Archive for the Crackers Category

Andy Griffith: Good Cracker

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

Andy Griffith was born on June 1, 1926. Look at that face! It seems strange to exist in a world without him. He and his best known character seem like Benjamin Franklin or something, part of the bedrock of America. While he occasionally played villains (in fact, his best known role, apart from Andy Taylor, was a villain), Griffith seemed to radiate decency, a good heart, and sound judgment — our fantasy of what we’d love a small town sheriff to be. (As opposed to the dude who catches you in his speed trap, glares at you impassively through his sunglasses, chucks you in a cell when you can’t pay his “fine” and then kicks the shit out of you while calling you a “Yankee”).

Griffith defied the Southern stereotype in all sorts of ways. Born and bred in rural Mt Airy, North Carolina (on the Virginia border) he discovered singing, acting and playing musical instruments when in high school and was strongly encouraged by some wise teachers in those pursuits. Later he attended the University of North Carolina. Something clicked into place when I read that he appeared for several years in one of Paul Green’s historical pageants called The Lost Colony. I have yet to blog about Green, an interesting figure whom I learned about through my studies of the Group Theatre. Green’s play The House of Connelly was the Group Theatre’s first production. It was one of the things I was thinking about when I named my play House of Trash. 

In the 50s, Griffith first gained widespread notice as a comedy monologist and storyteller in nightclubs. His 1953 comedy record What It Was, Was Football became a popular seller.

This led to him being cast as the lead in the tv, Broadway and film versions of Ira Levin’s No Time for Sergeants (tv and stage versions were 1955; film was 1958). His character in the story was a cheerful rube and bumpkin, which formed much of the basis for the Andy Griffith spin-off series Gomer Pyle, USMC. 

In 1957, he enjoyed what ought to have been a cinematic breakthrough. He was cast as the lead in Elia Kazan’s amazing film A Face in the Crowd. Written by Budd Schulberg, it’s a political story about a seemingly affable good old boy named Lonesome Rhodes who becomes enormously popular on records, television and in films as a folk singer…but then becomes power mad, not just for success in show business but for political office. He’s a crazy demagogue using the power of television just as Huey Long had used radio a couple of decades earlier. It seems clearly inspired by the phenomenon of Elvis Presley, who had no such political designs, but might have been a formidable and damaging force if he had. This dystopian vision would see a later incarnation in the 1968 acid nightmare Wild in the Streets. And then, in 2016, the nightmare became true when a ruthless tv reality star became President of the United States, which is why interest in A Face in the Crowd has been increasing over the last several months, just as copies of The Origins of Totalitarianism have been flying off the shelves.

Anyway, Griffith is incredible in it, just an explosion of raw, animal power. People didn’t know what to make of the film at the time; reviews were mixed. In some ways it might have seemed a career killer for Griffith to play a character so similar to himself, and yet so ugly. (For another example, there’s Milton Berle’s 1949 Always Leave Them Laughing, where Berle’s character is a total jerk who seems oddly like…Milton Berle).

Griffith’s electric performance did not lead to a stellar movie career, but Griffith did come to dominate television for three and a half decades. He had a guest shot on Danny Thomas’s Make Room for Daddy in 1960 in which he played a southern sheriff. This led to his own series, (produced by Thomas and Sheldon Leonard), The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 through 1968 (Griffith left in 1967).

This show (in re-runs) was a major staple in my home when I was growing up. It’s mesmerizing, not just for the terrific writing and acting, but for its level of FANTASY. In a way, it is just as unreal a TV show as Bewitched or I Dream of Jeanie. It takes place in an idyllic Southern town called Mayberry, North Carolina, clearly based on Griffith’s home town of Mt. Airy. But while it takes place in contemporary times (the 1960s) the town’s quiet, isolated nature feels as though it were happening in much earlier times, decades earlier. People seem to spend all day sitting on porches in rocking chairs, swatting flies, catching fish, having picnics. Most episodes, a stranger will drive into town, stirrin’ up trouble of one kind or another, interrupting the placid stillness of this rural Shangri La.

