Percy Kilbride: A Watched “Kettle” Never Boils

Some brief words of appreciation for rural character actor Percy Kilbride (1888-1964). Kilbride was an old trouper from San Francisco who’d been playing with stock companies since the age of 12. He was 40 years old when he made it to Broadway in The Buzzard (1928), amassing a dozen and a half credits on the Great White Way over an 18 year period. During this time, he also appeared in two films: the racy White Woman (1933) with Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton, and the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur concoction Soak the Rich (1936).

Kilbride played all sorts of characters throughout the early years, but he made his biggest splash as a local hick in the stage and screen versions of George Washington Slept Here. The Hollywood version (1942) starring Jack Benny kept him employed for years — but always as variations of the same character. He became best known as Pa Kettle in the “Ma and Pa Kettle” series (1947-1954), which we wrote about here, but he is also in Olsen and Johnson’s Crazy House (1943), Knickerbocker Holiday (1944), The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), The Southerner (1945), the original musical version of State Fair (1945), and Frank Capra’s Riding High (1950) — but always as the same character. Kilbride chafed at the typecasting and retired in 1954 rather than have any more of it. As already noted he was a well-rounded man of the stage, and could play anything. An interesting to film to catch him in as far as that goes is the all-star Hitchcockian noir thriller Guest in the House (1944), in which he is granted a couple of moments of genuine pathos.

Sadly, ten years after retiring Kilbride was hit by a car while crossing the street. He died of his injuries three months later.