Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ma Kettle's Romantic Ghost: The Haunting of Marjorie Main

It’s not often that we find a person who is able to gracefully accept the constant criticism of a loved one, and even more rare to find someone who will accept the fact that they are being haunted. Oscar-nominated American actress Marjorie Main of Ma Kettle fame accepted both, and she expected those around her to do the same, to accept the fact that she was haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, Dr. Stanley Krebs. 

Marjorie Main was a preacher’s daughter and Indiana Hoosier. She was born in Acton, Indiana in 1890 and named Marybelle Tomlinson.  She changed her name to protect her father’s reputation when she made her debut in Vaudeville.  Her father, the Reverend Samuel Tomlinson, did not approve of stage performances, but his daughter was fascinated by acting since childhood. 

As Marjorie Main, Tomlinson made 40 movies, including 10 in the Ma and Pa Kettle series alongside actor Percy Kilbride who starred as "Pa." In 1945, Main was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as the mother of fifteen children in The Egg and I. Her role in the film and her performance was so popular that billboards prominently displayed her photo, alongside Kilbride, while the two main characters, played by Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert, were presented as thumbnail shots.   
Marjorie Main married a former preacher, like her father. Dr. Stanley LeFevre Krebs also had a doctorate in psychology and was a great deal older than Main, but she adored him. The two were married on December 2, 1921, and Main took a short break from the movies to perform her true-life role as a housewife. When she returned to the movies, her performances were carefully watched by Krebs who often offered his advice on how she could improve. Their marriage only lasted fourteen years, ending with Krebs’ death in 1935, and Main never remarried.  

She did, however, return to acting, with a vengeance. She often starred or appeared in as many as five films a year. In addition to her role in The Egg and I, Main appeared in some of my favorite classic films, such as 1939's The Women, and The Long, Long Trailer, filmed in 1953 starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Main generally played the role of a mother with many children, which highlighted her remarkable acting talents considering she never had any children of her own.

In spite of this fact, Main had a reputation for working well with children, though even the children noticed Main's quirky conversations with Krebs. Main appeared with Oscar winner Margaret O'Brien in the MGM Western Bad Bascomb in 1946. In a two-part interview with Allan R. Ellenberger for Movieland Magazine, O'Brien described Main as "fun" and "nice." During the interview, O'Brien also explained that when the cast would return from filming and gather in a log cabin for dinner, Main would "set a place for her dead husband and talk to him at the table."

O'Brien was not the only Hollywood actress who noticed Main's conversations with her deceased husband. In fact, her conversations were hard to ignore. During filming, Main often stopped in the middle of a performance to consult with Krebs. She would pause during filming, raise her hand, ask Krebs questions and a few seconds later appear to be answering questions presumably posed by her deceased husband.  She always displayed a casual acceptance of these rather extraordinary conversations with the ghost of Dr. Krebs during filming and her acceptance of this unique lifestyle--as well as her remarkable talent--caused those around her to adapt to her situation, as well.  

When she was done speaking with her deceased husband, Marjorie Main would signal to the director that he could continue and, as it must, the show would go on...