The only kind of people who DON’T drive up, or live there to begin with, are BLACK people. And this would be exceedingly odd in a North Carolina town, would it not? Furthermore, the entire show aired during the Civil Rights Era, when interracial strife was happening throughout the country. The omission is glaring; it speaks volumes. But the creators of the show were on the horns of a dilemma. More than one actually. This was a time of transition. America was ostensibly past the era of overt, intentional racism in entertainment, the ridiculing of African Americans, the hiring of actors like Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland to be the butt of jokes. And Griffith was a liberal; that wouldn’t have been his style anyway. (He later campaigned for Barack Obama). But, unless you did a period show, there’d be NO WAY to include African Americans without talking about the changes going on in the country (as in later shows like I’ll Fly Away or In The Heat of the Night). And that was far beyond what anyone in tv was ready for at that stage. It wasn’t until the advent of All in the Family (1971) that that line would be crossed. And yet you couldn’t NOT talk about it either! How do you show black people in a Southern town without showing racists? That would be even more of a fantasy! So the solution seemed to be to set the show in an alternate universe where there were NO black people in North Carolina. The unintentional (I think) by-product ends up being just as racist in the long run. The producers didn’t just avoid controversy — they wrote black people out of the story of America. There’s something Orwellian about it.

Griffith said in later years that he was embarrassed about his acting in the first couple of seasons of the show, which hearkened back to the country rube he had played in No Time for Sergeants. But eventually he found his stride, which was, as sheriff, was to be the straight man in a town full of crazies. He kept his cool, and let everyone else in town be the nitwits. In this, he set a template that would be riffed on in many a later show: such as the titular character in Barney Miller, or Alex Reiger in Taxi. The job is to be the sensible guy, who solves everyone else’s problem’s. His genius comedy partner was Don Knotts, whom he’d worked with in No Time for Sergeants. As Deputy Barney Fife, Knotts job was to go overboard, and LOSE his head, and the chemistry and the acting between them was stellar. Other characters included Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), his son Opie (Ron Howard, who became one of Hollywood’s top film directors), Floyd the barber (Hoard McNear), Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), Goober (George Lindsey), County Clerk, Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), Otis the town drunk (Hal Smith), Emmet the handyman (Paul Hartman) and the crazy hillbilly Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris) and many others. It all adds up to something like Our Town. But we regret that it exists in a parallel universe that only includes Anglo-Saxons. Which I guess means it’s not YOUR town?

Griffith left the show early and very much on purpose so that he could pursue other projects. Other series were tried, and failed. He was in a lot of memorable tv movies, though. He’s in the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice (1973). He played a cop who actually solves crimes in Winter Kill (1974). When he was cast in movies for cinematic release, they tended to cast him as parodies of himself, as in Hearts of the West (1975) and Rustlers Rhapsody (1985). And of course, he became the highly visible pitchman for Ritz Crackers, inspiring the title for this post. We thought that campaign was hilarious when it came out, both for how it played on Griffith’s persona, but also became of the lameness of the slogan. But ya know what? We did imitations of it incessantly — and that is what advertising is all about.

Then, amazingly, his career got another burst of wind when he played a small town southern lawyer in Matlock (1986-1995). This show aired precisely when I was watching very little tv. To this date I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an entire episode. Although, my former brother-in-law, who was a musician in the L.A. area, was hired to play guitar in the background on one episode, and got to chat with the gracious Griffith, who played guitar himself — as if you didn’t know.

Griffith passed away in 2012. His last screen credit was in 2009.

Oklahoma Bob Albright: Cowboy Tenor

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Crackers, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2017 by travsd

That’s him, fairly far down the billing and at Poli’s (the local Connecticut circuit) no less. His act, the ad says, is “characteristic”. Even his hype is unenthusiastic! But that’s unfair, he also played the big time Keith circuit and was well known from record albums and radio

I’ve only managed to gather a few scraps about cowboy singer Oklahoma Bob Albright, who has managed to rise from beyond the grave thanks to his 1929 Vitaphone short Oklahoma Bob Albright and His Rodeo Do Flappers. I find references to him in newspapers from the mid teens through 1952. He is described in old reviews as “magnetic” and “good natured”, with an act that consisted of singing, uke playing and storytelling. Author Timothy E. Wise, in his book Yodeling and Meaning in American Music, postulates that Albright may have influenced Jimmie Rodgers and other country singers by introducing yodeling into Appalachian style music in tunes like “Alpine” Blues” and others.

