The Andy Hardy Movies: Ranking

To see what interests me about the Andy Hardy movies (with apologies to the rest of his family) and to get some broader thoughts on them, you can follow this link. You can also find this list with so many fewer words at my Letterboxd. It goes without saying that there are moderate to serious spoilers for these films in my rankings, but let’s be real, if everyone who made the movie is dead, spoilers are quaint at best.

After watching all sixteen of the Andy Hardy movies, I’ve got them ranked below from worst to best, an order which is not the same as my least favorite to favorite. All movies are directed by George B. Seitz except for Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (Woody Van Dyke), Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (Willis Goldbeck) and Andy Hardy Comes Home (Howard W. Koch). I’m also leaving out “Andy Hardy’s Dilemma,” which is a short film and which I don’t think anyone actually counts among the, haha, “canonical” Andy Hardy movies.

16) You’re Only Young Once, 1937 — 2nd movie

The Hardy family goes to Catalina on vacation, where Judge Hardy tries to catch a fish and the Hardy kids get caught

Given that this is the first movie with the cast as we’ll come to know them—Lewis Stone and Fay Holden replace Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington as Judge and Mrs. Hardy, and Ann Rutherford has just come aboard to replace Margaret Marquis as Polly Benedict—and with no obvious blueprint for success other than “Judge Hardy comes this close to financial and personal ruin,” it’s not surprising that this one isn’t at all good. The Hardy movies, with very rare exceptions, are at their best when they stay home in Carvel. They also are at their best when Marian (Cecilia Parker) is not being led about by the nose by some handsome fella, and when Andy (Mickey Rooney) thinks he has the reins to the relationship he’s in for this week. Unfortunately, Andy is very much following in the wake of Jerry Lane (Eleanor Lynn), who would have been obvious trouble in 2017, let alone 1937; the way he learns a lesson with her has to be the preachiest these films ever get about his relationships, and that’s saying something. Marian is probably the second-most important person in this film, and she gets herself into some serious trouble with Bill Rand (Ted Pearson), a lifeguard to whom Marian gets engaged even though he’s still married. In the first three years of the Andy Hardy series, Marian has some real romantic and social lows, but I don’t think there’s a single film where she deserves more richly to be sent to horny jail until such time as she can calm the heck down. Judge Hardy fighting a swordfish has some character, but it is not nearly enough to outweigh the agonizingly, obviously dumb decisions everyone else is making while he’s out on his boat.

15) Judge Hardy’s Children, 1938 — 3rd movie

The Hardy family ends up in Washington, D.C., where Judge Hardy is doing some side work about a utilities company

Another early Hardy movie, another trip away from home, another plot where Marian gets swept up in fancier people’s lives, another urbane cutie for Andy to try to woo. (This movie’s model is played by Jacqueline Laurent, who is anonyme in this movie but who played opposite Jean Gabin in Le jour se leve the following year, so I guess that means you never can tell.) You can still sense them trying to figure out the right amount of involved everyone ought to be. For the third time in as many movies, Judge Hardy finds himself in a position so dark that he might be forced to resign his seat on the bench. This time, it has to do with Marian, who has blabbed about Judge Hardy’s involvement in his utilities case such that it seems like Judge Hardy is trying to profit from an increase in the value of the company’s stock.

Judge Hardy’s Children is the movie where I think the rubber really meets the road on Cecilia Parker as Marian, or at least how these movies are written when they showcase her. (This is also quite literally true about the character of Wayne Trent, Marian’s boyfriend from A Family Affair, played by Eric Linden in ’37 and Robert Whitney in ’38. Wayne never shows up again, and it’s plain to see that Wayne Trent is no Polly Benedict.) Parker is the least of the four actors playing a Hardy just on the merits, and these films are much too soft-handed to get at the avarice in Marian’s heart, the obsessive envy of status and wealth which defines her. If this makes her sound like she’s a femme fatale in a noir rather than the teen daughter of a judge who Jonathan Edwards might have thought was kind of a priss, then there’s the issue. Marian throws caution and fidelity to the wind when she gets involved with the Lees, who are only ever trying to manipulate her into saying the wrong thing. Marian could be Daisy Buchanan if things went differently in The Hardys Ride High, but instead she’s only ever a whiny teenage girl with the same appetite for good-looking boys as Tina Belcher. (Here the gender expectations of Marian Hardy versus Andy Hardy make themselves plain; Andy gets to dally about with any number of gals and we never see him as a true heel, where Marian’s foolishness with boys makes her a sucker and a downright liability to the family.) That she’s supposed to pull this off while still being endearing for a general audience requires a talent that I’m not sure Parker ever had, and while focusing on her too much tends to swallow a Hardy movie whole, it seems mostly a shame to me that Parker was miscast in a role that ended up needing more than she could give to it.

Real quick, a personal annoyance. Andy gets the business from his dad because a protest he was setting up at school didn’t have as much intellectual or honest rigor as the rebellion of the Founding Fathers against the British Crown. To prove a point about how small-minded Andy is, Judge Hardy takes him out to Mount Vernon and excoriates him for his lack of moral fiber, which is sort of like taking someone to Goldman Sachs HQ and yelling at them for not being responsible enough with their money. The father-son content got more understanding and less preachy eventually, but this one is not it.

14) The Hardys Ride High, 1939 — 6th movie

The Hardy family heads to Detroit when it appears that Judge Hardy will become a millionaire through inheritance

The same problems as You’re Only Young Once, to be honest. Andy gets seduced by the glitz and glamour of showbiz, going so far as to wind up in a chorus girl’s apartment after a show; he has been groomed by the young man (who is himself seeing said chorus girl) who would have received the inheritance if the Hardys hadn’t gotten involved. In hindsight, this series of events doesn’t literally make up most of the movie, but it certainly seems that way while the picture is rolling. Marian, in her attempt to seem bigger than she is, starts buying the fanciest stuff she can get her hands on. There’s not much development of the kids attempted in this film, and even when they’re doing stupid things because they expect to be rich, it never really feels like there will be significant consequences; somehow, everyone will manage to pay for everything, and the damage they do is never all that much more serious than buying things they oughtn’t to have bought.

