Ma and Pa Kettle are comic film characters of the successful film series of the same name, produced by Universal Studios, in the late 1940s and 1950s. They are a hillbilly couple with fifteen children whose lives turn upside-down when they win a model-home-of-the-future in a slogan-writing contest. At the verge of getting their farm condemned, the Kettles move into the prize home that is different from their country lifestyle. After that, they are subjected to more unusual situations.
Originally based on real-life farming neighbors in Washington state, United States, Ma and Pa Kettle were created by Betty MacDonald in whose 1945 best-selling novel, The Egg and I, they appeared. The success of the novel spawned the 1947 film The Egg and I starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, also co-starring Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as Ma and Pa Kettle. Main was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role.
After the audiences’ positive reaction to the Kettles in the film, Universal Studios produced nine more films, with Marjorie Main reprising her role in all and Percy Kilbride reprising his in seven. The films grossed an estimated $35 million altogether at the box office and are said to have saved Universal from bankruptcy.
Phoebe “Ma” Kettle (played by Marjorie Main) is a robust and raucous country woman with a potato sack figure. She is more ambitious and smarter than Pa, but not by much, and can easily be fooled. Ma is content with her role as mother to fifteen rambunctious, mischievous children on their ramshackle farm in rural Cape Flattery, Washington. Because she has so many children, Ma sometimes gets their names confused. A misspelled sign “Be-ware of childrun” is posted in front of the farmhouse to warn unwanted visitors of hurled rocks, projectiles from slingshots and pea shooters, and other missiles launched by the rowdy and unpredictable Kettle brood.
Franklin “Pa” Kettle (played by Percy Kilbride) is a gentle, slow-speaking, slow-thinking and lazy man. His only talents appear to be avoiding work and winning contests.
In the first film of the series, Ma and Pa Kettle, the family moves into a modern home with numerous electronic gadgets that Pa has won in a tobacco slogan-writing contest. As the series continued, various reasons were devised to have the family relocate to the “old place”, sometimes for extended periods of time. Much of the comedy is cornball humor arising from preposterous situations, such as Pa being mistaken for a wealthy industrialist (“P.A. Kettle” in Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki, 1955) or being jailed after he accidentally causes racehorses to eat feed laced with concrete (Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair, 1952).