You see references to him on the Keith Circuit in the teens, but later he seems closely associated with the Pantages Circuit, and later even appears to have managed a Pantages theatre in the Los Angeles area with his father and brother. He was married to Murtle King, daughter of nickelodeon magnate John H. King. When vaudeville died, Albright did lots and lots of radio at least through the 1930s. He appears to have been alive at least through 1952 (I saw a contemporary reference to him that year in Billboard),

I’ve not seen the Vitaphone short, but just about every reference to it I’ve seen uses words like “disturbing”, “uncomfortable” and “un-p.c.”. Now I’m mighty curious!

To learn more about vaudeville and artists like Oklahoma Bob Albrightconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Max Terhune: Western Ventriloquist

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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MAX TERHUNE: WESTERN VENTRILOQUIST

Today is the birthday of Max Terhune (1891-1973). Originally from Indiana, Terhune was a ventriloquist, whistler, animal imitator, juggler and magician in the last days of vaudeville (early 1930s), occasionally performing with the Hoosier Hot Shots. But the most astounding thing he was, was a movie actor. Friendships with guys like Kermit Maynard (Ken’s younger brother) and Gene Autry got Terhune picture work, notably in the Republic and Monagram western serials  The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters. 

These films were where I first became aware of Terhune, and not just aware, but entranced, dumbfounded, slack-jawed. For in these movies, he is never to be seen without his ventriloquial dummy “Elmer”. The reality in which this situation takes place is MOST ambiguous, to say the least. Is Terhune’s cowboy character also an amateur ventriloquist? A professional one? Is it just completely meta, and he is just an actor, not a cowboy? Or is it the opposite, as it often seems? In other words is Elmer a sentient entity with his own action and volition, an actual character? I’ve seen episodes where Elmer gets kidnapped and cries for help with no ventriloquist around! (Warning: do not watch if that is your idea of nightmarish horror). The other characters talk directly to Elmer, laugh at his jokes, and never acknowledge that Terhune is the ventriloquist making him talk (except for the occasional films where Terhune plays a literal ventriloquist).

Terhune continued to be featured in B movie westerns through 1949, usually with the character name “Lullaby” or “Alibi”. Through the first half of the ’50s he got some work in TV westerns and bit parts in films (his last was Giant, 1954). After this, he continued to perform ventriloquism and magic live for a number of year in Hollywood area venues like the Magic Castle and the Corriganville Movie Ranch. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Clem Bevans: Consummate Codger

Posted in Broadway, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by travsd

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COUNTRY CLEM

Today is the birthday of character actor Clem Bevans (1879-1963). 

I’d undoubtedly seen Bevans in dozens of movies and tv shows, but didn’t finally become aware of him until a few months ago when the indomitable explorer Mr. Pinnock, sent me a link to a remarkable 1950 tv movie called Hurricane at Pilgrim Hill, produced by Hal Roach JrOriginally presented as an episode of Magnavox Theatre, the plot of this bizarre romantic comedy is based on a magazine story by James Charles Lynch. It concerns the culture clash when a Western codger comes to visit his granddaughter in an old Massachusetts town. When his fiance’s snooty family don’t approve of the marriage, the old man uses a Native American spell to conjure a hurricane that puts the boy’s father out of the way for a while. Then he rescues the guy and everyone kisses and makes up. It’s not exactly a “good” movie, but I was especially intrigued by Bevans’ performance, which I found oddly detailed, realistic and just plain weird. And so I investigated…

Bevans was born in Cozzadale, Ohio. He started out in vaudeville around the turn of the last century with a boy and girl act with Grace Emmett. From here he went onto burlesque, and three roles on Broadway, in the shows The Errand Boy (1904), Patsy in Politics (1907) and Monte Cristo Jr. (1919). He was 55 years old when he made his film debut in the 1935 remake of Way Down East. From here he worked constantly in film and television for the next 27 years. He amassed scores and scores of credits. Some notable films he appeared in include: Zenobia (1939), Dodge City (1939), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Sergeant York (1941), The Yearling (1946), The Paleface (1948), Portrait of Jennie (1948), and Harvey (1950), and the Disney miniseries Davy Crockett as well as the movie Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). He was almost always typecast as a rural old geezer, but one notable departure was his casting as a Nazi in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942).

