So this past Saturday night I fall asleep on the couch watching Turner Classics’ all-night William Powell-Myrna Loy marathon. No biggie, though, as I’ve seen all 13 of their collaborations numerous times, even the rather gloomy Evelyn Prentice (1934). So somewhere around the last part of Love Crazy (1941), with William Powell running around in drag trying to pull a fast on over on his overly suspicious mother-in-law, I drifted off to sleep, only to awaken next morning to the sound of Mickey Rooney and Lewis Stone – Andy Hardy and his father Judge Hardy – having what sounded like one of the famous “man to man” talks.
“Well, that’s a nice programming idea for Father’s Day,” I thought to myself. Sure, MGM’s Andy Hardy series may owe more to studio head Louis B. Mayer’s skewed idea of what middle America was like than to reality, but the father son dynamic between Stone and Rooney certainly fit the bill for nice, Father’s Day fare.
That is, until a moment later when I realized that what TCM was showing wasn’t any of the 16 feature length Andy Hardy films at all, but a 20 minute, one-reel short entitled Andy Hardy’s Dilemma, the bastard step-child of the series, rightfully forgotten by most people except for, apparently, those who work in TCM’s programming department.
Released in 1938, the short starts off innocently enough with young Andy Hardy driving along in his car, daydreaming of marrying his sweetheart Polly Benedict, Hardy series regular Ann Rutherford in a dialogue-less cameo. One bad dip in the road later and the whole back end of Andy’s car has fallen off. Figuring that it will cost about $200.00 for a new car, Andy goes to his father for a loan. Judge Hardy says that he was going to donate a like sum to charity, but would give it to Andy instead.
His father’s quick agreement should have alerted Andy that the Judge had something up his sleeve. While taking a potential new car out for a test drive, Judge Hardy has Andy drive by a public daycare center for working mothers. One look at the little moppets at play is enough to tell his dad to donate $50.00 of the $200.00 to the daycare center and he can settle for a car worth about $150.00. What comes afterwards should be painfully obvious to even those who have never seen any of the Andy Hardy series. While test driving successively cheaper cars, Judge Hardy has Andy stop by various charities around town including an All Nations Community House, a children’s osteopathic hospital and finally a Salvation Army Home for Women. Each stop is accompanied by a $50.00 donation to said charity. Finally Andy decides he can fix his old car for about ten bucks before Lewis Stone turns to the camera and gives the audience a stern talking to about donating to local charities. I have to say that this speech is the only time I have ever heard the phrase “Community Chest” used outside of a game of Monopoly.
What’s curious about this is the underlying premise that the small, bucolic town portrayed in the Andy Hardy series is actually prone to the many real world problems that Mayer had wanted to keep out of his cinematic suburbia. Since this short was produced early in the run of Andy Hardy films, it suddenly casts a pale light on the lighthearted antics of Andy and his friends in the films that follow. And please don’t get me started on the ham-fisted way that Stone’s Judge Hardy teaches Andy about extending a helping hand to those less fortunate.
But what’s even more curious, and at some level appalling, is the film’s depiction of the Salvation Army Home for Women. The film’s unseen narrator describes the place as “first of all, a maternity hospital.” However, he continues with, “[It is] a refuge where can be brought back to normal the mental system of a girl who has been shocked unduly by a great social problem.” The hospital, we are told, is happy to indulge any mother who wishes to be known by her first name only and once baby and mother are both healthy, the organization will find the mother a job where she can keep her infant nearby with “the belief that with her own child growing up beside her, a girl isn’t going to make the same mistake again.”
While it’s true that the Production Code only allowed for vague references at best to unwed mothers, this short really comes off condescending in its implication that unwed mothers are all mentally unbalanced. And although the narration makes no judgment on these women, outside of the slight tone of pity in narrator Carey Wilson’s voice, the segment’s opening shot of the hospital’s nursing staff that dissolves to a painting on the wall of Jesus praying in the Garden at Gethsemane speaks volumes.
We’ve come a long way since then baby.