Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

Opinion

April 2, 2014

Marjorie Main, in love and war

Folks with dim memories of World War II recall the “coming home” of troops, and attendant triumphal celebrations that reverberated around the globe.  Believers in democracy — weary of Movietone newsreels’ gory war scenes at movie theaters, dismal commentaries on radio and troubling newspaper accounts — were ready for news of loved ones returning home—a place, someone said, where when you go there, they have to let you in.

In the homeland, folk bought war bonds, accepted rationing and endured ultimate sacrifices in a unified effort requiring wide participation. For more than any other American military engagement, we stood stoically united. As a third-grader when the US prevailed, I have faint memories of President Franklin Roosevelt’s bolstering radio speeches. I regret that his death occurred mere weeks before declaration of victory.

Perhaps no one splashed wider smiles in this dark era than actress Marjorie Main (1890-1975), a well-known movie character who never thought of herself as a “pin-up.”

When we had little reason to smile during America’s half-decade of war years, she teamed up with Wallace Beery on the silver screen as a crusty, “rough and ready,” pipe-smoking actress who made us laugh.

Later, the laughs became guffaws as she partnered with Percy Kilbride in 10 Ma and Pa Kettle movies (forerunners of TV’s All in the Family). Her homeliness in each movie moved her ever lower on the “pin-up beauty scale.” Marjorie’s name never appeared on the glamour list headed by Hedy Lamarr, Yvonne DeCarlo, Joan Leslie and Rita Hayworth.

These stars’ images, outfitted in swimsuits considered dowdy by fashionistas today, appeared on many fighter planes. Had Main been a “fuselage feature,” she’d have been shown in a high-necked dress and a “don’t-you-dare” scowl, her rolling pin raised high.

With this brief backdrop in place, history reveals that Marjorie — or Mrs. Kettle, or the Indiana actress who quickly changed her last name to avoid embarrassing her preacher father — was named “Occupation Girl” in a spirited election conducted by the 96th Infantry Division, nicknamed “Deadeyes.” (They joked about electing the “girl they’d most like to occupy an island with.”)

The war was over, but the Division was still in place, awaiting the arrival of troop ships to go home. While waiting, they “ballyhooed” the contest, with guys in its 382nd Regiment and 361st Field Artillery pushing for Miss Main.

Lubbock’s Choc Hutcheson, who edited the 382nd regimental newspaper, remembers the wildfire movement favoring Miss Main. (Even the unit’s adopted dog mascot put his paw print on her ballot.) Hey, it was a way to pass time in the Philippines for troops who’d waged bitter battles on Leyte and Okinawa.

When the actress heard that she’d won — relegating Miss Leslie and Miss DeCarlo to distant second and third-place finishes — she was delighted. She promised to greet them upon their return to the states, with assurances that she would NOT be wearing a swimsuit.

She “made good” on her promise when the unit was state-side, even though the best-laid plans of the brass were tossed aside. The “rough, tough gal for a rough, tough outfit” spurned officers’ request to join them for a formal dinner.

Instead, she insisted on dining with the troops, first serving them in the chow line. She was quickly replaced on the line, however, when it was discovered she was plopping TWO steaks on the plate of each GI.

No matter. This gave her more time to move around the mess hall, delighting the troops with her gravelly-voiced “whoops” — all of  ‘em upward.

They were all as one — troops and officers — recounting the ad campaign back in the Philippines that led to the landslide vote.

It was “thumbs” up for the slogans — many of them plastered on military vehicles — “Remember the Main,” “Pistol-Packin’ Momma,” “As Main Goes So Goes the Division” and “Reminds Me of Mom.”…

Indeed she made movie-goers think of moms, what with much of her humor wafting from the kitchen.

In her Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm movie, a city guy paid a visit, requesting a coddled egg for breakfast.

Bumfuzzled, she did an end run, explaining that recently she “broke her coddler.” Such homespun humor endeared her to a nation.

              —————

Dr. Don Newbury is a speaker in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. He may be reached by email at newbury@speakerdoc.com. His website is www.speakerdoc.com. Follow him on Twitter: @donnewbury

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