After five movies where Aunt Millie was enough of a nonentity that they replaced Sara Haden with Betsy Ross Clarke, Haden gets a lot of screen time. Carvel’s favorite old maid schoolmarm gets what she thinks are a series of dates with a real estate broker played by Minor Watson, only to find out that his interest in her is purely financial. Millie never gets her own plot again, which I think is too bad, although the direction of the series towards Andy’s life at the expense of the rest of the family’s makes her particularly vestigial. The proof that Judge Hardy can be tempted by money just as much as the next man is also a fairly interesting parry on the film’s part, but like Aunt Millie’s quickly severed romance, it ends so abruptly that there’s not much time to linger on the feeling. In the end, Aunt Millie makes peace with a potential beau in Carvel, and Judge Hardy realizes he cares more for his honest reputation than riches. After all, it would certainly put a cramp on the rest of the movies if Andy actually got to be the millionaire playboy he playacts as for a few days.

13) Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble, 1944 — 14th movie

While heading to Wainright College as a freshman, Andy meets three blondes and a stern dean of students

In a universe where every girl in the MGM stable of young actresses got shuffled in and out of these pictures once they got popular, the guest appearance I found myself looking forward to most in this entire series was Herbert Marshall’s in Blonde Trouble. I adore Marshall, and he is as good as here as anyone would expect. Yet I don’t know that putting Herbert Marshall in an Andy Hardy movie was necessarily a wise move. There are layers to Marshall’s Dr. Standish that have much more to do with him than anything written for him, and there sure as heckfire aren’t layers to anybody else in this movie. Dr. Standish plays the first person in the entire series who, one way or another, is immune to Andy Hardy. Girls fall under his spell, his family is perpetually doting. Even people who are cold to him seem to have some honest coldness. But Dr. Standish is an Andy-nostic, and you can see where Marshall is taking his performance. He plays him as someone who is genuinely trying to be amiable with Andy, someone who wants to set up a friendly relationship on professional terms that Andy will abide by. That Dr. Standish witnesses Andy in embarrassing moments with multiple girls on the train makes Andy nervous about him; that Dr. Standish seems to know more than he lets on unnerves Andy entirely. In one scene, where Dr. Standish seems to know a secret about a fellow Wainright frosh, Andy all but screams at him to get out of his dorm room; Dr. Standish murmurs a regretful, slightly bitter phrase on his way out that has more depth to it than anything anyone has said in a dozen previous movies. In short: Marshall is too good for this franchise. This would need to be more than The Parent Trap with a middling romance stapled to it for him to fit in, and instead he gets dregs and an enormously embarrassing subplot with Bonita Granville, whose new face, Kay Wilson, has the hots for the dean. This requires a special man-to-man talk not between Judge Hardy and his son but Judge Hardy and his former student, in which Judge Hardy provides multiple reasons why Dr. Standish is not to blame for Kay kissing him on a moonlit walk…even though he was taking a kid on a moonlit walk. Whatever, the ’40s were weird, I’m not in charge of them.

I think this is the film where we discover what it would be like if Mickey Rooney were bouncing off people as boring as Robert Whitney. Granville is by far the dullest of Andy’s would-be sweethearts, and not coincidentally the least interested in him. The less said about the subplot utilizing the Wilde Twins, the better…they’re necessary to the story, and I think Lyn and Lee Wilde are both reasonably charismatic, but whenever they’re on screen talking about how they can’t be separated or how they’re conning Andy out of his money or what have you, the film screeches to a dead halt.

The nail in this film’s coffin is probably that what’s happening in Carvel is actually much more engaging than what’s going on with Andy in his trip to college and his first few days there. Judge Hardy needs his tonsils out, but the local doctor is also sick with something, which the judge at least can find the humor in. His new doctor is a man named Lee Wong Howe (Keye Luke), who scares the bejeezus out of both Hardy adults; after all, these are not cosmopolitan people, and anyone who is Asian must be one of the hated Japanese. As Lee tells the Hardys, he is not even really Chinese himself. When Judge Hardy guesses “Peking” from a hint about the marvelous city where Lee was born, the doctor replies, “Brooklyn.” Over the course of a single visit to Judge Hardy’s chambers, Lee tells the judge that he knows even more about cars than about medicine (and thus becomes the owner of Andy’s zebra-striped jalopy) and absolutely obliterates a white cop on a matter of local ordinances. The myth of the model minority is being played up in the few sequences with Lee, but then again, it is an enormously rare positive depiction of a person of Asian descent in a World War II-era American film. It also proves something about the Hardys which I’m not sure they’d ever cop to themselves; given the outright fear they have upon seeing Lee, they’re racist.

12) Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary, 1941 — 10th movie

Andy’s graduation from high school is complicated by two bright but financially compromised students, plus a bad test score

(This is where the Andy Hardy movies stop being outright bad and start being a little shy of okay, albeit with some nice moments…excepting the top two, this is a pretty decent description of the rest of the Andy Hardy movies.)

When there’s some starlet from the MGM backlot set up opposite Andy, the film’s quality is basically wrapped up in her performance. Maybe there’s some good subplot for Judge Hardy to fill, or maybe Andy’s got a real humdinger of a gag on tap, but for the most part the only thing that really feels different from film to film is the new girl. In this case, it’s operatic soprano Kathryn Grayson getting a leg up before she went on to a strong ten-year run starring opposite people like Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Howard Keel. I like Grayson a lot, and she’s doing very different work from the majority of the other young actresses who share the screen with Andy. There’s barely a hint that she might have some crush on him or might want him to dote on her, which basically rules out everyone but Granville, but even Granville is supposed to be a potential romantic option for Andy. Kathryn Land, as she’s named in Private Secretary, is as vexing for Polly as the next girl, but Kathryn’s One True Love is her father, a down-on-his-luck travel agent who speaks nine languages. (She and her brother, Harry, played by Todd Karns, worship their dad; they intend to pay him back the cost of raising the two of them, which probably made my eyes bug out more than any other single line of dialogue in these movies.) As the movie goes on, Grayson gets opportunities to show off her singing voice, which is frankly too fancy for Carvel. At one point, knowing her fondness for opera, Andy asks her if she couldn’t sing something that had a little music in it.

