Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Love Laughs at Andy Hardy"- a troubling movie

The Andy Hardy movies were produced in the 1930s-40s. They are said to be the most successful movie series ever. Very quickly Mickey Rooney became the centerpiece of the movie. He and his family lived in a small Midwestern town called Carvel. He lived with his father, Judge Hardy , his mother, and his maiden aunt. He had several love interests, one of whom was Judy Garland. Rooney certainly had high energy on the screen and a certain naïve charm.

I recently watched the last of the series made in 1948. It was titled “Love Laughs at Andy Hardy”. Andy’s love interest was played by Bonita Granville. The plot was simple: Andy returned from the war after having met Granville’s character. He was obviously smitten with her, for example when he walked by a children’s shop, he stopped to pause at a cradle. His mother picked up on the cues quickly. Eventually we find that Granville’s character had fallen in love with her guardian (!!!!) and let Andy know just at the time he was going to propose to her. This was so devastating to Hardy that he was going to drop out of college and join the merchant marine. Of course, Judge Hardy intervened and made sure that Andy was back on track. There was a subplot involving a co-ed (as they called them then) who was played by an actress named Dorothy Ford. Her character, Coffee, was an attractive young woman who happened to be quite tall. Through a joke played by a friend, Rooney and Ford were partnered to go to the homecoming dance. There is a mildly amusing scene where the two dance a jive routine. Coffee called everyone uncle, which may have been cool then but which seems strained and annoying today.

I thought I would enjoy the movie as a guilty pleasure, but alas, I did not. I was troubled by the Hardy family being portrayed as so prim, proper, and, well, healthy. It was a family where there was never anxiety, depression, mania, substance abuse, addiction, anger, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, or any of the other physiological and psychological disorders with which most real families must contend. There were no immigrants (particularly of the illegal kind), no people of color, no outwardly gay people, and the head of the household was always a man. In these movies, the wives stayed at home keeping the household running. There was no reliance on Betty Crocker or McDonald’s to keep the family fed, although the use of a person of color to keep thing in order was permissible. The mother’s role apparently was to fret about family matters; they even seem to have been allowed to define problems, but certainly not to solve them. No, that was the province of the father, who in this case was Judge Hardy. It was the Judge who saved Andy from wasting his life because of him being jilted. The Hardy movies were the precursors to the 1950s television shows such as “Father Knows Best”, “Leave it to Beaver”, etc.

So rather than enjoying this Andy Hardy movie, I began to think how this view of the American family has become permanently seared into the minds of many Americans. In fact, it seems to me that those who advocate a social agenda based on “Family Values” have had this model too ingrained into them. To them, society will only be saved through the traditional Hardy family and its accoutrements (father, mother, children, a house, a car, a pet, a church, a college, a small town, etc.).

I must admit that I too, from time to time, have fallen into the trap of believing that these characteristics are the sine qua non of a successful family. But real families must contend with, for example, mental disorders, single parenthood, poverty, disability, bankruptcy, joblessness, addictions, job stress, religiosity, violence, guns (and their aftermath) , poor health, and the lack of health insurance. So, is the Hardy family a model of anything other than a screenwriter’s imaginings? Probably not. It’s a fantasy and fantasies are fine as long as they are not used to define social policy or be used as a gold standard against which today’s families might be judged. I think its time to let go of the Andy Hardy (and Anderson, and Cleaver) model of the family in order to continue to try to find solutions for all of the issues that real families face. Some (incorrectly) say that this is a kind of socialism. I say it’s our responsibility as a society to care for each other and to recognize that we are all in this together. “Family values” is about as an real approach to life as are the Andy Hardy movies.

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