He was closely related (either the brother or cousin of, I’ve seen both online) of character actress Merie Earle, also always cast as an old codger, and when I show a photo, you’ll know her too in an instant:

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For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Fess Parker: American Icon

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Fess Parker (1924-2010 — how did I not notice that he died so recently?)

I would have been thrilled as a child to have known that I am distantly related to this film and tv actor through my grandmother Flora Parker. He is best known for playing frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett (1955-56), Daniel Boone (1964-1970) and the dad in Old Yeller (1957). Though these were all before my time, they were still shown frequently on tv when I was a kid, and I was encouraged to embrace them (and did). Our family has strong historical connections to Crockett (whom I’ll be blogging about some more tomorrow) and Boone, and like the hero of Old Yeller I am named “Travis”.

Given his rustic and rough-hewn persona, one is surprised to learn that at the time Parker began finding employment as a movie extra in 1951 he was working on a master’s degree in theatre history. His undergrad major at the University of Texas had been in history, a background that would stand him in good stead when he began to be cast in westerns and frontier stories. His Texas accent and imposing height (6′ 6″) were even bigger assets.

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Parker’s progress was rapid. Based on his appearance in several minor roles in westerns and guest appearances on television, Walt Disney himself cast Parker as Davy Crockett in the titular mini-series in 1956, which was so popular it set off a national craze for coonskin caps among American schoolchildren. The kid in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom sports one in homage to that fad.

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Parker and coon-clad fans

Parker and coon-clad fans

 

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Sure! He won’t grow up to be a tower shooter or anything!

It was during his time as a contract player for Disney that he appeared in Old Yeller, but he grew dissatisfied with being typecast and with repeatedly being asked to take small, non-starring roles, so he left Disney in 1958.

One of his notable roles during this period was the title part in a 1962 series based on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This is wonderfully fortuitous casting. If Parker’s acting chops aren’t up to Jimmy Stewart’s, he is without a doubt the right type to a T. (Interestingly, Davy Crockett had been a Congressman. The concept of playing a simple, honest country man who must confront the cynical sophisticates in Washington was not a new one to Parker).

Parker as Daniel Boone. Notice the difference?

Parker as Daniel Boone. Notice the difference?

Ironically, his next iconic role was to be so similar to his first one that he may just as well have remained working for Disney. In 1964 he was cast as the title character in the series Daniel Boone, attired in nearly the same costume, and put in the same setting, log cabins in the Tennessee/Kentucky frontier. I was in the first grade when the series went off the air in 1970; I still remember the theme song after all that time. It was a very popular show, as its six year run testifies.

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But by 1970, tastes were rapidly changing. In the late Vietnam era, westerns were dying faster than the buffalo. Parker would have to reinvent himself if he wanted to remain in the game. Astoundingly, he turned down a perfect chance to do just that. In 1970 he was the first choice to play the title character in McCloud, the NBC police drama about the culture clash that arises when a New Mexico marshal is loaned to the New York City police department. Along with Columbo and McMillan and Wife it was one of the shows presented in rotation on the NBC Sunday Mystery series, which would prove a blockbuster success, and the role of McCloud would have been perfect for Parker, casting him as a rustic type thrust into the modern world. But Parker passed, and the role went to Dennis Weaver, who had earlier achieved stardom on Gunsmoke. 

