Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Essays, Film Reviews

MOD Movies: The Andy Hardy Collection, Volume 1

The Andy Hardy Collection: Volume 1 (Warner Archive)

The Andy Hardy films are a snapshot of Hollywood’s idea of small town Americana, circa 1936-1944. Simple, familiar, full of family values and homespun wisdom handed down by the thoughtful, white-haired patriarch (who just happens to be the local judge), these films defined MGM head Louis B. Mayer’s ideal of American values on the modern age. Carvel, the Midwest town where the Hardys live and prosper (apparently close enough to New York City to make the occasional trip in to the Big Apple) could be the model for the Bedford Falls of It’s a Wonderful Life, minus the tyranny of Mr. Potter. Instead, we get Judge Hardy, whose slow-talking paternalism and school teacher-ish commentary suggests nothing less than the bench equivalent of a country doctor giving his constituents their castor oil of justice. (It’s to Lewis Stone’s credit that he brings a sly sense of humor to the performance at appropriate moments.) This is the world of traditional values and responsibility that shapes the character of Andy Hardy, who grows up through the series.

Warner Archive Collection

Corny? Sure. Conventional? It defines convention. Surprising? Not in the least. There is a certain midddlingness of American filmmaking here, with no real wit involved in the writing or directing (and this at a time when the screenwriting rooms were filled with wits) and little of the smooth yet snappy chemistry that MGM’s stable of stars and character actors routinely mixed into the studio’s cinema cocktails. George B. Seitz directed all of the first fourteen films, and all six of the films in this set, and he approaches each film with an anonymous professionalism that improves with time without actually distinguishing itself or defining the films.

What these films have is Mickey Rooney, the spring-loaded ball of energy who grabbed the spotlight whenever he appeared on screen and soon powered the series. And in that sense, the series also chronicles the rise of a career.

Rooney was but a promising young juvenile actor when he created the role of Andy Hardy in A Family Affair (1936). He was just one of the family players, albeit a standout in a cast headlined by Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington, and one of the few actors to return for the sequel You’re Only Young Once (1937), the first film to feature the Hardy family as we know it, with Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy, Fay Holden as wife and mother Emily and Sara Haden as his Aunt Milly joining Rooney and Cecilia Parker as his older sister Marian. He had a gift for comedy, drama, song and dance, and strong screen presence that invested his roles with a buoyant personality and a spirited energy.

As the series progressed, so did Rooney’s career. Between the films he starred in (among others) Boy’s Town, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band, the latter two with Judy Garland. And as his star rose, so did his dominance in the series. In You’re Only Young Once, which sends the family on a California vacation (and into the predatory dating scene of West Coast decadence), Cecilia Parker gets billing over Rooney and Andy’s romantic travails run parallel with older sister Marian. But in Out West With the Hardys (1938) a year later, another vacation entry (this one to an Arizona ranch), Rooney’s antics are the star attraction while Marian’s “trial marriage” to a widower cowboy with an adolescent tomboy daughter is simply a subplot stirred into the mix. Andy doesn’t even have a romance of his own, only a moony adolescent following him about while he is determined to prove himself by riding a skittish horse, but Rooney’s smart aleck patter, comic smugness and blithe confidence trumps the generic script, and he knows how to swagger around in chaps and fringe like a clueless urban kid playing cowboy oblivious to how absurd he looks.

‘Judge Hardy and Son’

These aren’t B-movies, mind you. They have the production values of the averaging Hollywood picture. They’re more like a continuing TV family drama, with the challenge of the week met with all due seriousness by patriarch Judge Hardy while his devoted wife supports him unconditionally and his kids are lost in their own problems, generally involving romance and social status. But as they go on, Andy takes over the films, Marian’s stories are shuffled to the side (and completely absent in a couple of entries) and Judge Hardy bookends the films with appearances and then sits back as the moral center on hand to give his son advice at key moments. In Judge Hardy and Son (1939), the eighth film in the series, he even hires Andy to play detective in the hopes of finding the estranged daughter of an old immigrant couple facing eviction. Which gives Andy plenty of girl trouble, as he flirts with female schoolmates in his investigation. It doesn’t take much to make Polly (Ann Rutherford), his on-again, off-again steady throughout the series, jealous, but in the end it just gives them an excuse to smooch and make-up. As Andy would say, woo-hoo! You can also see the jalopy humor becoming one of the defining elements of the Andy Hardy series here.

