Saturday, June 28, 2014

MGM Franchises Andy Hardy

The MGM Blogathon is an event commemorating the 90th anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, one of the oldest movie studios in Hollywood, hosted by Silver Scenes. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the host site.

The mind-boggling success of The Avengers has redefined how Hollywood develops a modern movie franchise. It's no longer enough to tell a series of stories featuring a certain character(s); now it has become imperative to build a "universe" of characters, some of whom can be spun off into smaller movie series of their own, in order to tell one big mega-story - and indeed, Spider-Man, X-Men and Star Wars are among the properties whose studios are making plans to do just that.

Sequelization is certainly nothing new in Hollywood. Popular characters from Nick & Nora Charles to Charlie Chan to Ma & Pa Kettle and Lassie had franchises of their own, although they weren't called that back then. (One could even make an argument for silent movie characters like Charlie Chaplin's Tramp as the progenitors of proto-franchises.) Over time, action-adventure characters from James Bond to Sinbad to Jaws begot franchises more often than the more mundane, by comparison, down-to-earth ones like Dr. Kildare or Blondie. Perhaps once television began to sate the public's appetite for such characters, the film industry wanted recurring characters with more big-screen spectacle.

the primary cast of the Andy Hardy series
One example of the type of franchise that used to dominate Hollywood is that of MGM's Hardy family, specifically favorite son Andy Hardy, as played by the late Mickey Rooney. Balancing light humor with drama, they follow Andy through adolescence and young adulthood in a small American town. The franchise began in 1937 with the B-film A Family Affair, based on a play by Aurania Rouverol called Skidding, which focused on the Hardy family in general. Many of the cast members had worked together two years earlier in Ah, Wilderness! 

Family was successful, but not a huge box office smash. It was the exhibitors who pushed MGM for a follow-up, according to the book The MGM Story by John Douglas Eames. The sequel, You're Only Young Once, was made later in the same year, 1937, though not without some casting changes due to schedule conflicts. Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington, the original Judge & Mrs. Hardy, were replaced by Lewis Stone and Fay Holden, who would remain throughout the rest of the series. Rooney returned as Andy, of course, as did Cecilia Parker as Marian, his older sister, and Sara Haden as their Aunt Milly. (Betty Ross Clarke would take over her role for the next two films before Haden returned.) Eldest sister Joan never came back.

Dear old Dad always had good advice for Andy.
Over the course of the 16-film series, from 1937-58, additional cast members appeared in recurring roles. George Breakston played Andy's pal Beezy. Ann Rutherford played Andy's girlfriend Polly, though there were also a number of romantic rivals, played by, among others, Donna Reed, Lana Turner, Kathryn Grayson and Esther Williams. 

And then there was Judy Garland. She appeared in three Hardy movies, beginning with 1938's Love Finds Andy Hardy, as Betsy, a slightly younger girl with an unrequited crush on Andy. Garland and Rooney had appeared together the year before, in a film called Thoroughbreds Don't Cry, and they'd go on to make many more movies together outside of the Hardy series. 

Of course she sings.

From what I've watched of the Hardy films for this post, I can see how they would appeal to audiences back then. In many ways, they represent the idyllic, almost innocent (and white, of course!) ideal of America, even in the latter years of the Depression. It seems more like post-war America than pre-war in how it affirms familial and societal values of its time without getting into any deep moral quandaries. 

No.1 gal-pal Polly appears throughout most of the series
Andy himself does go off to fight in World War 2, but it appears the series skips over this period in his life. 1946's Love Laughs at Andy Hardy begins with him returning from the war, but then it's back into the usual romantic hijinks. Strikes me as a major missed opportunity.

The Hardy movies clearly draw up the blueprint for what would eventually become the television sitcom. From Father Knows Best and My Three Sons through The Cosby Show and Family Ties to The Simpsons and Modern Family, the formula remains consistent, despite changes that suit the times. And while movies continue to tap into the family dynamic, it's hard to imagine a modern Hollywood franchise built around one in the same way. There's Ben Stiller's Focker trilogy (Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers), but for all their generational by-play, they also rely on sexual innuendo, gross-out and slapstick humor to a large degree. Extremely un-Hardy-like.

