Silver Screen Standards: The Egg and I (1947)

Silver Screen Standards: The Egg and I (1947)

Adapted from the 1945 bestseller by Betty MacDonald, The Egg and I (1947) depicts the misadventures of newlywed couple Betty and Bob (Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray) as they struggle to transform a dilapidated farm into a successful chicken business. It’s a very funny, if problematic, comedy about city people who move to the country without knowing anything about rural life, much less the isolation and hardship of farming, and it inspired the same plot for the classic TV series Green Acres. Like Green Acres, The Egg and I isn’t always fair in its depictions of the locals, but for rural people, there’s still a lot of humor in watching the clueless newcomers make all the obvious mistakes while assuming they know better than their neighbors. The Egg and I certainly has its flaws, but it also has more than enough going for it to hold modern viewers’ attention, even if they’ve never heard of MacDonald or her book.

The Egg and I (1947) Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray Car
Blissfully unaware of her future trials, Betty rides with Bob toward the remote farm he has bought without consulting her.

The imbalance of 1940s marriage is one issue that rapidly becomes apparent. My family and I were barely five minutes into our most recent viewing before we were shouting, “Divorce him!” at Colbert’s character, Betty, whose husband informs her on their wedding night that he has 1) quit his job, 2) sunk all of their money in a remote farm, 3) decided to take up chicken ranching, and 4) planned to start immediately. Betty gamely agrees to this nonsense because she thinks it’s a wife’s duty to follow her man, even when he could have brought this scheme up any time before she went through with the wedding. An annulment would be perfectly reasonable, but then we wouldn’t have a story. The alarm bells, however, keep ringing all through the movie, and in spite of the film’s ending nobody who watches it will be surprised to know that the real Betty MacDonald left her first husband, the Bob on whom the character is based, after five years and moved back to the city with their two young daughters. The movie obscures that element of the story by using the first name of Betty’s first husband and the surname of her second, whom she married in 1942, partly because Universal didn’t want to draw attention to the divorce. For those interested in learning the messy, unvarnished truth about MacDonald’s life, there’s Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and I, a 2017 biography by Paula Becker, which charts the events that led to the book and movie versions of The Egg and I as well as MacDonald’s life and work after them.

The Egg and I (1947) Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray Farm
Bob and Betty inspect the abandoned farmhouse that is supposed to be their home, even though it’s a wreck with a leaky roof and no running water.

Stars Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray manage to have ample romantic chemistry despite those ringing alarms, largely because their onscreen relationship lasted a lot longer than Betty MacDonald’s first marriage. The pair’s first film together was The Gilded Lily (1935), and they went on to costar in six more pictures, including The Bride Comes Home (1935), No Time for Love (1943), and Family Honeymoon (1949). The Egg and I was their sixth movie together and by far the best remembered today. As Betty and Bob, they have an easy rapport that keeps their scenes light and lively, especially in the funniest bits, most of which involve their novice efforts on the farm. Their romantic dinner date, when they dress up in their wedding clothes and imagine a night out on the town, is one of the movie’s sweetest scenes, interrupted as it is by the sour-faced Donald MacBride as Mr. Henty. The third act hurries over an important upset to their marital bliss and its resolution, but when they’re onscreen together they work really well.

The Egg and I (1947) Marjorie Main and Claudette Colbert Ma Kettle
Ma Kettle has trouble remembering the names of her many children, but she keeps them all fed and even invites Betty to join them.

As good as Colbert and MacMurray are together, the real stars of The Egg and I are Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as Ma and Pa Kettle. Main even earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the rough but kindly matriarch of the expansive Kettle clan, and the Kettles went on to star in their own series of films. The movie’s depiction of the family falls back on many negative stereotypes about poor rural farmers, including laziness, dirtiness, unchecked reproduction of children, lax parenting, and lack of ambition to do any better, but Marjorie Main in particular brilliantly transcends those stereotypes to create the warm, lovable, loyal character of Ma Kettle. Having grown up on a farm in rural Indiana, Main had a deep well of experience to draw on for Ma Kettle, even though she never had any children and eventually left the farm to graduate from Hamilton College when she was 19. I adore Marjorie Main in just about every role she plays, but her Ma Kettle is the lynchpin that makes this movie work. Overwhelmed as she is by her chaotic family, she manages to keep them all fed even if she can’t keep their names straight, and Main invests her with resolution, generosity, and clear-eyed practicality that cut through the clutter. It’s no wonder that audiences fell in love with Ma Kettle and wanted more stories about her and her rambunctious family. If you, too, fall for Ma’s eccentric charm, you can see more of her in the subsequent Ma and Pa Kettle films, including Ma and Pa Kettle (1949), Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950), Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1953), and The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm (1957), but don’t miss Main’s other great performances in The Women (1939), Heaven Can Wait (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and The Harvey Girls (1946).

Ma and Pa Kettle, Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride
Ma and Pa Kettle proved irresistible to audiences and went on to star in their own series of films, including Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954).

The Egg and I is also noteworthy for memorable supporting performances from Richard Long, Louise Allbritton, and Billy House, as well as a delightful appearance by Ida Moore as the little old lady who wanders into Betty’s kitchen. While it’s mostly acceptable for family viewing, be aware that it includes offensive caricatures of Native Americans. Chester Erskine only directed seven films in his career and was more prolific as a writer; in addition to directing The Egg and I, he also produced and wrote the screenplay. If you’re keen to see more comedy with Claudette Colbert, some of my favorites are It Happened One Night (1934), Midnight (1939), and The Palm Beach Story (1942). Fred MacMurray is best remembered now for his performance in the noir classic, Double Indemnity (1944), as well as his starring roles in live-action Disney films like The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), and The Happiest Millionaire (1967), but his long-running role on the TV series My Three Sons (1960-1972) made him a television icon.

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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One Response to Silver Screen Standards: The Egg and I (1947)

  1. Peta Dunwoodie says:

    I am a very big fan of old movies. I watched Charade with Cary Grant just yesterday. I believe the older movies were more real to watch. The actors really had something that today’s actors don’t have.

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