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The most successful series in movie history continued its phenomenal rise in popularity with this third tale of the Hardys, a "typical" small-town family whose various trials and tribulations never pulled it too far from the wholesome Americana so beloved of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer. What is most significant about this outing is that Mickey Rooney emerged as the definitive star of the series, helping to place him in the Top Ten box office stars of the year. As the franchise continued (and also thanks to his pairings with Judy Garland in several hit teen musicals), Rooney became the number one star in the country from 1939 to 1941; he would also remain in the Top Ten for two more years after that.
The series started as something of a spinoff from MGM's screen version of Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, Ah, Wilderness! (1935), a gentle coming of age story that featured Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington as the heads of a New England family dealing with the sentimental education of their teenage son, played by Eric Linden. Rooney, then 15 but looking younger thanks to his small stature and baby face, played the family's youngest son, and the cast also featured Cecilia Parker as the teenage son's love interest.
A few years later, low-budget producer Lucien Hubbard was working on a vehicle for Barrymore based on a minor Broadway play, Skidding, a courtroom drama to feature Barrymore as Judge Hardy, whose family life was only a marginal backdrop to the main plot. At the same time, the studio was looking for a project for Rooney; he was on the rise as a juvenile star thanks to his outstanding turn as Puck in the Warner Brothers production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and supporting work at Metro in Riffraff (1936) and Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936). Rooney had also done well in a horse-racing programmer at Warners, Down the Stretch (1936), so Mayer and his executives decided to expand the family subplot of Skidding to include Rooney in a nostalgic story similar to Ah, Wilderness!. The result was A Family Affair (1937), with Byington playing Barrymore's wife, Rooney as their son Andy, Parker as daughter Marion, and Linden as her boyfriend. The cast also featured Julie Haydon as the Hardy's married daughter Joan and introduced two characters who would become regulars: spinster Aunt Milly, played by Sara Haden, and Andy's girlfriend Polly Benedict, played by Margaret Marquis.
The picture did well at the box office, and exhibitors were soon clamoring for more Hardy family pictures. Mayer was delighted; he saw a way to promote his "family values" agenda while making a pile of money cranking out fairly cheap installments of the Hardys' adventures. Barrymore and Byington were too much in demand for more important pictures, so they were replaced by Lewis Stone and Fay Holden. By the time of Judge Hardy's Children (1938), Ann Rutherford had taken over the role of Polly, daughter Joan was gone, and Rooney's star had risen considerably.
The story follows the family to Washington, D.C., where Judge Hardy has been offered a large sum of money to hear a case involving utility company monopolies, a subject that resonated with the public during a time when suits were brought by private companies against the federally established Tennessee Valley Authority. (The Supreme Court eventually ruled that government control of utilities was constitutional.) In the course of the trip, Marian gets caught up in the glamorous lifestyle of a married couple who work as lobbyists for the utilities and Andy falls for the daughter of the French ambassador. The two children learn the kinds of lessons that would become a staple of the series. Marian is duped by the lobbyists into providing inside information that puts the judge's reputation and the outcome of the case in jeopardy. Andy, meanwhile, is taken by his father to Mount Vernon, George Washington's home, where he is properly chastised and humbled over his rebellious distribution of anti-authority leaflets back home. In the end, the wise and benevolent Judge Hardy saves the day and the two youths are reunited with their hometown sweethearts.
In the same way the rock-and-roll films of the 1950s and the dance movies of the 2000s appealed to the musical tastes of a younger generation, the youth-oriented movies of the 1930s and early 40s highlighted the newly popular Big Band jazz sound. The demographic for Judge Hardy's Children was broader than just young people, but in this picture, the Hardy series began to introduce such an element. At a rather staid high society cotillion, Andy changes the tone of the evening and impresses the ambassador's daughter and her friends by teaching them a new dance, the jazzy "Big Apple." Reviewers made note of Rooney's talent and high energy in this segment, paving the way for more such musical numbers in future Hardy films, as well as the very youth-oriented Rooney-Garland musicals to come.
For some reason, Sara Haden did not appear in Judge Hardy's Children or the next in the series, Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), the first to include Rooney's character in the title, signaling his ascendency as star of the series. In Haden's place, Betty Ross Clarke played Aunt Milly. Cecilia Parker became less prominent in the storylines as the series went on; interest shifted instead to Andy's various love interests, played by young actresses on their way up, including Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Donna Reed, Kathryn Grayson, and others.
Also included in this cast are Ruth Hussey, who would make her biggest mark a couple years later in The Philadelphia Story (1940); Jonathan Hale, a frequent player in MGM's B unit; and in an uncredited part as Joe the Chauffeur, Hal Le Sueur, brother of MGM star Joan Crawford.
Judge Hardy's Children was directed by former playwright and screenwriter George B. Seitz, who began the series and made 13 of the 16 Hardy features. Seitz also directed a short, Andy Hardy's Dilemma (1940), that served as a plea for charity.
1938 was a key year in Rooney's career. Not only was this picture a big hit, he also completed two other Hardy installments and five more films, including his acclaimed dramatic turn in Boys Town opposite Spencer Tracy.
Director: George B. Setiz
Screenplay: Kay Van Riper, based on characters from the play Skidding by Aurania Rouverol
Cinematography: Lester White
Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: David Snell
Cast: Mickey Rooney (Andy Hardy), Lewis Stone (Judge James Hardy), Fay Holden (Emily Hardy), Cecilia Parker (Marian Hardy), Betty Ross Clarke (Aunt Milly), Ann Rutherford (Polly Benedict), Jacqueline Laurent (Suzanne Cortot).
BW-78m. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon