. Thanks for reading all…
The Egg and I is available on DVD and Blu-ray and as part of The Adventures of Ma and Pa Kettle Complete Comedy Collection (DVD only).
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4 thoughts on “Down On the Farm”
I enjoyed your look at The Egg and I. It seems to fall through the cracks in Claudette and Fred’s romantic comedy filmography.
It has been a long time since I read the book, but I can’t recall being bothered by anything. I do have a pretty high threshold for that sort of thing. If someone is telling me a story I let them tell it their way.
The main thing I recall is that Pa Kettle always blamed his troubles on those b*****s in Washington. I substitute Ottawa. Universal really struck paydirt with those popular Kettle characters. Over the years, I had convinced myself that Billy Reed was in all of the movies, but it was only The Egg and I.
Note: Elisabeth Risdon played Betty’s mom. Birdie Hicks’s mom was played by Isabel O’Magden.
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Ah, thanks, Paddy. I wasn’t too awake when I wrote some of this, lol. And thanks, glad you enjoyed my review! I think I’ll have to read the book now. 🙂
As I enter my golden years, I aspire to Elisabeth Risdon but have only reached Isabel O’Magden!
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I hear ya! 🙂