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Marjorie Main
Marjorie Main.jpg
Main in 1940
Mary Tomlinson

(1890-02-24)February 24, 1890
DiedApril 10, 1975(1975-04-10) (aged 85)
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills, California
Years active1916–1959
(m. 1921; died 1935)

Mary Tomlinson (February 24, 1890 – April 10, 1975), professionally known as Marjorie Main, was an American character actress and singer of the Classical Hollywood period, best known as a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player in the 1940s and 1950s, and for her role as Ma Kettle in 10 Ma and Pa Kettle movies.[1] Main started her career in vaudeville and theatre, and appeared in film classics, such as Dead End (1937), The Women (1939), Dark Command (1940), The Shepherd of the Hills (1941), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and Friendly Persuasion (1956).

Early life

Mary Tomlinson was born on February 24, 1890, near Acton, in rural Marion County, Indiana. She was the second daughter of Reverend Samuel J. Tomlinson, a Disciples of Christ minister, and Jennie L. (McGaughey) Tomlinson. Mary's maternal grandfather, Doctor Samuel McGaughey, was the Acton physician who delivered her.[2][3]

At the age of three, Tomlinson moved with her family to Indianapolis, Indiana, where her father was pastor of Hillside Christian Church. Four years later, they moved to Goshen and then Elkhart, Indiana. In the early 1900s, the Tomlinson family settled on a farm near Fairland, Indiana.[4]

After attending public schools in Fairland and Shelbyville, Tomlinson spent a year (1905–06) at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana, where she was a charter member of what became the present-day Delta Delta Delta sorority, before transferring to the Hamilton School of Dramatic Expression in Lexington, Kentucky. She completed a three-year course of study in 1909 at the age of 19. After graduation, Tomlinson took a job as a dramatics instructor at Bourbon College in Paris, Kentucky, but stayed only a year. Tomlinson later claimed that she was fired from the position after asking for a salary increase.[5][6]

After Tomlinson left Kentucky, she spent the next several years studying dramatic arts in Chicago and New York City, despite her father's disapproval of her career choice. Tomlinson adopted the stage name of Marjorie Main during her early acting career to avoid embarrassing her family.[7][8]


Main married widower Stanley LeFevre Krebs, a psychologist and lecturer, on November 2, 1921.[2] They met while she was performing on the Chautauqua circuit. Main accompanied Krebs on the lecture circuit, handling the details of their life on the road. They had no children together, and made their home in New York City.[9] Main performed with touring companies and in New York theaters on a part-time basis throughout her marriage. She also began her Hollywood film career in 1931. Main considered this period "the happiest years of her life."[4] She returned to a full-time acting career after Krebs died of cancer on September 26, 1935.[9]

The Krebses' marriage was a nontraditional one. By her accounts, the marriage was happy, but not particularly close. Main claimed to be "brokenhearted" following her husband's death,[10] but also explained that his death was "like losing a good friend. Like part of the family."[9] Main's biographer, Michelle Vogel, quotes a later interview in which the actress related: "Dr. Krebs wasn't a very practical man. I didn't figure on having to run the show, I kinda tired of it after a few years. We pretty much went our own ways, but we was [sic] still in the eyes of the law, man and wife."[11]

Vogel also revealed that Main had a long-term relationship with actress Spring Byington.[12]


Early years

Main began her professional career as a performer touring in Chautauqua presentations with a Shakespearean repertory company. After performing for five months in a stock company in Fargo, North Dakota, she began working in vaudeville.[8][9]

Stage actress

In the mid 1910s, Main appeared in several plays, which included touring in Cheating Cheaters with John Barrymore in 1916. She also debuted in the Broadway theatre in Yes or No in 1918. In addition, Main returned to vaudeville to perform at the Palace Theater in a skit called The Family Ford with comedian W. C. Fields. Not all of the early plays in which she appeared were a success. A House Divided closed in 1923 after just one performance, but Main continued to find work on the Broadway stage. In 1927, she played Mae West's mother in The Wicked Age, and in 1928, played opposite Barbara Stanwyck in the long-running stage hit Burlesque. Main also appeared in several other Broadway productions: Salvation in 1928, Scarlet Sister Mary in 1930, Ebb Tide in 1931, Music in the Air in 1932, and Jackson White.[4][9]

One of Main's highest-profile stage performances was in 1935's Dead End as Mrs. Martin, the mother of gangster Baby Face Martin. She played the role in 460 performances before leaving the show in 1936 to play Lucy, a hotel-keeper/dude-ranch operator, in The Women. Main recreated these two roles in film versions of the plays in 1937 and 1939, respectively.[10][13]