As a high school teacher, this installment which focuses on Andy’s very close shave with not being able to graduate made the film feel a little more grounded to me; goodness knows I have met my share of students whose bad results at the end of a semester have put a wrench in their plans. I’ll grant that Andy suddenly failing his English exam (which is just pure grammar, apparently) is a little far-fetched granted how good a student Andy is supposed to be in basically every other movie, but it opens up the plot enough that we’ll forgive them. What’s actually interesting to me about this film is its admission, ten movies into the series, that Carvel actually has some level of industrial poverty within its city limits. It is very easy to forget while the judge’s son and the banker’s daughter are dogfighting with one another that the other members of the community might not be quite so well off. While the film ultimately sides with the “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” thesis of American microeconomics, as Mr. Land (Ian Hunter) gets not one but two government jobs with the aid of Judge Hardy, it was refreshing to see an admission that not everyone in Carvel always has money for the movies or spontaneous trips to the ice cream parlor. It also allows Harry to have something of a chip on his shoulder, which is another rare condition for Carvel but not an unwelcome one.

11) Love Laughs at Andy Hardy, 1946 — 15th movie

Andy’s return from World War II to Carvel and then Wainright is marred by his complicated romance with Kay Wilson

Another film which adds in a new element: Andy whiffs on getting the girl. Obviously, not every girl Andy dates is someone we expect to stick around forever, but before Love Laughs, there is no film where Andy sets his eye on a girl, thinks he has her, and then flat loses her to another guy. The guy who Andy loses college-age Kay to is her 36-year-old(?) guardian(?!), the business and engineering tycoon Dane Kittridge (Dick Simmons, no extra punctuation necessary). This is not really a great loss, as far as I can tell, because Kay Wilson is hands-down the most dull individual Andy Hardy ever set his dreams on. Yet for Andy, it’s enough to make him consider running away to South America like George O’Kelly in “The Sensible Thing.” Andy even gets a crackerjack speech from his father which diagnoses all of his phobias and disappointments regarding Kay’s marriage, but still the only thing which dissuades him from going is finding out that the South American expedition he’d be working on would be under Kittridge’s corporate umbrella. Rooney probably gets about as much opportunity to act in this movie as he’s had in a few of these pictures combined. Some of it is beyond understanding—his interpretation of Romeo’s first look at Juliet on her balcony is spoken well but just deeply bizarre—and some of it, like his performance of a crestfallen man trying to do the right thing while he’s the sole witness at Kay’s wedding (??) is actually pretty well done. There are other movies where I think Rooney-the-actor as opposed to Rooney-the-star is a compelling presence, but this one late in the day, where there is more personal drama and disappointment for Andy which no last-second solution can fix, makes his acting especially important.

Once again, what the movie doesn’t spend time talking about is probably more interesting than what’s actually happening. Andy was drafted into World War II, and comes home from the war in this movie having risen no higher than private. If Andy is the epitome of a swell small-town American kid, then there’s no way that he couldn’t have gone to war; it is easier to believe that Judge Hardy would swindle someone or Mrs. Hardy would ask him for a divorce than that MGM would have kept Andy home for the duration of the fighting. If I had seen this film fourteen or fifteen months earlier, it would absolutely have been folded into a longer piece of writing I did about American movies dealing with the homecoming of their soldiers from World War II. The film fits pretty neatly into the genre, even though I wouldn’t say that Andy spends more than half an hour of this movie in uniform. Like many of the men in those movies, Andy comes home and immediately expects to pick up where he left off, which is to say there’s a girl on his mind who he expects will be the answer to his problems. Andy discovers, like Fred Derry of Boone City discovers, that the world has continued to turn while he was in the service. Like Fred, he finds that the girl he hoped was waiting for him was not really waiting for him after all. Yet Love Laughs takes, if anything, a more pessimistic view on the situation. Lina Romay is here, sashaying around Andy’s living room and clearly interested in him, but the film never acts as if she’s the real solution to his problems. Teresa Wright had far more in common with Ann Rutherford than either of them have with Romay.

10) Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, 1940 — 9th movie

Andy’s long-distance crush on a New York socialite gets him sent on a mission while in New York City

After a couple movies where the action is centered firmly on Carvel, the story heads out to New York again. This has one of my favorite premises of any of these movies. Andy has discovered magazines which print photographs of the beautiful and glamorous debs of New York City, which causes no small trouble for Mrs. Hardy and Milly when they’re trying to follow recipes that suddenly have holes in them. This also causes trouble for Andy at school, where he boasts about knowing the loveliest of these debutantes, a Daphne Fowler (Diana Lewis), and when Polly and Beezy (George P. Breakston) call BS on this transparently obvious BS, Andy doubles down. Upon learning that his friends intend to publish a pretty embarrassing photograph of him in ecstasy over this girl he’s never met—Andy’s head, about three times bigger than Daphne’s, is puckered up against hers with the caption “Most Interesting Achievement of the Month”—Andy decides he has to meet this girl any way he can to save himself from social suicide. While Diana Lewis only really figures in the last act and is not one of the key figures of Andy Hardy’s would-be harem, this is still the right amount of intensity for one of these movies. When Andy interrupts correspondence which would get Mr. Land a diplomatic position in South America during the fledgling years of the Good Neighbor Policy in order to ensure he can keep Kathryn around for graduation, that’s a bit more than I’m willing to watch this kid screw up. The same goes for watching him get trapped with a chorus girl in Detroit like he’s some Michigan political bigwig. Andy shooting his mouth off about his relationship with Daphne Fowler and then being placed in a position to suffer some basically mild high school consequences is the sweet spot.