In 1974, he made a pilot for The Fess Parker Show, in which he played the harried dad of “three feisty daughters.” It was not picked up. He retired from show business after that. He went on to found the Fess Parker Winery (and Coonskin Cap Store), which was used as a location in the movie Sideways. And he invented that new soft drink: “Fess Up” (kiddin’!)

Trav S.D.’s Guide to the “Ma and Pa Kettle” Films

Posted in AMERICANA, Comedy, Crackers, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , on February 24, 2016 by travsd

This being the birthday of the great Marjorie Main, we thought we’d take the opportunity to publish a little guide to the comedy film series she starred in with Percy Kilbride, Ma and Pa Kettle. This is that interesting period in Hollywood (mostly the 1940s) when television had yet to conquer the American living room and yet (thanks to radio) the tv sit-com was desperately striving to be born. I’ll be blogging more about this period in future — there were many such B movie comedy series at the time.

The premise is that the Kettles are a poor but hilarious hillbilly couple with too many children to count (it’s essentially an elaboration on “The Little Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe.” Both Kilbride and Main were essentially playing types they often played in other films. Kilbride’s “Pa” was lazy, slow moving, and droll. Ma was hard-working, and always fussing and yelling. Like the later Beverly Hillbillies a lot of humor is derived from culture clash: the Kettles will luck into some money or some other good fortune and suddenly be thrust up against the modern world.

A strange quirk of the series is that it is off-type in one way. Instead of being set in the traditional hillbilly country of the Smokies or the Ozarks, it takes place in Washington State. This was the setting of the original novel on which the series was based The Egg and I (1945) by Betty MacDonald. 

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The Egg and I (1947)

The Kettles are not the stars of The Egg and I, but they stole the show and that’s how they got their own spin-off series. The Egg and I is one of those tedious “darnedest house ever” comedies, where a couple of city folk (Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert) decide to try their hand at chicken farming. How do you think it works out? The hilarious Kettles are their neighbors.

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Ma and Pa Kettle (1949)

As he had in The Egg and I, Richard Long plays the Kettle’s fancy son who went off to college. He also meets and falls in love with a lady reporter – she becomes his wife in the series. Much class-based conflict, an important anchor for both the comedy and the drama. Pa Kettle wins a contest by devising an advertising slogan for a brand of tobacco. The prize is a fancy new house . Culture clash! Tv interviews! Meddlesome town women conspire to unseat Pa by saying he stole the idea for the slogan. It all comes crashing down. Then Pa wins another house in another contest.

For some reason, though it is set in contemporary America, the series features “How, Ugh” Indians, which is not just politically incorrect but factually incorrect. And there is a funny running gag where Pa makes the radio work by tapping the floor with his rocking chair.

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Ma and Pa Kettle Go To Town (1950)

The Kettles are still ensconced in a fancy, modern new house.  They win a trip to New York.   A gangster gets a flat tire and stays at their place and volunteers to babysit so he can hide out (then the kids make life hell for the gangster). Meanwhile Ma and Pa Kettle take their trip to the Big Apple unwittingly carrying the gangster’s loot. Jim Backus is in it as a crook. The suitcase with the loot is accidentally taken by a millionaire, so the Kettles keep buying replacements, which in turn keep getting stolen. Later they attend a fancy party at the millionaire’s home. Pa leads a square dance. The son (Long) and his wife live in New York and are part of the plot. A subplot concerns Long’ss efforts to raise money for a chick incubator he has invented.

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Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951)

In this one , the son (Long) and his wife come back to stay with the Kettles because she is going to have a baby. (There is a funny bit where, through a misunderstanding Pa thinks Ma is the one who has had the baby). The rich in-laws show up. The wife puts on airs, and chases the family out – they go back to the farm and leave their modern house to the in-laws.  The father in law (Ray Collins) is down to earth however. A former mining engineer, he discovers that there is uranium on the Kettle property. Some schemers briefly swindle them out of the property but then it turns out there’s no uranium ore…it’s just radioactive dust on the son’s old army uniform from atomic tests! Meanwhile the couple breaks up. First their friend Billy Reed the peddler tries to steal the baby, but he steals the wrong one Then the daughter and her mother head back east—but the kettles head them off in a big chase sequence and they reconcile.

