In 1937, MGM reunited the cast of its Eugene O’Neill adaptation Ah, Wilderness! for a low-budget version of Aurania Rouverol’s recent Broadway success Skidding, about a small-town Midwestern family presided over by a wise old judge, played by Lionel Barrymore. The movie—titled A Family Affair—became a surprise hit, with audiences particularly responding to the high-strung teenage character Andy Hardy, played by veteran MGM child star Mickey Rooney. By the end of the year, the studio had produced a sequel, You’re Only Young Once (with Lewis Stone replacing Barrymore as Judge James Hardy), and it kept pumping out Andy Hardy movies at a steady clip over the next decade, including three each in ’38 and ’39. Pre-television, series like the Hardy pictures, or the Dr. Kildare movies, served a similar function to the sitcoms and procedural dramas of today, sticking familiar characters in familiar adventures, every few months. With the Hardys, MGM found a vehicle to promote family values and wholesome Americana, via stories about headstrong kids and their preternaturally patient elders.
The Andy Hardy series has long been ripe for a comprehensive, features-packed box set, but with the home-video market the way it is, old-movie buffs will have to settle for Warner Archives’ six-disc MOD set The Andy Hardy Collection, Volume 1, which contains serviceable-but-not-sterling transfers of a handful of Hardys: You’re Only Young Once, 1938’s Out West With The Hardys, 1939’s Judge Hardy And Son, 1940’s Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, and 1941’s Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary and Life Begins For Andy Hardy. There’s no clear logic to this selection. They’re not strictly chronological—there are Hardy movies that fall between these titles—and though two of these six films feature frequent Rooney co-star Judy Garland as Andy’s resourceful chum Betsy Booth, the set excludes Love Finds Andy Hardy, Betsy’s first appearance. And four out of the six take place largely outside of the Hardys’ home base of Carvel, as the family vacations in California, helps out an old friend on a dude ranch, and (twice!) conducts business in New York City.
Then again, regardless of the location, release date, cast, or plot, pretty much every Andy Hardy movie is the same. While Judge Hardy works on a puzzling case (which he usually cracks thanks to some inspiring coincidence), Andy cooks up a harebrained scheme involving making money, wooing a girl, or both (though he nearly always ends up back in the arms of his chaste girlfriend Polly Benedict). The young protagonist is defined by his cocksureness, whether he’s stupidly ordering a $40 dinner he can’t afford at a fancy big-city restaurant, or he’s giving up his chance to win an essay contest because he wants a melancholy school friend to feel better about herself. At least once a movie, Judge Hardy lectures Andy about equality and decency—sometimes gently, sometimes sternly—but does little to curb his son’s colossal self-regard.
So yes, the Andy Hardy pictures are predictable, and corny, with a hero that’s fairly insufferable. But they’re also incredibly entertaining, packed with subplots and offhand observations on the generation gap, circa 1940. As much as the last-second resolutions to the Hardys’ respective problems, the movies are marked by the way Judge Hardy corrects Andy’s slang, the family’s tacit disapproval of people who lead “fast” lifestyles, and the constant definition and redefinition of what it means to be mature in a time and place when being called a “child” is the greatest insult. The Hardy films are very much of their time, but as they focus on the difference between mores and morals, they mainly illustrate that times don’t change as much as we may think.
Key features: Only trailers, which is actually pretty generous for a Warner Archive release.