There are a number of memorable sequences in here in this one that make me wonder if I’m underselling it a little. Andy teaches an angelic orphan to refer to grown men as “Toots” in Carvel; in New York, he blithely gets himself in a situation where he finds himself on the hook for a dinner that comes out to like, $850 adjusted for inflation. Judy Garland is back as Betsy Booth, and while she sings a couple times, I’m more fond of a sequence where, after being unable to rouse Andy from his slump through her own personal charm, she returns home and mopes through the motions of coming home (“I expect to live and die a bachelor”). She’s also got a carriage ride with Andy in this film which is probably the most understated and sad romantic conversation Andy has with anyone in any of these movies. The trouble is that Andy goes full Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in this one, just absolutely melting in a puddle of teenage angst, and you can even feel some sympathy for Judge Hardy when he icily says that “when a boy’s stupid, he’s just stupid.”

9) Judge Hardy and Son, 1939 — 8th movie

Judge Hardy and Andy work separately to discover a destitute old couple’s daughter

I want to start this off by saying that they almost kill off Mrs. Hardy in this movie, but structurally her illness is the B-plot of this film. Absolutely cold-blooded stuff.

In any event, after eight movies, you get a sense that the people making the Andy Hardy movies had finally started to figure out what side their bread was buttered on. Aside from the drama of Emily Hardy’s near-fatal illness—and as much as I’m joking about how little the movie cares about it, there is a pretty long scene where Mickey Rooney gets to Act and prays tearfully and aloud to Our Lord—this is about the back and forth between Andy and his father. That is to say, it’s about Andy getting himself into some palatable amount of hot water and his father providing some advice for his moronic son to get himself out of it.

Most of this film is about Andy and his never-ending car trouble, trouble that he intends to work around by submitting an essay about Alexander Hamilton to win a prize over the Fourth of July weekend. (What Andy doesn’t learn for a while is that the prize for boys is a set of books, and the prize for girls, which is what he’s after, is $75 cash. Enter monkeyshines.) This one works pretty hard to recreate the magic of Love Finds Andy Hardy, a film in which Andy has to juggle Polly and two potential girlfriends; this one adds in a third girl, although I don’t know that Martha O’Driscoll’s Elvie is necessarily a good fit for Andy. If O’Driscoll had not married rich and retired from showbiz at the ripe old age of 25, she presumably would be at least as big a name as Diana Lewis from Meets Debutante, and maybe we would have seen her on Andy’s wall of fame in the later films. Then again, June Preisser’s Euphrasia nor Margaret Early’s Clarabelle wind up being good matches for Andy either. (One of the underrated things about Judge Hardy and Son is the way it shows how middle America clearly needed an exorcist for the parents of daughters, who were naming their girls any old thing and expecting people not to snicker behind their hands.) Euphrasia insists on referring to herself and Andy as “Phraishie-Daisy” and “Andy-Dandy,” a pair of nicknames that certainly gives the judge a start. Clarabelle is a Southern girl complete with the accent, and there is a genuinely funny moment where Andy finds that his essay on Hamilton has been replaced with an essay on Clarabelle’s great American hero, Robert E. Lee. In the end, this is about as pure marshmallow fluff as any of the films in the series, and that’s both the best and worst thing about Judge Hardy and Son.

8) The Courtship of Andy Hardy, 1942 — 12th movie

Andy is instructed by his father to socialize Melodie Nesbit, the sullen daughter of separated parents

This movie ends with Donna Reed and Todd Karns dating, which, to fellow devotees of It’s a Wonderful Life, must seem enormously strange. Mary picks the wrong Bailey brother! Also, this film has one of my favorite risible tropes: a woman who is obviously beautiful is revealed to everyone else as obviously beautiful after they’ve somehow missed it for years. In recent films, the gold standard for me is Emma Stone in Easy A, who still looked like Emma Stone even before she started showing up to school in a corset; in The Courtship of Andy Hardy, they dress and coif Donna Reed as mousily as they can until she shows up in her little black dress at a dance, but…she still looks like Donna Reed the whole way through.

Anyway, the plot of this movie is based in the unassailable social wisdom that the children of divorced parents are deeply screwed up and that such screwing up can be walked backwards with the attentions of a nice person of the opposite sex from a nuclear family which hasn’t split its atoms. I suppose there are worse ways that these movies have gotten attractive young women in the arms of Andy Hardy, but setting aside Judge Hardy moralizing especially hard on what turns out to be the penultimate case of his legal career in these pictures, I think there’s a certain appeal in watching, cue the exorcists, Melodie Eunice Nesbit thrill under some positive attention for the first time in her life. I may not share Judge Hardy’s sociology, but I think there’s a lot to be said about giving people ways to feel liked as a way to help them come out of their shells. It doesn’t take Melodie long to realize that Andy has been taking her out for reasons other than genuine interest, and Reed has one of the more believably acted scenes in the series when she expresses how much that hurts, too. There are a great many girls who pass into the arms of more interested men, but there’s probably not a handoff that feels better to watch than seeing Melodie and Harry together. Harry, alone of all the boys, wanted to dance with Melodie even before Andy started paying guys to cut in.

What drags down Courtship, which absolutely must be in the running for the best female guest star, for Donna Reed is probably the most welcome new addition this side of Herbert Marshall, is the return of Marian. Marian’s been absent for two entries now, and to be honest, this is probably the most she’s had to do since the fifth movie; in Andy Hardy years, that’s practically a lifetime. She’s as unwise here as she was in those early movies, gaga for a Jeff Willis (William Lundigan) who everyone but her can see is a bad apple. Her grateful scene with Andy after he’s towed them back to the Hardy homestead after Willis drunkenly crashed his car is truly baffling, not because she’s grateful but because she’s treating him like he’s her other dad. In 1942 I suppose this is one of those scenes which is showing she’s acceding to a more responsible womanhood—”to love, honor, and obey”—but in 2021 it’s hard to even get into a state of mind that makes this scene comprehensible without chalking it up to Bobby Riggs-level chauvinism.