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Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952)

Ma and Pa Kettle go to the county fair, where they try to win contests to put their daughter through college. That’s it!

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Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation (1953)

This one mixes elements of Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town and Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm. Their millionaire in-laws take them on a trip to Gay Paree. Meanwhile they are carrying a secret envelope that some spies want!

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Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954):

The Kettle’s young son wins an essay contest describing life on the farm. Unfortunately the picture it paints is dishonest. So they must go back to their farm and pretend it is as idyllic and efficient as his description, as the contest judge, a publisher (Alan Mowbry) is coming west to see for himself. Very sit commy. Lots of slapstick business with a stand-in for Main, and undercranking. The publisher is an irritable hypochondriac. Everything goes wrong. Pa has jerry-rigged the whole place. Everything falls apart. Their most mischievous kid (Richard Eyer—a child star, recognizable from many movies of the time) plays practical jokes. The inevitable Mary Wickes plays the local librarian.

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Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955)

This was Percy Kilbride’s last performance as Pa Kettle and perhaps you can see why. He hated being typecast as rural characters to begin with. And with this one, the franchise has perhaps jumped the shark, stretched even farther than they were originally stretching for the sake of novelty. The Kettles go to Hawaii to help relatives with their pineapple ranch. It’s funny, because, well, look at that poster. But think how great it would hgave been if Elvis Presley had joined them in the cast.

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The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956)

Kudoes to them for keeping the franchise going without Kilbride! I would have thought it unthinkable! At any rate, in this one the Kettles go to help Pa’s brother (Arthur Hunnicutt) with his Ozarks farm (haven’t they belonged in the Ozarks all along?) While there, they get mixed up with moonshiners! Una Merkel is in the cast.

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The Kettles on Old McDonald’s Farm (1957)

The last in the franchise. Believe it or not it was one of the top grossing films of 1957! Here they return to the original set-up, with Parker Fennelly playing Pa. I’ve not yet seen this one, but the plot is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard: “Ma and Pa help out Brad Johnson to turn his girlfriend Sally into a good farm wife”. Why don’t you just take that double barreled shotgun and shoot me, Kettles?

The presence of Claude Akins in the cast is to me a kind of clue about why the series ended here. We are getting awfully close to modern times. As I said above, Elvis Presley was a movie star by now. This was a hoary brand of comedy to begin (though I happen to love it) but now they were repeating themselves. But that wouldn’t stop The Beverly Hillbillies from being a monster hit on television just a few years later.

 

Marjorie Main: More Than Ma Kettle

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Crackers, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Marjorie Main (Mary Tomlinson, 1890-1975). The daughter of an Indiana minister, Main started out in vaudeville, on the Chautauqua and Orpheum circuits.

She broke into films and Broadway at around the same time, with extra roles in the 1928 play Salvation and the 1929 film short Harry Fox and His American Beauties. Throughout the 1930s she alternated her time between Broadway and movie roles. Her large size, matronly carriage and distinctive voice (which would have been excellent for cartoon voiceovers), made her eminently castable, and she worked constantly until she retired. She was often cast as rich dowagers in her early years, but she was especially adept at plain-spoken, fussy, earthier types so she eventually specialized in playing ill-tempered domestics and landladies, and (because of her country accent) especially frontier women in musicals and westerns, almost invariably comical ones.

She is in Stella Dallas (1937), both the stage and screen versions of Dead End (1935-1937), and both the stage and screen versions of The Women (1936-1939), five films with Wallace Beery starting with Barnacle Bill (1941), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), Summer Stock (1950), Friendly Persuasion (1956), and of course the film series she became best known for, Ma and Pa Kettle (1947-1957) (read more about that series here). And this is just the tip of the iceberg; she gave memorable turns in dozens more movies than this.

While she was briefly married, Main admitted in an interview to having had lesbian affairs, one of which is widely believed to have been with Spring Byington. Her last performance was in a 1958 episode of Wagon Train. Her last public appearance was the year before she died, at the world premiere of the MGM compilation film That’s Entertainment. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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