If anything, the Hardy movies, lightweight as they may be, present an image of how America used to see itself. Yes, by today's standards, the image is incomplete, but I believe it can be taken on its own terms and appreciated for what it is. Rooney is exuberant as Andy, mixing the urban scrappiness of his screen persona as seen in earlier films like Boys Town with a more upright, Middle American identity. He may not always come across as the sharpest knife in the toolbox, but then, he is only a teenager!


  1. The series was certainly successful for the studio in popularity, as a way to keep contractees busy and as a training ground for youngsters. I find a certain level of easy-going nostalgic comfort in the entries that was probably there for folks the first time around. The thought of having a "Judge Hardy" around to fix your problems or at least point you in the right direction is appealing.

  2. Lewis Stone is quite good as Papa Hardy. I'd always found him rather cold in the past, but in these movies he gets to show some genuine warmth.

  3. I understand why these films were popular but I do find them hard to relate to - they seem to have dated more than other films from the era. Perhaps I came to them at an unappreciative age and I'm too young to feel any nostalgia for/about them! That said, I do like 'Love Finds Andy Hardy', but that might have more to do with the presence of Garland!

    1. I wouldn't expect anyone under the age of 50 to feel nostalgia for them.

  4. That's a good point that you bring up Rich, about MGM missing a great opportunity by not having Andy directly involved in WWII. They could have tossed in elements of The Human Comedy in one of the series' episodes. We found that only Judge Hardy and Son touched on any topic really somber ( Andy's mother almost dies ), while most of the films kept things very light. The Andy Hardy films were by far Louis B. Mayer's favorite series at MGM and he really kept a good eye on the production/script/etc making sure it all lived up to his standards. Mickey Rooney once recalled, " Creating this New England utopia was all part of L.B Mayer's master plan to reinvent America. In most of his movies that came under his control, Mr. Mayer knew that he was 'confecting, not reflecting' America....He wanted values to be instilled in the country and knew how influential films could be...The picture helped Mr. Mayer cast a spell on America, on its values and attitudes and images. "

  5. That part about Mayer's agenda is interesting, though I imagine even he must've drawn from some pre-existing cultural norms in society.

    Is Carvel in New England? i thought I read somewhe that it was in Idaho.

  6. I freakin' love the Andy Hardy series. I was born in the late '80s so I may not feel nostalgia per se, but I sure do tap into that collective dream of Americana. Great cast, good fun, a few touches of drama right where it needs it and an endearing portrayal of an American family. Solid "lessons" too, as relayed by Judge Hardy--we may think these '30s films are way out of date, but the problems of young people back then don't always change that much. I don't know about you guys, but I can point to my wonderful grandparents and say "Judge and Mrs. Hardy may have been fictional, but these people sure do come close to them."

    Lea S.

    1. Young people's problems may not change that much, but I think it's fair to say that as good an example as Judge Hardy provides, I still can't help but see him and his family as living in an idealized world, one without people of color, without homosexuals, and one in which gender roles are strictly defined. Take these films for what they are, but don't forget that they are of their time.

    2. Indeed...still, even some films made in the year 2014 can barely be called improvements. The main difference might be that modern Hollywood tries too hard to swing in the opposite direction--eschewing any form of idealization for "realism" and trying to include everyone under the sun (and not always succeeding in getting rid of stereotypes). Looking beyond the Old Hollywood surface of the Andy Hardy series, and, perhaps, beyond the way we might unconsciously keep an old film at arm's length, we might find that Judge Hardy's "life lessons" can still apply today--and to a wide variety of people, regardless of what the intended audience was at the time.

    3. I agree. I was responding more to the whole 'American dream' notion that the movies supposedly embodies, because that dream has never been the same for everyone. Probably shoulda made that a bit more clear.

  7. I can't help myself – I love the Andy Hardy series. It's pure fantasy, but it makes you feel so good. Plus, Mickey Rooney is adorable as that loveable scamp Andy. I'm so glad you included this in the blogathon!


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