feminist friday

Feminist Friday: Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)

Coming in 1938, Love Finds Andy Hardy stands as Mickey Rooney’s fourth outing in the role of “Andy Hardy”. The massively popular series spanned more than twenty years and sixteen movies, beginning with A Family Affair in 1937 and ending in 1958 with Andy Hardy Comes Home.

The film follows as Andy finds himself not only trying to by his first car, but struggling to juggle the attentions of three girls (Lana Turner, Judy Garland and Ann Rutherford) who suddenly fall head over heels for him. Love Finds Andy Hardy is perhaps best known as Judy Garland’s entrée into the series (she would go on to play Betsy Booth in two more films). The movie is also an early featured role for Lana Turner, who made her screen debut just a year earlier.

The Andy Hardy films hold a very specific place in American popular culture as a Depression era representations of classic Americana. Gangsters and boot-legged liquor may have been ravaging American cities, but at least citizens could find some good old American values watching Judge Hardy and his kids. It is widely reported (by Time Magazine, Karina Longworth among others) that MGM Louis B. Mayer once told the rather… rambunctious Rooney, “You’re Andy Hardy! You’re the United States! You’re Stars and Stripes! You’re a symbol! Behave yourself!”. The adorable child-star married eight times over the span of his life and enjoyed a penchant for gambling.

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That being said, these films show their age… badly. While stylistically they look fantastic, textually… not so much. These problems vary widely from the almost stereotypical depiction of 1930s teenagers (good golly, gee wiz, Pop!) to the narrative treatment of gender. Then there’s always the lingering question, what was Andy Hardy bringing to the table to attract all these delightful ladies?

Ultimately, Love Finds Andy Hardy brings a very formulaic vision of femininity, largely aligning with masculine norms of the 1930s. This begins early in the film when Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) helps a local housewife who was “silly” with her housekeeping expenses and bought a new radio she couldn’t afford. Hardy solves the woman’s problem by taking her cook for himself, telling her that she’s a great cook and should have no trouble cooking for her husband. Meanwhile, the film depicts “Mother” Hardy (Fay Holden) is much the same way. She’s portrayed as almost a background character in the Hardy family. In fact, much of the early part of the story is spent discussing how Mrs. Hardy does an awful lot of cooking. Judge Hardy decides that the family should take on the (above mentioned) cook, but worries that Mrs. Hardy won’t accept someone else in her kitchen. However, Mrs. Hardy is such a wilting, passive little thing that she actually wanted a cook, but didn’t want to tell her husband. This weakness in the character is once again evident as she’s so afraid of an arriving telegram, she’s unable to grab it on her own and instead defers to her husband.

While the younger women in the movie aren’t plagued by this weak and “silly” femininity, there is a definite dichotomy showing the split between the acceptable and chosen societal ideals of womanhood and those which aren’t so appealing.

Mickey Rooney

Love Finds Andy Hardy brings 3 female leads to compete for Andy’s affection: Polly (Ann Rutherford), Cynthia (Lana Turner) and Betsy (Judy Garland).

Probably most notable is an age old preference for a glamorous, but chaste femininity. This effects multiple of the women, most notably Cynthia and Betsy. From early in the film, Cynthia is repeatedly referred to as a “Bad Girl”. However, while the other characters are quick to imply things about her morals, there is little more development other than Cynthia being “a red head” to justify the assumption. Interestingly, the character is shaped more by external factors. The only thing which makes her a “Bad Girl” is that this is how others see her. In fact, any sexuality seems to be permeating from Turner’s off-screen persona.

Lana Turner made her screen debut the previous year, after (reportedly) being discovered at the counter of a Hollywood drug store. An initial publicity campaign billed Turner as “the sweater girl”. She’s often posed in form-fitting sweaters, accentuating her curves. At this early point in her career, it is this fact which would have dominated audiences perceptions of the young actress, and it is this fact shaping the narrative treatment of of Cynthia as a Bad Girl“.

Meanwhile, the treatment of Betsy Booth (and at the same time Judy Garland) is troubling on a number of levels. Betsy is introduced early in the film as she arrives to spend the summer with her grandparents who live in the house next to the Hardy Family. Betsy is a plucky young girl, described as no more than twelve or thirteen years old whose mother (a major Broadway star) is away on tour.

Immediately, the narrative makes clear that Betsy develops a hopelessly unrequited crush on Andy. Most are familiar with the type, you sigh a lot and spend your free hours doodling their name on your notebooks. We’ve all been there.

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When viewed through a contemporary perspective, Betsy’s age presents a definite problem which wouldn’t be as problematic at the time of the movie’s release. However, in a tragic similarity with Garland, the narrative ages Betsy beyond her years. In a normal pre-teen reaction, Betsy internalizes that she isn’t getting Andy’s attention because she’s not glamorous like the more sophisticated Cynthia or the more popular Polly. While this is a fairly standard plot in a contemporary rom-com, it becomes incredibly troubling to see this placed on the shoulders of a thirteen year old girl.

The Betsy storyline becomes increasingly troubling due to what can only be described as a grounded and earnest performance from Judy Garland. The young actress’ troubles are no secret and have been discussed at length, as have her rumored crush on Mickey Rooney and her trouble in love. At the same time her character is struggling with feelings of insecurity at a tragically young age, Garland found herself quickly forced into a situation far beyond her young years. Before the drugs, the alcohol and the heartbreak, Judy Garland was just a girl. Her earnestness and youth in Love Finds Andy Hardy compounds the tragedy she experienced in her later life. This is what Hollywood does to its child stars.

Ultimately, Love Finds Andy Hardy is best kept as an artifiact of Depression era cinema. While the film showcases Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland at their best, the overt morality Louis B. Mayer shoehorned into the narrative hasn’t aged well. While the story worked in the 1930s, the politics, the perspectives on gender and even the style don’t work in contemporary culture.

Love Finds Andy Hardy is currently streaming on FilmStruck.

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Categories: feminist friday

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1 reply »

  1. I love this blog! I agree with you completely as to the often one-dimensional depiction of female roles in these films. As I’m sure you’re aware, these films depict the view of American life LB Mayer wanted to present on screen. Thanks for an incredibly well-written analysis. Catch my queen of the lot blog at maxmcmanus.com.

    Like

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