Film career

One of Main's first feature-film appearances was as an extra in A House Divided (1931).[8][6][14] She also appeared in Take A Chance (1933) and Crime Without Passion (1934), and recreated her stage role as a servant in the film version of Music in the Air (also 1934), but most of her performance was cut from the film. Main also made a few more films in Hollywood in the 1930s before returning to the stage in New York City.[9][10]

Samuel Goldwyn signed Main to reprise her stage role as the mother of a gangster for the film version of Dead End (1937). Humphrey Bogart was cast as her son. She transferred another strong stage performance to film as the dude-ranch operator in The Women (1939).[10][15]

Main portrayed a diverse set of characters in subsequent films for different studios. These included roles where she was cast as a mother, prison matron, a landlady, aunt, secretary, and a rental agent, among others.[10]

Main was signed to a seven-year Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) contract in 1940, after starring with Wallace Beery in Wyoming (1940).[8] She also co-starred in Dark Command (1940) with Walter Pidgeon, and appeared in six major films in 1941.[15][16]

During World War II, Main used her stage and film notoriety to help promote the sale of war bonds for the U.S. War Department. In December 1942, she returned for a visit to central Indiana, where she helped in the sale of more than $500,000 in war bonds.[15]

Marjorie Main in the trailer for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Marjorie Main in the trailer for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

In the mid-1940s, in an attempt to repeat the great success Wallace Beery had in teaming with Marie Dressler in the early 1930s, MGM cast Main opposite Beery in six more films, including Barnacle Bill (1941), Jackass Mail (1942), and Bad Bascomb (1946). She also played Sonora Cassidy, the chief cook, in The Harvey Girls (1946).[17]

Main's best-known role was Ma Kettle in the Ma and Pa Kettle film series.[8] She had renewed her contract with MGM for another seven years, which continued until the mid-1950s, when the studio lent her to Universal Pictures to play Ma Kettle for the first time in The Egg and I (1947), starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. Main played opposite Percy Kilbride as Pa Kettle and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in the film.[16]

The two Kettle characters proved to be so popular among film audiences that Universal decided to do a series. Main portrayed the Ma Kettle character in nine Ma and Pa Kettle films between 1949 and 1957. Kilbride was her co-star in most of the films, but left after Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955), the seventh in the series.[18] Main filmed The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956) without Kilbride. Parker Fennelly played the Pa Kettle role opposite Main in the final film of the series, The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm (1957)[17] Each film grossed Universal about $3 million, which helped save the studio from a financial collapse. In addition to acting in the films, Main wrote some of the dialogue for her character and created her costumes and make-up.[15]

During this time, Main shuttled back and forth between Universal Studios and MGM. She appeared in several MGM musicals during the 1940s and early 1950s, including, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Belle of New York (1952). She played Mrs. Wrenley in the studio's all-star film It's a Big Country (1951). Main played her last roles for MGM as Mrs. Hittaway in The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and as Jane Dunstock in Rose Marie (1954). Main portrayed the widow Hudspeth in the hit film Friendly Persuasion (1956). Main's final film appearance was in her best-known role as Ma Kettle in The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm (1957)[6]

Radio and television appearances

On December 15, 1941, she was part of the cast of Norman Corwin's radio program We Hold These Truths.[19] She also performed in The Goldbergs.[citation needed]

In 1958, Main appeared as a rugged frontierswoman Cassie Tanner in the episodes "The Cassie Tanner Story" and "The Sacramento Story" of the television series Wagon Train.

Later years

After her retirement from acting, Main lived a quiet, secluded life in Los Angeles. She became interested in spiritualism and the Moral Re-Armament movement.[17]

Death and legacy

Main died of lung cancer on April 10, 1975, at the age of 85 at St. Vincent's Hospital in Los Angeles, where she had been admitted on April 3.[20][21] Main is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, California, beside her husband, Doctor Stanley Krebs.[22][23]

Main, who is best known for playing "raucous, rough, and cantankerous women" on-screen, was characterized as "soft-spoken, shy," and "dignified" when she was off-screen.[5] Main became a popular character actress of the 1940s and 1950s. She appeared in diverse roles on the stage and in more than 80 films, including some that became classics, such as Dead End (1937), Dark Command (1940), The Shepherd of the Hills (1941), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and Friendly Persuasion (1956), but is best known for her Ma Kettle role in the Ma and Pa Kettle film series. The "cornball humor" of the Kettle films endured in television shows, such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, of the 1960s.[17]

