Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My Grandmother and Marjorie Main

In order to explain my deep and abiding affection for character actress Marjorie Main, I have to begin with my grandmother. Her name was Maudie Mae, and she was a big-boned country woman, born and raised in rural Alabama in the early part of the 20th century. She had a 7th grade education and an old-time preacher for a husband, and she was the youngest of 18 children of another preacher, a stony-faced man who held two Bibles when his photograph was taken.

Mamaw (in the hat) with her sisters at a family reunion.
Maudie, whom we called "Mamaw," loved loud outfits, musk perfume, and people of all kinds. She smelled like biscuits, which she turned out by the thousands in all the kitchens she called home. She erupted in a great whoop whenever she was surprised, and I'm pretty sure she told her entire life story to every K-Mart cashier and grocery clerk she ever met. She had a funny tendency toward malapropism and always referred to cheese as "cheeses." She wrapped up leftover rolls in restaurants and carried them home in her purse. She was rough around the edges and garrulous and fussy, and I loved her very much.

Watching Marjorie Main reminds me of Maudie Mae, sometimes so forcefully that I find myself in tears, even though my grandmother died more than 20 years ago. Main excelled at playing the kind of character my grandmother was in real life, and the actress does it so well that she always makes us love her for all her faults and hard edges. Like Maudie, Main was a preacher's daughter. Both would die of cancer, although Main had the longer life of the two. There are differences, of course. Main was well educated and never had any children, even though she played so many motherly types on film.

Ma Kettle is the role that came to define Main's career; she played the character in ten movies, from The Egg and I (1947) to The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm (1957). It's that Ma Kettle image that most strongly resembles my grandmother, always in turmoil but truly big-hearted, holding the family together with grits, glue, and gumption. Main inhabits similar types in many of her other films; she's a rough maternal force that we can't help but love, even if her antics sometimes embarrass her offspring. You'll find her playing the same type in Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

If you want to appreciate Marjorie Main, here are 10 films in which she appears. Whether you've had a Mamaw in your life or not, Main is one of those actresses you'll be glad to see again and again, and she turns up in some very interesting places.

1) Stella Dallas (1937) - Main plays the mother of Barbara Stanwyck's working-class heroine in this film destined to wring tears from every tender-hearted viewer who has ever wept at Dumbo.

2) The Women (1939) - In this all-female drama, Main appears as the proprietor of a divorce ranch in Reno, making her the mother hen to a coterie of unhappy heroines, including Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard, and Rosalind Russell.

3) A Woman's Face (1941) - Main is almost unrecognizable as the white-haired, sour-faced housekeeper in this Joan Crawford melodrama. If you want to see a different side of the actress, this is the movie to watch.

4) Heaven Can Wait (1943) - Who would believe Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main as the parents of a heroine as lovely as Gene Tierney? The two revel in a comic goldmine during their scenes, especially during a heated argument over the possession of the funny papers.

5) Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) - Even though she's technically the family's maid, Main still exudes crusty maternal devotion to the Smith clan, watching over Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, and the rest of the household.

6) The Harvey Girls (1946) - Once again appearing with Judy Garland, Main provides maternal guidance for a group of young ladies hired to tend a Harvey House, including Garland, Cyd Charisse, and Virginia O'Brien.

7) The Egg and I (1947) - In her first appearance as Ma Kettle, Main steals the picture from Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, with some help from Percy Kilbride as the shiftless Pa.

8) Ma and Pa Kettle (1949) - Main and Kilbride begin their series of stand-alone Kettle films with this picture, in which Pa wins the grand prize for inventing a new tobacco slogan. Their 15 children make sure that the chaos never lets up. I'm pretty sure that my grandmother would have found this movie hilarious, and it's certainly a favorite with my father, her youngest son.

9) Summer Stock (1950) - Here's a third pairing of Main with Garland, this time with Main as the housekeeper to Garland's beleaguered heroine. Gene Kelly also stars.

10) The Long, Long Trailer (1953) - Main has a brief but memorable role in this comedy with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

This post is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, Maudie Garlen, who was born in 1912 and died, too soon, in 1992. She was a great character, a good woman, and a glorious cook. The secrets of her butter roll have never been unraveled, and her chocolate pie has yet no equal. I will miss her for the rest of my life.