Main, Marjorie (1890–1975)

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Main, Marjorie (1890–1975)

American actress, best remembered for her work in the "Ma and Pa Kettle" film series . Born Mary Tomlinson on February 24, 1890, in Acton, Indiana; died in Los Angeles, California, on April 10, 1975; daughter of Reverend Samuel Tomlinson and Mary (Mc-Gaughey) Tomlinson; attended public schools in Elkhart, Indiana; attended Knickerbocker Hall and Franklin College, both in Indiana, and Hamilton College, Lexington, Kentucky; graduated in 1909 from a school of expression; studied dramatics in Chicago and New York; married Stanley L. Krebs (a psychologist), on November 2, 1921 (died 1934); no children.

Selected theater:

Cheating Cheaters (1916); Yes or No (1917); The Wicked Age (1927); Burlesque (1927); Salvation (1928); appeared as Mrs. Martin in Dead End (1935), Lucy in The Women (1936).

Selected filmography:

A House Divided (1931); Hot Saturday (1932); Crime Without Passion (1934); Dead End (1937); Stella Dallas (1937); Boys of the Streets (1938); King of the Newsboys (1938); Test Pilot (1938); Too Hot to Handle (1938); Three Comrades (1938); They Shall Have Music (1939); Angels Wash Their Faces (1939); The Women (1939); Another Thin Man (1939); I Take This Woman (1940); Dark Command (1940); Susan and God (1940); The Trial of Mary Dugan (1941); A Woman's Face (1941); Barnacle Bill (1941); The Shepherd of the Hills (1941); Honky Tonk (1941); The Bugle Sounds (1942); We Were Dancing (1942); Jackass Mail (1942); Tish (1942); Tennessee Johnson (1942); Heaven Can Wait (1943); Johnny Come Lately (1943); Rationing (1944); Gentle Annie (1944); Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); Murder He Says (1945); The Harvey Girls (1946); Bad Bascomb (1946); Undercurrent (1946); The Egg and I (1947); The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947); Big Jack (1949); Ma and Pa Kettle (1949, and eight other films in the series through 1957); Summer Stock (1950); Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone (1950); The Law and the Lady (1951); It's a Big Country (1952); The Belle of New York (1952); The Long Long Trailer (1954); Rose Marie (1954); Friendly Persuasion (1956); The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm (1957).

A veteran of the Broadway stage and some 80 movies, including the extremely popular "Ma and Pa Kettle" series (nine films about an eccentric farm couple which were made between 1949 and 1957), Marjorie Main was one of the finest character actresses of her time. "Realism is the hallmark of the acting style of this character player," observed a critic in the New York Herald Tribune. "The rasping voice and swaggering stride she affects in so many of her screen characterizations are traits she observed in a number of aggressive Western farm women during her childhood."

Born Mary Tomlinson in 1890, the daughter of a minister, Main did indeed grow up in the heart of Indiana farm country, and used to entertain visitors with her impressions of those around her. While reciting in a school elocution contest, her voice "slipped up a couple of gears," as she put it, and the reaction was so satisfactory that she later adopted it for her comedy roles. After graduating from an elocution school and attending several colleges, Main taught dramatics at Bourbon College (Paris, Kentucky) for a year before joining a Shakespearean repertory company. While playing the Chautauqua circuit, she met psychologist and lecturer Dr. Stanley Krebs, whom she married in 1921. It was Krebs who came up with her stage name, which was said to have been inspired by the Sinclair Lewis novel Main Street.

Krebs was supportive of Main's career, and she subsequently toured on the Orpheum circuit and with a stock company out of Fargo, North Dakota. Around 1915, she played New York's Palace Theater, appearing in a comedy skit called "The Family Ford," starring W.C. Fields. In 1916, she made her Broadway debut in Cheating Cheaters, followed by Yes or No the following year. Main played small roles in The Wicked Age (1927), as Mae West 's mother, and Burlesque (1927), with Barbara Stanwyck , and then took several years off to be with her husband, who was having difficulty arranging his work around her schedule.

Following Krebs' death in 1934, Main returned to the stage in the breakthrough role of Mrs. Martin, the mother of a gangster, in Dead End (1935), which ran for a year on Broadway. "Remarkably played," said Percy Hammond, the reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune. Critic Kelcey Allen concurred: "In two minutes she galvanized the audience with the sharpness of her delineation of a mother who accords a killer unusual treatment," he wrote. Main next signed on for Clare Boothe Luce 's drama, The Women (1936), stealing the show with her brief appearance as a Reno hotel maid. The actress reprised both her roles in Dead End and in The Women for the film versions of the plays.

From 1937, Main devoted herself to movies, finding her niche in a series of comedies during the 1940s, many of them with Wallace Beery. Her role as the frazzled farm wife with 13 children and a lazy husband, in the film adaptation of Betty MacDonald 's The Egg and I (1947), earned Main an Academy Award nomination and spawned the nine spin-off films of the "Ma and Pa Kettle" series, in which she costarred with the peppery Percy Kilbride. These low-budget films were never endorsed by the critics, but were extremely popular with the public. Main called Ma Kettle her favorite role, "good for a lot of laughs," she told The Saturday Evening Post, "and I would rather make people laugh than anything else." The last of the series was The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm (1957), after which Main retired.

In private life, Main was known as a charming, soft-spoken woman, who retained much of the conservatism she learned as the child of a minister. Known as one of the most unpretentious stars in Hollywood, she always did her own cooking and housework, claiming that it was good for her mental and physical health. After leaving films, the actress divided her time between homes in Los Angeles and Palm Springs until her death in 1975.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of … ? 2nd Series. NY: Crown, 1968.

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography 1951. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1951.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Main, Marjorie (1890–1975)

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