I have a book I’ve been terribly fond of called Our Times: An Illustrated History of the 20th Century. A little disappointingly, it only goes up to the mid-1990s, but otherwise I can’t fault the book, which has been my introduction over the past fifteen years and more to scores of culturally relevant moments, texts, and figures throughout the 20th Century. There’s a special issue of Newsweek about the 1998 AFI list that I credit with first making me interested in movies. Our Times is the place where I first came across Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Satyajit Ray, among others. It was a Christmas gift from a cousin who I think had it left over from a college course or something; you never know where inspiration will come from.
Anyway, on page 272, in a sidebar—about movies of 1938 alone, more text is given to Bette Davis’ star turn in Jezebel and to the release of archetypical screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby—you can find the following:
ALL-AMERICAN ROMANCE – In 1938’s Love Finds Andy Hardy, the wholesome American hero—played by 18-year-old Hollywood veteran Mickey Rooney—enjoys the attentions of two new girlfriends, played by Lana Turner and Judy Garland…The wildly popular series of fifteen movies was recognized in 1942 with a special Oscar to MGM for “achievement in representing the American way of life.”
Thus was I primed last December to watch Love Finds Andy Hardy when it showed up on TCM. I thought the film was warm, charming, and pretty far from great cinema. Thanks to a couple more TCM marathons, I’ve been able to see all sixteen of the films, including the final entry, Andy Hardy Comes Home, which was released twelve years after the penultimate entry. All of them play like a Very Special Episode of a sitcom. After a certain point you wonder just how many business trips Judge Hardy can turn into opportunities to take his family on vacation, or how many times the good judge can prove himself a truly inept figure in real estate; just when you get to that point, you start to ask questions like “How bad a financial fix can Andy get himself into this time?” or “What young lady will distract Andy from courting Polly Benedict with the seriousness he owes her?” (I understand that partisans might think Andy would be better suited to some other girl he meets, like Judy Garland’s Betsy Booth, perhaps, but I’ve always found myself sympathetic to the girl next door.) Nevertheless, the series is reliably enjoyable for the same reason people watched The Office into the ground while it was on Netflix. You know what everyone is going to do, you enjoy the silliness with which they do it, and most importantly, you know that everything will turn out right.
In Carvel, a town which was presumably in Idaho back in A Family Affair, was close enough to Manhattan for Andy and Betsy to drive there in a day in Life Begins for Andy Hardy, and which moved to Iowa or Minnesota or Kansas or Nebraska by the time we get to Andy Hardy Comes Home, nothing can be wrong for very long. These are terribly contemporary films—how Gary Cooper’s Bertram Potts would have benefited from an hour with Andy to tell him about what the kids say!—and yet neither the Great Depression nor any drought has little purchase on the town. World War II is absent until Love Laughs at Andy Hardy. Given that six of these films might have something more to say about the world’s immolation than that pat message over the MGM logo about buying war bonds, it’s pretty incredible that what filled cinemas from 1940 through 1946 is limited to a few scenes with Andy in uniform. Yet for how incredible it is, it’s not truly surprising. In the America of MGM’s dreams, there was no World War II (or a Depression), and seeing as Carvel is a fair-haired cousin to sloe-eyed Grover’s Corners or sneering Gopher Prairie, it only makes sense that it would not put the weight of the world on Carvel until it had no other option. Carvel is as false as Disneyland, as much a theme park celebrating some kind of happy America which has never been and only ever existed in simple textbooks.
If Carvel is Disneyland, then in its own way the Andy Hardy films are as sinister as that corporation which gives that world of laughter, world of joy, etc. its name. To the best of my knowledge, there is only one African-American in these movies who is not some rich person’s servant or fulfilling some other similarly menial position, a man who works at Dugan’s Garage with Andy for a hot second in Life Begins for Andy Hardy. The films take the soft racist position that Black people exist and are people, surely, but are also, you know, invisible. They simply do not exist, and while I shudder at the thought of some 1940 comedy called Race War Finds Andy Hardy, it’s also impossible to ignore this paradise of basically well-meaning white people who exclude from this paradise virtually any person of color. (Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble is a very interesting exception to this rule, but that’s for another post.) The series’ position towards women, and I say this with consideration, might be even worse. That ditzy, homebound Emily Hardy is supposed to be a basically perfect mother, a woman who will answer to that if it’s said by her son or daughter or, especially, her husband. She is a wonderful cook, cleans all the time, thinks of nothing but her children, is not all that bright, and trusts her husband implicitly no matter what kind of fool problems he gets the family into. Marian Hardy, who thankfully fades out of these movies at speed, is prissy, vain, and easily led, rarin’ at the bit to get engaged to any blandly handsome young man who smiles her way. By the time we get into the home stretch, or at least the movies in that home stretch she’s part of, she’s begun to treat Andy like he’s her guardian as well. There are an awful lot of comments about the “female brain” which I think we’re supposed to see as a little knock on Andy’s chauvinism, but which we aren’t actually meant to dismiss outright; none of the women he makes those comments to ever seem to contradict him much.
There is comfort food cinema for everyone, I think. For some, it’s the MCU. For others, it’s the Fast and the Furious series. ’90s romcoms, ’80s horror sequels, ’70s exploitation, ’60s epics, ’50s musicals, and so on. For me, it’s this junk: moralizing, sentimental, predictable Andy Hardy movies, guilty of every prejudice of the times in which they were made. They’re a testament to the irresistible quality of someone with actual movie star energy on screen. Mickey Rooney, for whatever personal faults he had, was an undeniable presence. That he is not one of the 25 male movie stars on AFI’s list is, to my mind, a serious oversight. It’s hard to imagine anyone else getting into scrapes or, more importantly, leaping out of those scrapes with the aplomb Rooney does it with. A well-off boy, a self-proclaimed king of some hick town, a child who seems incapable of learning any lesson which might require him to count to ten and take stock of a situation: he should be unlikable. We should want him to receive some terrible comeuppance. Over the course of fourteen movies before he goes to war, he does everything from stalking a debutante to nearly getting a girl’s pet pony killed to screwing a talented man out of the State Department. Yet you find yourself hoping things will turn out right, even if it takes a dose of his father’s castor oil advice to get him there.
Comfort food is not good for you, as a general rule, and I don’t think the Andy Hardy movies are all that different for those reasons I went into above. What I like about them, why I burned through all of them as quickly as they came into my DVR, has to do with a personal interest about how the intrawar years became war years and became peacetime again. Who were these people? What were their values? How did they see themselves when they looked in the mirror, and how did that differ from what droops they had in their bellies or what bags under their eyes? These are answers which are surprisingly far away now. The cast members who survived into the 2010s have died now, at ages well over ninety. Even the Andy Hardy fan site that I’ve seen linked to at a couple different websites appears to be dead.
I found these sixteen movies a fascinating melange of dreamy aspiration and absolute, willful ignorance. I thought Rooney was delightful and Lewis Stone was genial. I found Andy’s army of potential girlfriends, which includes any number of future stars, an entertaining group. What the series as a whole has to say about America is far from delightful or entertaining, something which even the most basic readings of history repudiate. In other words, this is the kind of stuff I turn over with the same energy and fascination I have turning over The Best Years of Our Lives, Craig’s Wife, or Only Angels Have Wings.
With all that said: my rankings of the sixteen films in that series can be found at this link. Enjoy!