It’s difficult for modern viewers to appreciate the immense popularity of MGM’s Andy Hardy films of the late 1930s and early ‘40s.
Take Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever, the seventh release in the 18-film series that began in 1937 and didn’t wrap up until 1958.
The movie finds Andy (Mickey Rooney) stewing over the dalliance of next-door-neighbor Polly (Ann Rutherford) with a dashing military officer. Feeling rejected, our high school hero is vulnerable to the charms of his substitute drama teacher, Miss Meredith (Helen Gilbert), for whom he falls hard. To impress her, Andy writes a play, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in the South Seas.
(Not to worry – it’s all very innocent. This was way before Mary Kay Letourneau.)
Meanwhile Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone), usually a paragon of Midwestern reserve, is giddy over the possibility of overnight riches when a couple of entrepreneurs (or are they scam artists?) reveal that acreage he owns is thick with aluminum ore.
Not terribly scintillating stuff – just some amusing/touching moments from a boy’s life. This is the sort of thing modern TV watchers have been able to get from any number of sitcoms. (The Wonder Years, Malcolm in the Middle, etc.)
Which, in a way, is the whole point. The Andy Hardy movies served pre-television audiences in the same way that today’s network series do – by providing likeable characters with whom we identify and who we’re happy to follow over the course of many years/seasons.
Russian-born MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer saw the Hardys and their neighbors as representative of his adopted country at its best – generous, religious, patriotic, and tolerant. Turned out that Americans liked seeing themselves depicted in that way.
They liked it so much that the Andy Hardy series became one of the studio’s most profitable enterprises – inexpensive to make and hugely popular. For several years young Rooney – who continuously portrayed Andy from age 16 to 25 – was America’s Number One box office attraction, outshining such grown-up stars as Tyrone Power, Spencer Tracy, and Clark Gable.
“Andy Hardy was a phenomenon,” Rooney (who died in April at age 93) wrote in his 1965 autobiography. “He wasn’t handsome, because I wasn’t. He wasn’t any bigger than I, either. But somehow he struck an image that flared all across the country among people who told themselves, ‘I’m like that,’ and among parents who said, ‘Hey, that’s my boy.’ Andy was a super-typical young man...he had both schemes and dreams, which always caused complications a few minutes into the picture and always produced general happiness at the end.”
Invariably Andy was turned around by a man-to-man talk with his father, Judge Hardy, whose wise (but wryly humorous) counsel helped the kid to find the right path through his women and money issues, his tendency toward hyperbole, and his youthful selfishness.
(Is it just me, or does Lewis Stone’s voice bear an uncanny resemblance to that of the late beat icon William S. Burroughs? Weird.)
Recalled Rooney: “When the public reaction to Andy – by mail, by phone, by wire, and by box office receipts – turned out to be so strong, MGM, like General Motors with a hot new car, was perfectly equipped to roll. They had writers ready to pound out scripts, directors ready to plan camera angles, press agents ready to promote.”
The series was off and running. Before the year was over the studio released a second film, You’re Only Young Once. 1938 saw the release of three Andy Hardy titles, Judge Hardy’s Children, Love Finds Andy Hardy, and Out West with the Hardys.
In successive years MGM churned out at least two, and usually three Hardy movies. There was a gap of more than a decade between 1946’s Love Laughs at Andy Hardy and the next and final film, 1958’s Andy Hardy Comes Home. The studio had hoped to reboot the series with Andy as a young man, but it never took off...possibly because audiences were already getting the same sort of material for free on the boob tube.
In addition to being a money-making machine, the Hardy series was a perfect way for MGM to introduce and test the popularity of its young actresses. Judy Garland starred opposite Rooney in three of the films. Among the other newcomers who proved themselves by playing Andy’s love interests were Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Virginia Grey, Donna Reed, Kathryn Grayson, and Bonita Granville.
Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Comedy (Part 2)”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- June 7: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) Not Rated
- June 14: The Cat and the Canary (1939) Not Rated
- June 21: In Name Only (1939) Not Rated
- June 28: Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1939) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.