When I think of Marjorie Main I can't help but link her with Judy Garland. Others may remember her as Ma Kettle but, for me, the pictures that spring into my head when I hear her name are from Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946) and Summer Stock (1950). This seems a shame since she didn't have leading roles in these films but they cemented my view of her as an excellent character actress and someone who always enhanced a film, although you didn't always pause to notice her.
Take her role as Katie in Meet Me In St. Louis for an example. She blends almost in the background of the Smith family as the sarcastic maid who, on being asked if she's seen the cat says, "I don't know. A while back she got in the way and I kicked her down the cellar steps. I could hear her spine hit on every step." But she's also an integral part of the family unit, keeping secrets for the girls. As she says, "Miss Smith, if I have to keep lying for your daughters, I'll have to have more money."
I think one of the things that attracts me most about Marjorie Main are those facial expressions. She's an excellent comic actress because of the way she involves every feature of her face in a simple smile or frown. And those eyes! One look from her can tell you more than eight pages of dialogue.
In The Harvey Girls she plays a stalwart Harvey 'girl'. She steals her first scene simply by chewing rhythmically. Sonora Cassidy is a no-nonsense woman and this allows Main some wonderful moments. She gets to dance with Ray Bolger and club Chill Wills over the head with a frying pan for a start.
Summer Stock sees her revert to being Garland's house helper. Esme works for Jane Falbury (Garland) but, as usual, isn't shy about making her thoughts known. Two women on a farm are susceptible to snoopers, she says, so she asks Jane to get some blanks: "If any man's willing to snoop around me, I don't want to kill him, just stun him." She gets all the best one-liners in her films. Summer Stock was Garland's last MGM film and it works because she's surrounded by people she works well with - Marjorie Main is certainly one of those.
Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about Marjorie Main is the comedic warmth she exudes. Whenever she comes on screen all you have to do is keep your eyes on her and she'll do something funny, whether she's the focus of the action or not. Very few actors make me smile simply by chewing but she's one of them.