Who would have guessed that away from Universal-International where she so successfully played that bellowing scratch voiced, egg beater-coiffed shambles of country goodness, Ma Kettle, that Marjorie Main could be so…elegant? But Marjorie Main was full of surprises both on and off the screen so anything was possible. As columnist Philip K. Scheuer was to discover upon his arrival at Marjorie’s “neat as a pin” home, “My worst fears were realized when the door opened to reveal not a gimlet-eyed virago with arms akimbo and hair flying, but a smiling lady in a crisp, well-fitting suit and upswept coiffure.”
Truly one of the great character stars of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Era, Main was an absolute delight to watch in the myriad films she appeared in from the early 1930’s through the end of the 1950’s. Although she is principally remembered for comedic roles, Marjorie could also excel in drama, take for example her brilliant turn as gangster Humphrey Bogart‘s mom in Dead End (1937) or as the blind woman in The Shepherd of the Hills (1941). Woe betide the unlucky co-star who had to work with her because she’d steal everything but the cameras.
Main (b. Marjorie Tomlinson in 1890) claimed her famously booming voice was the result of holding long distance conversations with her far-flung neighbors while growing up on a 160-acre farm in rural Acton Indiana. Early on, she dreamed of the footlights, but her plans were vigorously opposed by her minister father. It wasn’t until she married psychologist and lecturer Dr. Stanley Krebs in 1921 that her father’s attitude softened. As Marjorie told Hedda Hopper in 1941, “When father realized that Stanley was listed in ‘Who’s Who’ as a preacher and lecturer, and that he didn’t object to the theater, he finally gave in!”
By the time Krebs died in 1935, Marjorie was well established on both radio and the Broadway stage and had already been summoned to Hollywood for a few pictures. Within a few years, she was there full time and over the next two decades she became one of the most important and well liked character stars in the movies with a string of memorable roles in such classics as The Women (a reprise of her Broadway role), Meet Me in St. Louis and The Harvey Girls. But her most enduring legacy is that as the robust country bumpkin Ma Kettle, which she played to great success in ten films starting with The Egg and I (1947). Although she officially played second fiddle to Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray in that film, it was Marjorie who earned the Academy Award nomination.
Offscreen, Marjorie was a very private person who lived very simply. Hedda Hopper declared, “Her tastes are almost spartan in their simplicity,” adding “I have never yet seen her at a party or a night club.” Unlike her friend Peter the Hermit though, Marjorie was no hermit herself, having a number of friends and a keen interest in psychic phenomenon and mysticism, a legacy of her late husband who frequently lectured on the subjects around the country. Marjorie was devoted to the memory of her late husband and never remarried or was known to be romantically involved with another man for the rest of her long life. In recent years, certain published sources have claimed that Marjorie was a lesbian, which if true, makes her, in my opinion, all that much more fascinating!
Marjorie claimed to have not purchased a car or a house until she was 50, generally making her way around town by hoofing it or by bus. The house she purchased @ 3066 Patricia Avenue in the Cheviot Hills, which ironically Peter the Hermit helped her find, was a charming moderneish 1936 colonial built on a sloping lot in close proximity to MGM Studios where she had been put under contract in 1940 as “the next Marie Dressler.” In spite of her simple lifestyle, Marjorie did allow herself one “Hollywood” excess, a desert hideaway @ 1280 Calle Rolph in Palm Springs. She passed away in 1975 at 85.