The series officially spans sixteen films, but only fourteen of them feature the Hardy family as we know it. Six of the best – you might say defining – films in the series are collected in this six-disc set. The collection isn’t rolling out in strict chronology, but begins with the first sequel (and the first appearance of Stone and Holden) and jumps about to feature two of the three appearances by Judy Garland (her first appearance, Love Finds Andy Hardy, is the only in the series previously released on an official DVD) and the feature debut of MGM ingénue Kathryn Grayson. Mickey Rooney had the honor to break in a few of the MGM’s rising hopefuls, among them Lana Turner and Esther Williams.

The latter films in the set are the most entertaining. Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940), the ninth film in the series, features Garland’s second appearance as the lovestruck Betsy Booth, “a mere child” (in the words of Andy) who also happens to be a New York City debutante and a genuine sophisticate. Andy’s arrogance can be a bit grating and is notably more-so here. He heads to New York and plays the big shot around Betsy while oblivious to big city ways, social etiquette and the high cost of living large (the scene where he charges up a bill at a New York night spot was parodied in the Warner Bros. cartoon “The Coo-Coo Nut Grove”). Yet he can also be very sweet and the final scenes, taking Betsy around New York City in a nighttime ride in a horse-drawn carriage, presents the tender side of Andy, a best friend and even something of a big brother bucking up Betsy. It’s classic Andy: he gets his comeuppance and then gets his happy ending. It’s also a superb Garland turn. She sings “Alone,” an MGM movie standard of unrequited love, and then performs at the big society ball where Andy finally realizes that she is the real class act here. He beams as she sings, not with arrogance but simple appreciation and affection.

Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (1941), the tenth Andy Hardy film (and the first without Marian) features the debut of new MGM ingénue Kathryn Grayson. She and Todd Karns (most familiar for playing Harry Bailey, George’s brother, in It’s A Wonderful Life) are poor kids from the other side of the tracks who Andy, spread thin by his over-extended high school volunteerism, drafts into helping out with their high school graduation. They return the favor when his own graduation is in peril. Grayson sings opera and a popular tune and Rooney gets to ham it up in a Greek graduation pageant where he plays a pint-sized Apollo (“the god of youth and manly beauty”) under a curly beard and an absurd toga.

Life Begins For Andy Hardy (1941), the eleventh film in the series and the final film chronologically in the set, sends Andy to New York City to make his way in the world, and this small town boy isn’t quite prepared for big city ways. “I won’t make any more mistakes!” he promises his dad as he drives off in his new car with Betsy (Garland, making her last Andy Hardy appearance). Garland is not only confident as an actress here but Betsy is much more confident as a character, which just makes her all the brighter. Meanwhile Andy faces unemployment, financial hardship and worse. He asks the receptionist of a brokerage firm, a slightly older young woman named Jinette (Patricia Dane), out on a date and ends up with a rather predatory good time girl. She pegs him (correctly) as a rube with money and manages to wheedle some of it out of him before her conscience gets the better of her. You can trace the moment to where Andy doesn’t take advantage of her after lavishing his savings on her. Taken aback by his quaint sense of honor, she becomes a little more protective of him, but she has other secrets, not to mention a rather more liberal idea of dating games than Andy is ready for. Finally, we get a little Hardy noir: a homeless kid that Andy hides in his boarding house room dies, an apparent suicide in the wake of shattered dreams. This is a real education for Andy, and a dark moment for the series that the film’s alternate explanation does little to sweep away.

Garland’s part was originally bigger in the Life Begins For Andy Hardy but was shaved down to give more room to Rooney. It may have also been to play down Garland’s appearance, as she was becoming a major MGM star in her own right and they didn’t want to dilute her star power. So her songs were removed from the production, the better to showcase her talents alongside Rooney in the musicals Babes on Broadway and Girl Crazy. Meanwhile, the series is clearly built around Mickey Rooney, with the family mere supporting characters in the story of Andy Hardy, all-American over achiever and spunky young man learning his life lessons. Over and over and over again.

The Andy Hardy Collection: Volume 1 (Warner Archive) is a six disc box set that retails $59.95, about $10 a disc, each in its own case featuring poster artwork from the original theatrical release. Available on the Warner Archive website here.

A note on the website explains that “each film in this collection has either been newly remastered, or digitally upgraded from a recent progressive master source. Although none of these films have been ‘fully restored’, the result is a distinct improvement in quality, and the first new work done to any of these films in decades.” And yes, the films do look quite fine.

For more on the Andy Hard series, see the Wikipedia entry and the website Andy Hardy Films.