This post was inspired by my mother, who was reading recently about legendary character actress Mary Wickes, a biography called Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before (Hollywood Legends). She came across an entry that she quickly emailed me about:
It mentioned that she played a librarian in the movie Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954). This is the quote from the book:
Mary is the town’s helpful librarian, but she is quickly dismissed by Ma as “a maiden lady librarian who knows all about books but nothing about cooking.”
And then she was sweet enough to track down a copy of the film and sent it my way. ♥
Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954) was the 7th in a series of 10 “Ma and Pa Kettle” films, starting with The Egg and I in 1947. It was also the last film of the series starring Percy Kilbride as Pa. Mary Wickes — who was 44 at the time of filming — gets 7th billing as Miss Wetter, definitely a supporting character in the film.
What of the film itself? If you are nostalgic for the “Ma and Pa Kettle” films, then you might enjoy it. Not ever having seen any of the series — although I was familiar with lead actress Marjorie Main, who has quite a distinctive voice — I found the film quite tedious, and it felt way longer than its 80-minute running time. My husband summed it up as equal-opportunity offensive, poking fun at Native Americans, big city snobs, intellectuals, country folk — as well as maiden lady librarians!
The plot, such as it is, kicks into gear when an essay about the “perfect, modern farm” written by their eldest son, Elwin, gets chosen as a finalist for a 4H college scholarship. The problem? The family farm is in terrible disrepair. Ma and Pa Kettle have to set off cleaning up the place before the “big city judges” come out to judge the finalists. Elwin — who got them all in this mess to begin with — just seems to laze around and moon over his misfortune. Like father, like son?
The head judge, Alphonsus Mannering (Alan Mowbray), is portrayed as very effeminate, fussing about his plants, eating a special diet, pouring bath salts into the tub, and wearing a sleeping mask. And guess who Ma wants to set him up with? Of course, the maiden lady librarian! (Neither one would be too picky, right?)
Almost 45 minutes into the film, the librarian first gets a mention. One of the judges wants to photograph Ma, but she says she has to hurry because she has to pack a basket of bread for Miss Wetter, “a maiden lady librarian, [who] knows all about books but nothing about cooking.”
Cue scene to visually introduce Miss Wetter, who soon drives up — in the library bookmobile! — to drop off a book about successful fruit growing for Elwin.
Miss Wetter is more than happy to meet the contest judges, especially Mr. Mannering. Here’s how their “Meet Cute” goes:
Ma: Miss Wetter’s our lady librarian.
Miss Wetter: Oh, Mr. Mowbray. I’m just simply thrilled to meet a literary figure of your stature. I’m a devoted fan of yours. I read your beautiful column every month. Honored to have your colleague, too, of course. Through you, culture has come to Cape Lattery (?), and I for one am speechless with delight. Now you must tell me what’s happening with the theater and the dance in New York this season?
Ma: Here’s your bread, honey. Now don’t forget to come to the Christmas Eve party. As you’re both interested in literature, it might be right nice of you to be partners at the party.
Mr. Mannering: It would be a pleasure.
Miss Wetter: It would? I’ll be dreaming of Christmas Eve. Bye.
Although it’s kind of sweet to see how excited Miss Wetter is to attend the party with Mr. Mannering (that quick look up and catch in her voice when she says, “It would?” is just one example of how Mary Wickes could do so much with so little), it comes across as kind of condescending how she sees her role as bringing culture to this hick town. And she obviously dreams of bigger and better things than the County Library in which she works. Also, I do have to mention their character names: Miss Wetter and Mr. Mannering. Goodness, could we be more obvious about how hot-to-trot the maiden lady librarian is for Mr. Fussy Britches?!
The film culminates in the Christmas party scene, and Miss Wetter (putting pay to her name!) pounces on Mr. Mannering when he enters the house — even taking his hand!
Miss Wetter: I’ve been waiting for you. I’m so excited about tonight. It’s probably because you’re going to be my partner at supper.
Mr. Mannering: I’d not forgotten. I, too, was looking forward to it, too.
Miss Wetter: Can I get you some refreshments? [ever so helpful, that librarian!]
A few minutes later, Ma reads a Christmas poem, which includes one stanza about Miss Wetter:
Our wish to Miss Wetter, who knows all about books,
Is she marries the right man and becomes a good cook.
Cue sweetly awkward look between Miss Wetter and Mr. Mannering. Miss Wetter titters and puts her hair behind her ear and looks embarrassed — but also hopeful.
A few minutes later, as the Kettle children are singing carols, Miss Wetter sees Mr. Mannering under the mistletoe and boldly plants a kiss on his cheek. They both smile and look quickly away and then back; they look a little dazed at their own forwardness!
There is a happy ending, of course, and I liked that the happy ending included the promise of romance between Miss Wetter and Mr. Mannering. It would have been so easy to drop the “maiden lady librarian” character after that first scene. And although they kept poking fun at how she couldn’t cook — obviously less of a woman for any normal man, but she would do for a fussy fellow like Mr. Mannering — their budding romance actually came off as rather sweet in the end. I think this has more to do with the acting abilities of Mary Wickes and Alan Mowbray, who are easily the best actors in the entire movie.
So what role does maiden lady librarian Miss Wetter serve? She is a supporting character, which lands her in the Class III category. As she does serve as the butt of several jabs and jokes about her book sense — and no cooking skills — her primary role is that of Comic Relief. But she also deserves honorable mention as an Information Provider, as she is quite helpful in several ways. First, she brings a book for their eldest son, and at the end of the film, she relays information about 4H clubs and how they “have all sorts of money-raising projects, where the members can learn by doing.”
One IMDB.com reviewer laments about Wickes’s role in the film: “Sadly, she hardly gets any dialog, and none of the brittle wisecracks she would become famous for.” But I was pleasantly surprised about how much screen time she actually got — and Wickes was a genius at grabbing each second she had on screen and making it her own!
And if you ever do watch this film, it would probably go over better if you make a drinking game out of it. I would suggest taking a drink whenever the phrase “lady librarian” gets uttered — and feel free to do so when reading this post, as well.