This does have, I suppose, a single saving grace for modern audiences. At one point, after having expressed his deep distaste for what alcohol can do to humanity in what I can only describe as a Shakespearean monologue, he really lets Jeff have it with a phrase that I watched Lewis Stone mouth but which I heard in the voice of Gary Coleman: “What do you have to say for yourself, Willis?” Reader, I cried laughing.

7) A Family Affair, 1937 — 1st movie

Judge Hardy fights impeachment when he places a restraining order on the building of an aqueduct

I’d love to watch this one again whenever TCM airs it next, because it’s so unlike the rest of the entries in the series. It goes beyond Lionel Barrymore at the center of the film instead of Lewis Stone (or, eventually, Mickey Rooney), although that’s certainly a major piece of the puzzle. I adore the Stone portrayal of Judge Hardy, and naturally Stone’s character actor bona fides are part of what makes the transition from movies about Judge Hardy’s family to movies about Andy Hardy quite smooth. He increasingly plays Judge Hardy as a benevolent mentor or grandfather-without-portfolio as Rooney gets more and more of the screen time, and those portrayals are endearing. Barrymore’s Judge Hardy, on the other hand, is a little less devoted to Americana and clean living and setting a fine example. He does not necessarily see “politics” as a dirty word, although A Family Affair is primarily about him stemming charges of corruption against himself and indecency against his eldest daughter, Joan (Julie Haydon), despite his own personal honesty. In other words, in a Barrymore world the Hardys are more like people and less like neatly designed hankerings for a heartland that was never really so heartfelt and guileless. Would Lewis Stone’s Judge Hardy have used some “stage management” for ultimate effect in front of all Carvel, or is that something that only Lionel Barrymore’s Judge Hardy could have done? It’s not surprising that Andy Hardy Comes Home follows the model of A Family Affair as opposed to one of the other, more literally name-brand Andy Hardy movies; if it’s about an adult, it must follow in these footsteps of someone who you can believe is flesh and blood.

I think what really makes A Family Affair different is the presence of that third Hardy sibling, whose name is spoken nevermore after this film. Joan, the eldest Hardy, and her husband Bill Martin (Allen Vincent) are probably the most important people after Judge Hardy in this film. She and her husband have been really going through it in recent months, with both of them making steps not just towards a separation or a divorce but outright unfaithfulness. Aside from the fact that her presence completely changes the family dynamics (not least of all casting a very tiny Mickey Rooney as the least important Hardy), she also has done something which you don’t sense can be taken back. When she made steps towards cheating on her husband in a well-known den of sin, she turned her life. No matter how warmly cheered that moment is where Bill makes it known he loves her still in front of Carvel’s jeering populace, it’s a misstep the film captures as something which will hover over the Martin marriage in perpetuity. Whether it does or not is not something these other films ever think about, and if they did it would change their character entirely.

6) Andy Hardy’s Double Life, 1942 — 13th movie

Polly Benedict uses a friend as a way to get back at Andy for years of on-again, off-again romance

It’s not as artful a film as A Family Affair, I’ll grant, but Double Life has a self-awareness about it on three fronts which is almost shocking after watching twelve predecessors.

  1. Andy Hardy’s campaign to conquer the female sex meets its stiffest resistance ever
  2. Judge Hardy has some second thoughts about how he administers justice in his court
  3. The man-to-man talk is about Judge Hardy learning a lesson, not Andy

To the first, now that Andy is a high school graduate and headed off to college, I think these movies started to feel a little more comfortable with sexier stories. After years of Andy diddling her while every other girl in Carvel got her special day with her would-be boyfriend, Polly Benedict finally hatches a plan of her own to put Andy in his place. Using a college student, Sheila (Esther Williams, still a decade out from Million Dollar Mermaid), as bait, Polly slowly unwinds a plan in which Andy believes he’s gotten himself engaged to both Sheila and Polly at once. The details of it are sort of whatever (which is what keeps this picture from feeling French), but the initial scene in this seduction is about as steamy as an Andy Hardy movie gets. Sheila, dressed in a two-piece bathing suit which is almost modern, wraps Andy around her finger. Then, in a sequence where she gets to swim—which feels way less tacked on than scenes where Grayson or Romay sing—she swims circles around a confused, titillated Andy until she sneaks up on him and kisses him underwater. If they wanted to play this straight, instead of having Rooney perform his confusion/sexual excitement in the most clownish way possible, it would not be an Andy Hardy movie any longer. Esther Williams brings sex to Carvel with missionary fervor, and it makes the tone of this one more like a sex farce and less like that Very Special Episode of your sitcom. It is, sadly, the last we see of long-suffering Polly Benedict. Ann Rutherford, playing a basically wholesome girl who goes from zero to mortally offended with the speed of your average Twitter user, was so essential to the backdrop of these films. The will-they won’t-they with Bonita Granville never comes close to having the chemistry that the what-on-earth-are-they-waiting-for with Ann Rutherford, and while I don’t think this film really treats Andy and Polly as an inevitable couple in the way many others do, later films suffer from the very temporary quality of Andy’s girlfriends. As a farewell to one of the series’ most reliable characters, it’s adequate, but it’s one of the rare times in my moviegoing life I wanted more closure for a character.

