Monday, March 8, 2004

“Dad…could we have a man-to-man talk…?”

As part of the boom in transcribed syndicated programs during the late 1940s/early 1950s in Radio’s Golden Age, film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to get in on the ground floor by producing several series based on their popular movie properties: Dr. Kildare, The Adventures of Maisie, and Crime Does Not Pay being notable examples. MGM also reunited the talents of Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone, and Fay Holden for a situation comedy, The Hardy Family, a continuation of their phenomenally successful movie series that produced sixteen films from 1937-58.

The trials and tribulations of what was to become the all-American middle-class family from the small Midwestern town of Carvel first surfaced in A Family Affair (1937), a sweetly charming domestic comedy based on the Broadway play Skidding by Aurania Rouveyrol. Veteran stage and screen presence Lionel Barrymore essayed the role of Judge James Hardy, with Spring Byington as wife Emily and Rooney as Andy, his son (one of three Hardy children, though they lost one as the series got underway). The movie registered with the public, and studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (the Hardy films were among his personal favorites at MGM) commissioned a series that would eventually bring close to $25 million into MGM’s coffers. Barrymore and Byington were replaced in the second film, You’re Only Young Once, by Lewis Stone and Fay Holden, respectively, and they would play the roles of Judge and Mrs. Hardy for the remainder of the series (with the exception of 1958’s Andy Hardy Comes Home—Stone had passed away by that time, in 1953).

The Andy Hardy films were so profitable simply because they were so economically efficient to produce, and MGM also benefited in that many of the entries served as a training ground for their future starlets, like Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Donna Reed, and Esther Williams. However, they haven't stood the test of time too well; they have a gooey apple pie-quality that reminds me of the old Oscar Levant wisecrack in which he remarks that he would watch Doris Day but “I’m diabetic.” Of the entries I’ve seen (they crop up frequently on Turner Classic Movies), I’d say 1938’s Love Finds Andy Hardy is the best of the bunch; the presence of both Garland and Turner makes it at least an interesting look-see. My main problem with the series is that a little of Mickey Rooney goes a long way with me—I admire Lewis Stone’s ability to work alongside the always annoying Mick without giving in to the temptation of giving him a necklace of fingers.

It was with trepidation that I approached a pair of episodes of The Hardy Family last night while enjoying the carefree existence of my job. The series was produced for syndication from 1949-50, but it did manage to log some network time on Mutual from January 3, 1952-January 1, 1953. The debut episode has Andy landing a prestigious job as “junior executive” with the Carvel Magnesium Company, and he begins to strut around like the cock of the walk. Unbeknownst to the big-headed would-be businessman, “junior executive” is the company’s glorified euphemism for “office boy”—which he learns to his dismay shortly before his father, mother, and girlfriend Polly Benedict drop in for a surprise visit at his place of business. Episode two (1/10/52), which is curiously titled “Singing Star” although there is no singing whatsoever, has Andy showing a visiting female skiing champion the sights of the bustling little burg of Carvel; once again, his attempts to play the big shot are foiled thanks to a surprise birthday party being thrown for him by the folks.

I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by The Hardy Family—it’s a classy production that benefits immeasurably from MGM’s gloss that in no way sounds like your usual syndication radio product from that era. (The studio audience actually sounds as if they’re enjoying a live radio performance compared to the usual “canned” reaction in transcribed shows.) As previous stated, Rooney, Stone, and Holden reprise their screen roles, and are joined by Eleanor Tannen as Andy’s girlfriend Polly (played in the movies by Ann Rutherford) and, though he’s not in these two episodes, his friend Beasey by perennial juvenile Dick Crenna. (Beasey was Homer Brown to Andy’s Henry Aldrich, and I guess that might be why I enjoyed listening to it, it does have a certain Aldrich Family-like quality, though I would certainly rather spend time with the Aldriches, if I had my druthers.) Rooney is, as usual, a bit hard to take, but Stone has this nice, dry, throwaway delivery that counteracts Rooney’s annoying qualities. In fact, I think The Hardy Family might be the best way to enjoy the family from Carvel; they don’t wear out their welcome in a half-hour, as opposed to a longer feature film. Pop in a CD and enjoy “the common joys and tribulations of the average American family”—you won’t be disappointed.

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