Friday, May 1, 2009

The Egg and I: Which Came First?

First was the real life experience, then the book, magazine serialization and movie version followed by literary and movie spin-offs. The Egg and I has a rich amusing back story and contributor Victoria Balloon takes us behind the scenes.

Today’s movie audiences have rediscovered The Egg and I (1947), a movie based on the hugely successful autobiographical story of Betty MacDonald published just two years previously.

In this charming film starry-eyed former GI Bob MacDonald (Fred MacMurray) and his thoroughly urban bride (Claudette Colbert) go to the country to live an idealized version of raising chickens only to discover that life on the farm ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The story unfolds as a series of vignettes based on Bob’s dream of owning a chicken farm while his wife Betty gamely copes with the situations she finds herself in — up to a point. Neighboring chicken rancher Harriet Putnam (Louise Allbritton) possesses an authority with animals and an ability to handle farm life that Betty lacks, eventually becoming a rival for Bob’s affections. Though she did not exist in MacDonald’s book, her presence in the film provides the unifying thread and moves the plot forward.

(Unfortunately, the relationship between MacDonald and her husband did not end as well in life as it did in the movie; after four years without plumbing or electricity, the real Betty MacDonald took her two daughters and divorced her husband. A decade later she married Donald C. MacDonald and moved to Vashon Island in Puget Sound.)

Claudette Colbert is well-known to audiences as a star of both film and Broadway in works ranging from screwball comedy to drama. She made her Broadway debut in 1923 with The Wild Westcotts and her first film when a theatrical producer recommended her for a role in Frank Capra’s only critical and financial disaster, For the Love of Mike. A silent film from 1927, it is now believed to be lost.

Appearing with Fredric March in Manslaughter in 1930 and as Poppeia two years later in Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross began her reputation as a talented actress, and winning an Oscar for her role in It Happened One Night sealed it. In a career spanning over 50 years she was nominated for two more Academy Awards; all told she made over 80 films and television specials.

Fred MacMurray is most easily remembered for his roles in Disney classics such as The Shaggy Dog as well as his long running role as widower Steve Douglas in My Three Sons. He began his acting career on Broadway, appearing in the 1930 hit production of Three's a Crowd with Sydney Greenstreet and Clifton Webb.

MacMurray’s films are not as well-remembered as Colbert’s, and this is unfortunate. Like director Mitchell Leisen, with whom he made nine films at Paramount Studios, MacMurray’s work in the 30s seems to be largely forgotten by critics.

During this time MacMurray was in good films playing against excellent actresses — Hands Across the Table with Carole Lombard and Alice Adams with Katherine Hepburn. However, his most interesting roles came later when he was cast against type, such as amoral insurance agent Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and philandering executive Jeff D. Sheldrake in The Apartment (both films directed by Billy Wilder). In his 50 year career he made over 95 films and TV specials.

The Egg and I holds up so well today because of the easy chemistry between stars MacMurray and Colbert; the pair made eight films together, beginning with The Gilded Lilly in 1935 and ending with The Last Family Honeymoon in 1949. However, audiences today love the film not so much because of the appeal of MacMurray and Colbert, but because of the chemistry between another pair: Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main, in the first onscreen appearance of that down-home couple, Ma and Pa Kettle.

With so much going for the film it’s difficult to understand why it was not well-reviewed when it was released. Indeed, the New York Times movie review on April 25, 1947 isn’t shy about listing the film’s faults:

For the nearest this watered-down rewrite gets to the solid soil is the dirt on the farm sets constructed on a studio soundstage. And the nearest it comes to realizing any of the diary's observation and wit is in a few farcified re-creations of some of its milder episodes.

That may be because the film's authors, Chester Erskine and Fred F. Finklehoffe, were too much intimidated by the cleanly Production Code to attempt a legitimate reflection of the racier substance of the book. But we rather have a suspicion that they were a little more concerned with making a quaint and cozy cut-up for the reliable women's trade.

Just what exactly was in a book about chicken farming that wouldn’t get by the Hollywood Production Code? As it turns out, plenty, which may in part be why the book was such a huge success.

While family and friends enjoyed MacDonald’s wry telling of her misadventures, the book never would have happened were it not for MacDonald’s sister, Mary Bard Jensen. While at a party, Jensen told an agent for a publishing company that her sister was writing a book, and MacDonald created the proposal for "The Egg and I" to save her sister embarrassment. The agent liked what he saw and a manuscript followed. Though at first rejected, the manuscript was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and eventually published by J. B. Lippencott in 1945.

The book did extremely well, selling 3 million copies in hardback with editions in 32 languages, and made the MacDonald clan instant celebrities; in 1946 they appeared in a Life magazine spread. Ironically, the MacDonalds used the proceeds from "The Egg and I" to make improvements on their farm, building a barn and… a chicken coop. Extra eggs were later sold on Vashon Island and at Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

MacDonald continued to write about her life, following "The Egg and I" with "The Plague and I" (1948) and "Onions in the Stew" (1954). However she may be best remembered as the author of such children’s classics as "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" (1947) and "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm" (1954).

