Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Hardy Family Forever

Time-traveling back to the 1930's and 40's is easy and stress-free because the mores, fashions, and automobiles are captured on films we can pop right into our video players. For a little while, we are "right there", especially if the movies are good enough to draw us in, even wish we could be there. As I am now suffering from a debilitating illness and can't do much, I am watching my collection of "Andy Hardy" movies, which I have loved since I was a kid and which still have the ability to make me laugh out loud. Even at this not very good time in my life. Depicted above is the family of Judge James Hardy of Carvel, except the woman on the left is not the regular "Aunt Milly", a spinster and school teacher who lived in the household [usually played by the likeable Sara Haden]. Next to her is Marian, Andy's older sister, the Judge, Andy and Mrs. Hardy.

While many things about the film series, which began in the late '30's and ended in 1947 with "Love Laughs At Andy Hardy", seem quaint, corny and dated, the pictures also have a timeless quality due to pretty good scripts with clever, funny dialogue and top-notch emoting by the principle characters. Mickey Rooney as Andy was a young prodigy of an actor who could do just about anything, including singing and dancing. Rooney seemed to be bursting with energy and, as his cinematic father told someone in "Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever", "We have that volcano for breakfast, lunch and dinner." Andy, of course, is always in trouble of some kind and it usually involves a transient romance in some fashion. A lot of the time he is at odds with his home-town sweetheart, Polly Benedict, played by Ann Rutherford. But his father, the Judge, is always there to counsel him. In a way, Lewis Stone was the cement that held these MGM movies together. And they raked in millions for the studio. One of the most popular men in America of the era, Stone got even more fan mail than Mickey Rooney. He was the dad everybody wished they had, unless the person was so lucky as to have a father with a beautiful smile and twinkling eyes, who was as wise and good-humored as James Hardy. Stone, who made numerous films beginning in the Silent Era, was a master who made acting look easy and spoke dialogue like it was just natural conversation he was thinking up as he went along. Every facial expression, every vocal inflection was perfect. Lewis Stone acted with his whole being and his scenes with Mickey Rooney are especially wonderful.

Exactly where the small town of Carvel was supposed to be is not very clear. It seems to be not very far from New York City as in several pictures of the series it wasn't a great undertaking to get there but in "Love Finds Andy Hardy" a young ham radio operator gives West Coast call letters. Still, there is snow on the ground in winter. Even though Lewis Stone was only in his late 50's when the series began and quite a handsome guy in a distinguished, white-haired way, [he had been Greta Garbo's most frequent leading man] Mickey Rooney kissed Mrs. Hardy, played by Fay Holden, with a lot more enthusiasm than the Judge. Andy kisses his mom on the lips and hugs her lovingly while she has to be mostly content with a distracted peck on the cheek from her husband. In fact, with the exception of occasional bursts of insight, Mrs. Hardy is normally a ditz, even though the intellectual Judge seems eternally amused by this fact. Perhaps that's the way Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, who personally supervised the Hardy pictures, visualized family life. The wife is just dedicated to her family and the kitchen and the husband is paternal but sexless. Judge Hardy calls his wife "Mother" a lot [ he wasn't the only one and why this did not drive wives of the time crazy I don't know] and his beautiful twenty-ish daughter "Honey". Oddly, the Judge always stands very near Marian when they have a conversation and seldom fails to place an arm around her. Was a man supposed to feel closer to, have more affection for his daughter than his spouse? Even the photo above tells the same story. Marian is nearly cheek-to-cheek with her father while Andy has an arm about his mother's neck. A little Oedipus and Electra, anyone? Andrew, being a highschool boy for most of the series is naturally oversexed, but never really gets excited and his passion for kissing Polly and a string of other girls [Hollywood starlets got their start in these movies] is regarded by himself and everyone else as "good, clean fun". Andy's only reaction seems to be "Woo! Woo!" Well, times have changed, no question, and while life in Carvel pre and during World War II seemed a lot less complex than it is today, there are some odd family dynamics in the Andy Hardy series. Oh, well, no matter. Most people never noticed--or thought it was perfectly ordinary--and the pictures hold up as entertainment gems that tickle the funnybone and evoke the whole gamut of emotions. Like when Andy maintains boys don't hate their fathers no matter how much they punish them and Judge Hardy quietly wonders "Don't they, Andy?", regarding his son in such a way that can hardly fail to bring a tear to the eye. In the same 1939 film the Judge says, "Heaven only knows what this generation has coming." Prophetic words, indeed.
Ironically, the man who was America's favorite dad during the late 30's until after the war barely knew his own father. Bertrand Stone, a shoemaker, died of blood poisoning in Worcester, MA, when he was only forty and his little son, Lewis, only six. After a brief stay in Boston, Lewis Stone grew up in New York City. When he was already a young man in 1911, a distant cousin of Lewis was born in the state of New York and her name was Lucille Ball.
And there is the sight of a very young, adorable Judy Garland in three of the Hardy films, with her little girl speaking voice which can suddenly sing like a grown woman makes a lump form in the throats of those of us who know what her future was to bring.