The Egg and I is based on a best selling book by Betty McDonald concerning the happenings around an urban city dwelling woman, Claudette Colbert playing Betty McDonald, whose husband, Fred MacMurray, gets an agricultural urge after service in World War II. Back to nature so to speak. They both adapt, he a great deal easier than she did and that’s part of the plot.
Doing a little research on the movie and book, I found that Betty McDonald was a resident of Seattle and where they moved was not anywhere near hillbilly country, but to a rural part of Washington state. But of course what Universal was doing was giving in to stereotypes. They couldn’t make Ma and Pa Kettle and the rest of the characters convincing without transferring The Egg and I to an Ozark/Appalachian background.
Knowing that it does make me curious as to how the Kettles and the rest of the rustic neighbors were portrayed in the book.
Still somebody apparently knew what they were doing because The Egg and I with a built in audience of those who had already bought Betty McDonald’s book cleaned up at the box office. And Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main as Ma and Pa Kettle and their growing family became such a hit it spawned a series of money making films for Universal Studios for the next decade.
How popular were the Kettles? I remember back as a lad watching an episode of Gomer Pyle who when he got a pass to go into town took in a revival film of the Ma and Pa Kettle series. In places like Mayberry, North Carolina the Kettles attained a cult status. Marjorie Main got a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but lost to Celeste Holm for Gentlemen’s Agreement. She and Percy Kilbride played variations on their Kettle characters in most of the remaining films in their respective careers.
Still it’s Fred and Claudette’s film despite the Kettles and both settle into roles very comfortable for both of them. Next to the Kettles, the supporting player who comes off best is Louise Allbritton, the mantrap neighbor who’s got her eye on Fred MacMurray. You will also like Billy House as the rotund peddler with everything, even himself for the needy housewife.
Rural Washington state had to wait until the Nineties for a film set in that part of the country. It was hardly a flattering picture that Tobias Wolff painted of where he grew up in This Boy’s Life. No rustics like the Kettles in that Leonardo DiCaprio/Robert DeNiro film.
Probably the most successful imitator of The Egg and I had to be the CBS classic series Green Acres. Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor were even more out of place in the Ozarks than Colbert and MacMurray were. They too dealt with a collection of rustics that looked like they stepped from the cast of The Egg and I.
They even made Green Acres a success without the Kettles.