Fronts Two and Three are tied together because they force Judge Hardy to reconsider himself in ways that he hadn’t needed to since he too fell prey to the dream of wealth in The Hardys Ride High. For so many movies, through so many cases, he is basically sure that he’s doing the right thing throughout the process. The only thing which makes him question himself is whether he’s on the right track to save the Carvel orphanage or something procedural along those lines; his values, which is to say his self-belief, is incorrigible. This case, the final Judge Hardy case of these films (when for so long each film started with him in his courtroom administering some verdict), makes him question himself. The case is fairly simple: did a boy whose arm was broken by a lumber truck make the error which caused the accident, or was the liability the company’s? There’s a funny scene where the judge pulls a little red wagon up a hill, gets on, and luges downhill much to the shock of his wife, who’s looking on from a nearby car. But the rest of the plot is much more dramatic. It turns out the boy’s compound fracture and other bills have all but bankrupted his widowed mother, and their house is riding on the outcome of this case that has been in the courts for over a year. For the first time, Judge Hardy—who didn’t know about what might happen to the woman and her son until Andy told him—wonders if he’s doing the right thing. In the end, he doesn’t even solve the case; it takes a lucky break from a conversation between Jeff Willis and Andy to see justice done, and while it turns out all right for the little guys rather than the big companies in Double Life, it has nothing to do with Judge Hardy’s suddenly antiquated system of jurisprudence, one which seems rather less idealistic and superior than it did some movies back.

What makes Judge Hardy feel some shame, which is not an emotion we’re used to him feeling, let alone lingering on, is the speech that Andy gives him before they’re to depart for Wainright. Andy is a legacy student there, and the judge is one of the small college’s most distinguished alumni; he intends to return to the site of some old victories while giving Andy some introductions to important people on campus. Andy is dreading it, and in what is some of the finest two-hander work the series ever has, he explains in a choked voice to his father what it would mean if the judge dropped him off at school. How could he ever feel like he made it on his own two feet there? How would the other guys at school react to this kid who showed up on day one and drank tea with the university president just because of his dad? This is idealistic on its own terms—legacy admissions at universities are a pox on American education and the myth of social mobility, and it’s hard to imagine a modern-day Andy pushing away Daddy’s help—but it wounds the elder Hardy deeply. It’s a lovely scene, and there is a brief reunification and forgiveness at the train station, where the judge only manages to make it in time because he’s jury-rigged a solution to a flat tire with the same aplomb which Andy would have done had he been in such a fix. Obviously I can’t say this with certainty, but I don’t think you need to have seen the previous entries in this series to find the last ten to fifteen minutes moving.

Well, except for this part. Which they recreate verbatim in Blonde Trouble. You can’t predict language change!

5) Out West with the Hardys, 1938 — 5th movie

An old friend of Judge Hardy’s invites him and the family to come to an Arizona ranch

Emphatically the best version of “the Hardys go somewhere else, Judge Hardy has to wrack his brains to fix a knotty legal issue, Andy gets a little too involved with the local life, Marian tries to get married before they go home.” The film is rescued, nearly singlehanded, by the girl who looks like she might end up being Marian’s stepdaughter but who in the interim beats Andy like he stole something. Virginia Weidler plays Jake Holt, the son of the top assistant on the ranch where the Hardys are staying. Jake is maybe ten years old, but she can ride and shoot and do farm work with ease, and her mastery at it absolutely bedevils Andy. He’s putting the dude back in dude ranch, knowing no more about how ranching works than what he might have seen in westerns, and dressing like the guy who gets shot in the first ten minutes of those pictures. One of the absolute funniest scenes in any of these movies comes when Andy (who has been losing money to Jake in a series of ill-conceived bets) decides to challenge her to a shooting match. Jake flat out hustles Andy into betting a dollar on the outcome before shooting up a tin can like Monty Clift and John Ireland do in Red River. It is hysterical, and watching Andy come off worse and worse every time doesn’t stop being funny. Eventually this ends in tears, but we won’t talk about that too much…basically this turns out okay because Andy has discovered a miracle cure for horses.

In any case, Jake probably gets Marian’s goat even more thoroughly than Andy’s; upon discovering that her father intends to marry this out-of-towner, Jake makes it her mission to sabotage Marian into oblivion, culminating with an episode where Marian varnishes the floor with molasses and literally boils Ray’s best boots. Marian gets further with Ray than she got with her lifeguard in You’re Only Young Once or than she made it with the disappeared Wayne Trent; she gets as far as practicing her role as Ray’s wife and Jake’s mother. Maybe it’s that seriousness which makes her short-lived engagement to Ray feel like it has a little more muscle than other versions of her romance, but more likely it’s seeing Jake there to “help” her in the trial stage of her relationship. Like Reed and of course Judy Garland, Weidler has to be one of the most effective girl guest stars in the series.

4) Andy Hardy Comes Home, 1958 — 16th movie

Now a husband and father, a middle-aged Andy Hardy comes back to Carvel from L.A. for business

I was flat-out dreading this entry, to be perfectly honest. No Lewis Stone, who had died five years earlier of an ignominious heart attack. No Ann Rutherford, who chose not to come back to play her younger self. No George B. Seitz behind the camera, whose frank visual style defined the no-frills attitude of Carvel and the Hardy home; he had died back in 1944, making Blonde Trouble the final movie he directed. No star like Judy Garland or Donna Reed or Lana Turner to fill the void. (All respect to Patricia Breslin, who plays Andy’s wife, Jane, but…she does not have the feet to fill the shoes of the people Andy dated in these other pictures. Then again, she doesn’t even have as much to do as a Kathryn Grayson or Martha O’Driscoll in the grand scheme of things.) In the first twenty minutes of the film, my suppositions were more or less fulfilled. There are an awful lot of callbacks to Andy’s dalliances with old girlfriends, lifting footage from Love Finds for Garland and Turner and Double Life for Esther Williams to hammer home the point. It seemed like this was primarily going to be a nostalgia play, a chance to get as much of the band back together as possible. It ends with a new Judge Hardy in Carvel: Andy. Based on all of those facts, one might well assume that this was just a vanity play for Rooney in order to make himself solvent at the box office again, and maybe that’s even the right assumption.