Theatre performances

Year Play Character Notes
1916 Cheating Cheaters[9] A touring show
1918 Yes or No [9]
1923 A House Divided [9] Closed after one show
1927 The Wicked Age[10]
1928 Salvation[9]
1928 Burlesque[9]
1930 Scarlet Sister Mary[9]
1931 Ebb Tide[9]
1932 Music in the Air[9]
1935 Jackson White[9]
1935 Dead End[10]
1936 The Women[13]



Year Title Role Notes
1929 Harry Fox and His Six American Beauties Statler Hotel Beauty Short, Uncredited
1931 A House Divided[8] Woman at wedding Uncredited
1932 Broken Lullaby Frau Schmidt Uncredited
1932 Hot Saturday Gossip in Window Uncredited
1933 New Deal Rhythm Delegate from Arizona Short, Uncredited
1933 Close Relations Woman in Depot Short, Uncredited
1934 Art Trouble Woman Who Sits on Painting Short, Uncredited
1934 Crime Without Passion[9] Backstage Wardrobe Woman Uncredited
1934 Music in the Air[10] Anna
1935 Naughty Marietta Casquette Girl Uncredited
1937 Love in a Bungalow Miss Emma Bisbee
1937 Stella Dallas Mrs. Martin
1937 Dead End[10] Mrs. Martin
1937 The Man Who Cried Wolf Amelia Bradley
1937 The Wrong Road Martha Foster
1937 Boy of the Streets Mrs. Mary Brennan
1937 The Shadow Hannah Gillespie
1938 City Girl Mrs. Ward Uncredited
1938 Penitentiary Katie Matthews Uncredited
1938 King of the Newsboys Mrs. Stephens Uncredited
1938 Test Pilot Landlady
1938 Three Comrades Old Woman by Phone Uncredited
1938 Romance of the Limberlost Nora
1938 Prison Farm Matron Brand
1938 Little Tough Guy Mrs. Boylan
1938 Under the Big Top Sara Post
1938 Too Hot to Handle Miss Kitty Wayne Alternative title: Let 'Em All Talk
1938 Girls' School Miss Honore Armstrong
1938 There Goes My Heart Fireless Cooker Customer Uncredited
1939 Lucky Night Mrs. Briggs
1939 They Shall Have Music Mrs. Miller
1939 The Angels Wash Their Faces Mrs. Arkelian
1939 The Women[15] Lucy, Dude Ranch Owner
1939 Another Thin Man Mrs. Dolley, Landlady Chestevere Apartments
1939 Two Thoroughbreds Hildegarde 'Hildy' Carey
1940 I Take This Woman Gertie
1940 Women Without Names Matron Lowery
1940 Dark Command[17] Mrs. Cantrell, aka Mrs. Adams
1940 Turnabout Nora, the cook
1940 Susan and God Mary Maloney Alternative title: The Gay Mrs. Trexel
1940 The Captain Is a Lady Sarah May Willett
1940 Wyoming[8] Mehitabel
1941 The Wild Man of Borneo Irma
1941 The Trial of Mary Dugan Mrs. Collins
1941 Barnacle Bill Marge Cavendish
1941 A Woman's Face Emma Kristiansdotter
1941 The Shepherd of the Hills[17] Granny Becky
1941 Honky Tonk Mrs. Varner
1942 The Bugle Sounds Susie "Suz"
1942 We Were Dancing Judge Sidney Hawkes
1942 The Affairs of Martha Mrs. McKessic
1942 Jackass Mail Clementine 'Tina' Tucker
1942 Tish Letitia "Tish" Carberry
1942 Tennessee Johnson Mrs. Maude Fisher Alternative title: The Man on America's Conscience
1943 Heaven Can Wait Mrs. Strable
1943 Johnny Come Lately "Gashouse" Mary
1944 Rationing Iris Tuttle
1944 Meet Me in St. Louis[17] Katie
1944 Gentle Annie Annie Goss
1945 Murder, He Says Mamie Fleagle Smithers Johnson
1946 The Harvey Girls[24] Sonora Cassidy
1946 Bad Bascomb Abbey Hanks
1946 Undercurrent Lucy
1946 The Show-Off Mrs. Fisher
1947 The Egg and I[16] Phoebe 'Ma' Kettle Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress[6]
1947 The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap Widow Hawkins Alternative title: The Wistful Widow (An Abbott & Costello film)[citation needed]
1948 Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin'' Maribel Mathews
1949 Ma and Pa Kettle Ma Kettle
1949 Big Jack Flapjack Kate
1950 Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town Ma Kettle
1950 Summer Stock Esme Alternative title: If You Feel Like Singing
1950 Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone Harriet "Hattie" O'Malley Alternative title: The Loco Motion
1951 Mr. Imperium Mrs. Cabot Alternative title: You Belong to My Heart
1951 Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm Ma Kettle
1951 The Law and the Lady Julia Wortin
1951 It's a Big Country Mrs. Wrenley
1951 A Letter from a Soldier Mrs. Wrenley Short
1952 The Belle of New York Mrs. Phineas Hill
1952 Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair Ma Kettle
1953 Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation
1953 Fast Company Ma Parkson
1954 The Long, Long Trailer Mrs. Hittaway
1954 Rose Marie Lady Jane Dunstock
1954 Ma and Pa Kettle at Home Ma Kettle
1954 Ricochet Romance Pansy Jones Alternative title: The Matchmakers
1955 Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki[18] Ma Kettle
1956 The Kettles in the Ozarks[17]
1956 Friendly Persuasion[17] The Widow Hudspeth Nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress
1957 The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm[17] Ma Kettle final film role


