A popular character is valuable. They have fans who are interested in seeing more of that character. If the popular one is a supporting character instead of the star, then the creative staff can take a look at a spin-off. Spin-offs take the popular character* and place him or her into the starring role. Examples abound. Better Call Saul features the popular criminal lawyer from Breaking Bad. Frasier follows the psychiatrist Frasier Crane in his career as a radio host after the end of Cheers. I’ve discussed spin-offs before. They are a mix of adaptation and continuation, which puts them into a grey area for Lost in Translation. They’re also not new or restricted to just television. In some cases, the spin-off can become better known than the original work.
One such series of spin-off movies feature the characters of Ma and Pa Kettle, a hard-luck couple living in Cape Flattery, Washington, with their numerous children. The Kettles first appeared in The Egg and I, the fictionalized memoirs of Betty MacDonald, published in 1945. The book chronicled MacDonald’s life as a newlywed on a chicken farm that she and her then-husband, Robert, bought. The popularity of The Egg and I led it to being adapted as a film in 1947 starring Claudette Colbert as Betty and Fred MacMurray as Bob, her husband. Ma and Pa Kettle also appeared in the film, portrayed by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. The Kettles were a contrast to the MacDonalds; where Betty was out of her depth with the older style stove and manual housework, Ma kept her household going despite the number of children, including Pa. Where Bob, Betty’s husband, was willing to put in a full day just to get his farm started, Pa was content to let things fall to pieces, putting in a minimal effort. Since The Egg and I was about the MacDonalds and their farm, the focus was on Betty. Still, Main won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for portraying Ma Kettle.
The Kettles – Ma, Pa, and their brood – turned out to be popular. From 1949 until 1957, seven movies** were made featuring Ma and Pa Kettle, with two more made with just Main after Kilbride retired from acting due to injuries and being typecast. Each one used a familiar theme – Ma and Pa adjusting to the wider world while the wider world adjusted to them. The theme works and has appeared throughout entertainment, from Pygmalion to The Addams Family film adaptation. Ma and Pa are simple folk, used to doing things in their way. In Ma and Pa Kettle, Pa wins a “house of the future” with such modern conveniences as a television, electric stove, electric washer and dryer, and electricity. The film covers how the Kettles adjust to the modern devices, from Ma learning how her new kitchen works to Pa having to get up to turn on the radio.
In Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town, Pa wins another contest, this time for a cola company, with the prize being a trip to New York City. With only two plane tickets available, the Kettles almost have to decline, except a kind gentleman on the run from the law for bank robbery offers to watch the children. Again, the humour comes from the adjustments both the Kettles and the wider world have to make for each other, with the added fun of the children, barely manageable by Ma, making the bank robber prefer a nice, quiet cell. The other movies follow the same general format, with the Kettles making their way through trial and error with neither the simple way nor the modern way being touted as the right way.
The Ma & Pa Kettle movies are spin-offs of an adaptation, much like the relationship the TV series Angel has with the movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As such, working out the accuracy of the movies compared to the original is difficult. As a spin-off, the movies kept the core of the characters as portrayed in The Egg and I, a back country husband and wife with too many children and content with their lives. In both the book and the adaptation, the Kettles were the voice of experience compared to Betty and Bob. In the Ma & Pa Kettle movies, the Kettles are often out of their depth, much like Betty was at the start of The Egg and I, but with the experience they had, they could get by and thrive despite circumstance, keeping true to their original appearance.
Next week, the March news round up.
* Or, sometimes, an unpopular character. See also, Joey, the Friends spin-off that lasted two seasons
** The list of Ma & Pa Kettle movies in order of release date:
Ma and Pa Kettle
Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town
Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm
Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair
Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation
Ma and Pa Kettle at Home, which was Percy Kilbride’s last film role.
Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki, the last released film with Kilbride as Pa; it was filmed in 1952 but released in 1955.
The Kettles in the Ozarks, with just Marjorie Main.
The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm, with Parker Fennelly as Pa Kettle.