Andy Hardy Comes Home is more than that, even though I’d stop well short of calling it a good movie. Howard W. Koch shoots this thing like it’s on television, which I guess is to be expected given where this series would have been if they’d come up with it fifteen years later. It’s about not being able to come home again. Andy thinks that he’ll be able to convince the people of Carvel that they’ll want to be the site of an electronics factory helping to make missiles. (Andy Hardy Fights the Russkies, maybe.) Yet he finds that in the time he’s been gone, living his charmed life in Los Angeles instead of in Carvel, things have changed. There’s a seedy businessman named Chandler who sees a way to profit enormously from this factory by crooked means, and when Andy rejects him for appealing to his dishonesty, Chandler decides he’s going to ensure the factory doesn’t come to Carvel at all. Many people sign petitions to force the city’s mayor and the city’s council to pass on the factory, citing the presence of wanderers, “undesirables,” poverty, and full classrooms; you can hear the dog whistle grips about integration from sixty-odd years away. Andy Hardy, whose name is known even to kids his nephew’s age because his name is on the lips of their mothers and fathers yet, has become persona non grata in the place that molded and made him. There’s a real sadness here, a connection to (the far superior!) It’s a Wonderful Life. It feels like no matter how many decent people there still are in Carvel, just as there were many decent people in Bedford Falls, that decency is constantly threatened by unscrupulous capital. Only one man is holding the floodgates together, and while Mickey Rooney is, haha, not that guy compared to Jimmy Stewart, that vibe permeates the last act of the picture and gives it a depth I never expected.

If there is one person from the old days that this movie serves, I think it’s probably Fay Holden even more than Mickey Rooney. At last out of Lewis Stone’s shadow, there’s more focus on her (and a woman-to-woman talk Emily has with Jane), as well as one final, wonderful one-liner. At the end of the picture, a number of people come out of nowhere to the Hardy home to tell Andy they’re sorry and that they think a factory is just the ticket for Carvel. (That Andy Hardy is setting Carvel on a path to being part of the opioid crisis is sort of funny, in a horrible way.) After they’ve dispersed a little, Emily, relieved, says, Oh, I thought they were coming to hang him!

3) Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever, 1939 — 7th movie

Andy Hardy falls for his drama teacher while putting on an original play

If Out West with the Hardys is the best version of the Hardys-on-vacation plot, I think this has to be the gold standard for the Hardys-in-Carvel plot, even though Love Finds Andy Hardy has yet to be listed. The stakes here are so low that you have to stoop to find them. Andy has a crush on his new drama teacher, Ms. Meredith (Helen Gilbert), who is guiding the class through an end-of-term original production. Andy goes all out to impress Ms. Meredith and, by proxy, Polly Benedict; she’s trying to catch the eye of a visiting naval officer and Andy’s play casts himself as an admiral wooing a native Polynesian played by Polly. But it’s the smooth-talking Ms. Meredith who Andy is most smitten with, and honestly the way that they interact gives me hives. I cannot imagine giving a child with a crush on me the leeway or room to discover their feelings the way Ms. Meredith does with Andy (and with the support of Judge Hardy, apparently!), and I’m just going to let that go. So too is it best to let go of yet another Judge Hardy get-rich-quick scheme that blows up in his face, one which involves him getting took by some shady dealers who know more about aluminum than the judge, who knows not enough about earth science. On the whole, now that I think about it, Judge Hardy comes off real dumb in this movie.

What makes this movie really effective is the performance of Andy’s play; Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever, when it’s not making me physically ill, is actually a really fun backstage picture. We see Andy go through the stages of performing this admiral, one of which involves a Kermit the Frog voice decades before Kermit was spawned from some felt eggs. We watch his friends get in on the act too. Polly turns out to be something of a ham herself, which is very enjoyable once you stomach the careless racism of 1939; Beezy’s stage management leaves something to be desired, as one of his underlings, the young and strangely appellated “Stickin’ Plaster,” cannot quite make the Moon travel in the right directions during a key romantic scene. The ten minutes or so that this film devotes to the performance of Andy’s play, for all the warts it has in production, are the ten minutes which I think are the best depiction of what’s meant to be an idealized, gilded version of contemporary small town America. The kids are deadly serious about their amateur performance; the adults can afford to chortle appreciatively at their efforts and to laugh their heads off when the Moon goes across the sky…and then comes back in the opposite direction?…

2) Love Finds Andy Hardy, 1938 — 4th movie

Andy juggles best friend Beezy’s girl, Cynthia, a younger girl named Betsy, and of course, Polly

(Here’s where the genuinely decent movies start, though I’m sure I wouldn’t put either of these on a list of the top 250 American movies ever or anything like that.)

I realize this is supposed to be first, sue me. This is the big moneymaker of the series, a very welcome departure from the bum second and third entries, and it absolutely nails the dynamics in a way that nearly all of the following entries fail to do. In this Christmas movie, Andy is visited by three girl-spirits. The Girl of Christmas Past: Polly Benedict, waiting around for Andy to woo her as she inevitably does but also conspicuously absent this Christmas season…or at least we’re led to believe she will be. The Girl of Christmas Present: Cynthia Potter (Lana Turner), Beezy’s sexually permissive girlfriend (take a big ol’ grain of salt with “sexually permissive”) who Andy is supposed to be keeping the other boys away from while Beezy’s gone. The Girl of Christmas Future: Betsy Booth, in Garland’s first appearance, and who fairly steals the show when she sings at the end of the movie for an adoring crowd, basically restoring Andy’s social viability. Even more than that, she manages to smooth things over for Andy with Polly, gracefully waiting her turn when Andy will see her as someone old enough to date. Meanwhile, this is also on the same level as Andy Hardy Meets Debutante in terms of maintaining appropriate stakes. Andy spends most of this film in a tizzy of some intensity or other over a sum of eight dollars: for the young teens of today, about $150, which is enough to turn the head but not necessarily enough to flip your lid over. It’s enough to represent a nest-egg of some sort for whatever nest it is that boys in early high school want to settle in.