Year Title Role Notes
1956 December Bride Herself Episode: "The Marjorie Main Show"
1958 Wagon Train Cassie Tanner 2 episodes, (final appearance)


  1. ^ "Obituary". Variety. April 16, 1975. p. 95.
  2. ^ a b Ray Banta (1990). Indiana's Laughmakers: The Story of over 400 Hoosiers, Actors, Cartoonists, Writers, and Others. Indianapolis, Indiana: PennUltimate Press. p. 111. ISBN 0929808002.
  3. ^ According to author Ray Banta, birth records on file at Franklin, Indiana, indicate that Mary Tomlinson was born in Clark Township, Johnson County, Indiana, on February 28, 1890. See Banta, p. 111. Other sources report that she was born at a home her grandfather owned in Acton. Main also stated in a letter to a fan that she was born in Acton. See: Nelson Price (1997). Indiana Legends: Famous Hoosiers from Johnny Appleseed to David Letterman (3rd ed.). Emmis Books. p. 130. ISBN 1-57860-006-5. See also: Sylva C. Henricks (Winter 2000). "Marjorie Main: 'Good for a Lot of Laughs'". Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society. 12 (1): 34. Retrieved July 9, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c Henricks, Sylva C. (Winter 2000). "Marjorie Main: 'Good for a Lot of Laughs'". Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society. 12 (1): 33–40. Retrieved July 9, 2018. p. 34.
  5. ^ a b David L. Smith (2006). Hoosiers in Hollywood. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society. p. 167. ISBN 9780871951946.
  6. ^ a b c d Price, Nelson (1997). Indiana Legends: Famous Hoosiers from Johnny Appleseed to David Letterman (3rd ed.). Emmis Books. ISBN 1-57860-006-5., p. 130.
  7. ^ Price, Nelson (1997). Indiana Legends: Famous Hoosiers from Johnny Appleseed to David Letterman (3rd ed.). Emmis Books. ISBN 1-57860-006-5., pp. 167–68.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g "Marjorie Main: From Farm Girl to Film Star". INPerspective. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society. 24 (1): 8–9. January 2018.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Smith, p. 168.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i Henricks, p. 35.
  11. ^ Michelle Vogel (2006). Marjorie Main: The Life and Films of Hollywood's "Ma Kettle". Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. pp. 109–110. ISBN 978-0786464432.
  12. ^ Vogel, Michelle (2006). Marjorie Main: The Life and Films of Hollywood's "Ma Kettle". Jefferson NC: McFarland. p. 110. ISBN 0786464437.
  13. ^ a b Smith, pp. 169–70.
  14. ^ Barry Monush (2003). Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the Silent Era to 1965. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 458. ISBN 1-55783-551-9.
  15. ^ a b c d e Smith, p. 170.
  16. ^ a b c Henricks, p. 36.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Henricks, p. 38.
  18. ^ a b Henricks, pp. 36–37.
  19. ^ John Dunning (1998), On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Oxford University Press, p. 166, ISBN 0-19507678-8
  20. ^ United Press International (April 11, 1975). "Marjorie Main Dead at 85". Playground Daily News. Fort Walton Beach, Florida. 30 (55): 3A. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
  21. ^ "Marjorie Main Dies at 85". Observer Reporter. April 11, 1975.
  22. ^ Axel Nissen (2006). Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties. McFarland. pp. 110–116. ISBN 0-7864-2746-9.
  23. ^ Her name is listed on her headstone as Mrs. Mary Tomlinson Krebs, with her stage name of Marjorie Main underneath. Nissen, Axel (2007). Actresses of a Certain Character. ISBN 9780786427468.
  24. ^ Henricks, p. 39.

Further reading

External links

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