Published just after the end of World War II, Americans were ready for a laugh, and MacDonald’s book was well-received because of her self-deprecating humor and acidly-funny prose. Her experiences take place on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, and she broods on the rains the region is known for, saying “Along about November I began to forget when it hadn't been raining and became as one with all the characters in all of the novels about rainy seasons, who rush around banging their heads against the walls, drinking water glasses of straight whiskey and moaning, 'The rain! The rain! My God, the rain!” (p. 66)

Despite being well up in the mountains and many of the farms in the area without electricity or plumbing, wives were still expected to keep house as well as any woman with modern conveniences. Farm women were up and ready at 4 A.M. — a practice MacDonald could never get used to. One morning she had her nightgown still on at 8:30 A.M. when an unexpected visitor arrived:

I tried to sidle into the bedroom and slip on a housedress… but the puppy chose that moment to be sick and instead of throwing up in one place became hysterical and ran around and around the kitchen belching forth at intervals… [It] didn’t improve the situation any, especially as Sport, our large Chesapeake retriever, managed to squeeze past me when I opened up the door to put the mop bucket out, and bounded in to a first one then the other large muddy paw on Mrs. Wiggins’ starched lap. She screamed as though he had amputated her leg at the hip, which of course waked the baby… As I bathed the baby, Mrs. Wiggins handed me flat knife-edged statements, as though she were dealing cards, on how by seven o’clock that morning she had fed and cared for her chickens, milked five cows, strained and separated the milk, cleaned out the milkhouse, cooked breakfast, set the bread, folded down the ironing and baked a cake. It took all of the self-control I had to keep from screaming, “SO WHAT!” (p. 136)

It quickly becomes apparent why the book needed to be watered down if it were to be made as a film. MacDonald is a product of her times, and her descriptions of Northwest Coast Native Americans are by today’s standards racist: “The coast Indian is squat, bowlegged, swarthy, flat-faced, broad-nosed, dirty, diseased, ignorant and tricky. There were few exceptions among the many we knew.” (p. 210) Her accounts of their drunkenness and wife-beating could never be dealt with under the Production Code. Hollywood instead chose to make the characters of Geoduck and Crowbar into the stereotype of all things white America believed about “Indians,” and the result is pure farce.

Also at issue were MacDonald’s descriptions of her neighbors and the language that they used:

Mrs. Kettle began most of her sentences with Jeeeeesus Key-rist and had a stock disposal for everything of which she did not approve, or any nicety of life which she did not possess. “Ah she’s so high and mighty with her ‘lectricity,” Mrs. Kettle sneered. “She don’t bother me none—I just told her to take her old vacuum cleaner and stuff it.” Only Mrs. Kettle described in exact detail how this feat was to be accomplished. (p. 115)

While MacDonald does indeed have real affection for Ma Kettle, her husband describes Pa Kettle as “a lazy, lisping sonofabitch.” (p. 116) In the film a wildfire begins when Pa Kettle’s whiskey still explodes. In the book Pa Kettle deliberately sets the fire to avoid having to clean up the manure he has piled high against his barn. The sharp depictions of her neighbors actually caused the family which the Kettles were based on to file two lawsuits; the first was settled out of court, the second decided in favor of MacDonald and her publisher. In order to make the characters of Ma and Pa Kettle sympathetic and funny, they had to be watered down. The success of the film versions of Ma and Pa Kettle lies mainly with the wonderful portrayals by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. This role garnered Main an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

The film version of "The Egg and I" for all that it may be “watered down” from the book, still had enormous popular appeal. It spawned a short-lived television comedy serial and was the first of eight Ma and Pa Kettle films. The Egg and I contains themes that film and the new medium of television would continue to explore: GIs returning from World War II to live lives they dreamed of in foxholes and nuclear families without material wealth focused on being together and helping one another. A generation later televisions shows like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies poked fun not only at our rural pasts, but also at our obsessions for modernity and “having it all.”

Technological change advanced rapidly after World War II, and while the American public was content to settle down to stability, it was at times bewildered by modern conveniences and countless choices increasingly available in bulging supermarkets. Ma and Pa Kettle might marvel in the modern, but they are not ashamed of their lack of it; they just carry on blithely in their own way. Audiences might laugh at the countrified manners and rural life of the Kettles… but in the midst of post-war pressure to “keep up with the Joneses,” they might also yearn for their independent ease.

Betty MacDonald’s prose still reads well even if her views on race do not. "The Egg and I" is certainly worth a read, and can be found on Amazon, or even at your local library (All quotes were taken from the original 1945 edition).

Here you can watch the trailer for the re-release of The Egg & I ~~~


Betty MacDonald Fan Club said...

Betty MacDonald is a wonderful writer.
There is a Betty MacDonald Fan Club with fans from all over the world.

Betty MacDonald Fan Club said...

Wolfgang Hampel - who interviewed Betty MacDonald's family and friends is working on a new Betty MacDonald biography.