Love Finds Andy Hardy, at its best, works neatly and simply, and as a teen movie works marvelously because its principals are almost all teens. Rutherford is the only one with a birth year in the teens; she would have been twenty during filming. Rooney was seventeen; Turner was just seventeen herself; Garland turned sixteen somewhere during the making of the film. Rutherford’s wide eyes and her costumer’s propensity to put her in bows bring her down to the same age as her peers, who all still have some level of baby fat on them. Even Turner, who would grow up to be as glamorous and troubled as any blonde starlet in the history of Hollywood, still looks like she’s only halfway to grown up. The screenplay is written with a little bit of condescension, which I don’t mind. It’s about being dizzy in the way that only teenagers of this age can be dizzy, and their dizziness is most of the fun. That all of these people look so young while they act so young gives Love Finds a cuteness that the other entries can’t aspire to; after all, the players only got older. The cuteness isn’t deep, and it isn’t at the root of a great picture, but this one feels like a warm hug.

1) Life Begins for Andy Hardy, 1941 — 11th movie

Andy puts off Wainright to see if he can make it big in New York City without no help from nobody

There are more tense moments in Judge Hardy and Son regarding Mrs. Hardy, and there’s a more crushing one in Love Laughs at Andy Hardy when he finds out that Kay intends to marry her guardian (yuck). Most of the movies in this series are funnier than this one, which seems like it ought to be the kiss of death for a comedy. Judy Garland’s third turn as Betsy Booth, self-assured and intelligent where she was mooning and pining in earlier entries, is very successful even by the standards of the Andy Hardy Female Cavalcade. Patricia Dane, who, like Martha O’Driscoll, allowed a marriage to basically close off her acting career, plays the cosmopolitan secretary Jennitt Hicks; Jennitt is a kind of woman who is entirely different from anyone Andy’s interacted with since The Hardys Ride High. Her worldliness is entirely in contrast to the girlishness of Andy’s teenage playmates, and that stark contrast is what helps to make her one of the closest things to a villain that this entire series possesses. The Judge Hardy-Andy connection is mostly a long-distance one, though the talk they share at a diner about how Andy ought to be faithful to his future wife is bone-chilling. This also breaks my general rule that keeping Andy in Carvel with low-stakes troubles is the best way to make an Andy Hardy film. After all, he’s in New York and down to his last few bucks for the majority of the picture.

The reason I have Life Begins highest is because it’s the closest this series ever comes to a genuine character study. It’s aiming its sights higher than nearly all the rest of the movies in the series, and like a figure skater or a gymnast, it scores higher despite lacking the wholesome charms of the Carvelcentric pictures or the sight gags of some of the later entries. This is the movie where we find out what it looks like when Andy Hardy fails. Over and over again, he has come close to failing. Heck, in the movie before this one he literally failed his exam and almost didn’t get to graduate high school. Before this, he has nearly killed a pony in his hubristic effort to be a cowboy, he has nearly made an outright fool of himself trying to show off his potency as a sex object, he has nearly caused an international incident with the daughter of an ambassador. But he always skirts out of things. His personal charisma prevents him from getting in too deep, or his quick thinking finds a solution, or sometimes a parent or friend bails him out. In New York City, too proud to accept help from a girl in Betsy Booth and too “adult” to return home, Andy Hardy just doesn’t make it. He lingers in a YMCA sort of place for a while, watching a doomed would-be dancer named Jimmy (Ray McDonald) live out the live that Andy himself seems doomed to live: single men’s apartment to homeless in the park to dead of exhaustion. In Meets Debutante, Andy came to New York City and was told in no uncertain terms that he was not of the right social standing to rub shoulders with Daphne Fowler, no matter how earnest his letters to her were. In Life Begins, he learns a different lesson about his social standing; there’s nothing to stop him from joining a hopeless, clustered mass of men without prospects, typified in movies like The Crowd. He might come from a good family in Carvel, perhaps even one of the region’s elite, but in New York City he’s just chum for the East River like every other high school graduate without an in.

Andy Hardy’s mettle is tested in this movie. Under real pressure, he turns out to be a more levelheaded guy than we find him under his usual Keynesian debt-spending mode. He pounds the pavement like the rest of the guys boarding where he boards, tries to save money once he gets down to the crumbs of the sum he brought to the city with him originally. The pride is still there. In one scene, he tells Betsy he’s fine, he’s still got better than five dollars left. Knowing that his rent comes out to about five bucks a week, she asks him what he’ll do after that’s gone, and he shrugs off the answer. He tries to buy things for Jennitt—Andy Hardy never concedes that the age of chivalry is dead—and of course that’s what she wants him to do even at expense to his own personal well-being. (For someone whose entire life is made out of vaguely calculated gambits, Andy has no conception that anyone might ever be putting one over on him.) When Jimmy dies, Andy doesn’t hesitate to take on the responsibility for his funeral, even though there’s no way that he can pay for it; he doesn’t even let Betsy, who is too rich to ever spend all her money, pitch in. Andy Hardy is at heart an honest person; though he may fib to his friends, neighbors, and intended conquests, he does not lie to his betters. When his boss has him in to explain himself about a mix-up in some correspondence, Andy does not try to make excuses, even though it’s the first sniff at a job he’s had in weeks and he literally passed out from hunger a day or so before. He tells the truth, and this so impresses his boss that he keeps Andy on despite his reputation for being a professional hangman.

What we learn in Life Begins is that Andy and Carvel belong to one another with the same sort of mystic fervor that connects Scarlett O’Hara to Tara or Dorothy Gale to Kansas. While he can linger in other places, it turns out that his best self is not accessible unless he’s back in his hometown, being the biggest fish in a small pond. Life Begins is a film which gets at the heart of so many of the stories in this film series: goodness and greatness are not synonymous. Just as Judge Hardy’s goodness means that he’ll never be much more than a local judge in a backwater, so does Andy Hardy’s simple decency mean that he isn’t made for anyplace as cutthroat as New York City.

4 thoughts on “The Andy Hardy Movies: Ranking

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