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A Family Affair

A Family Affair(1937)

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teaser A Family Affair (1937)

A Family Affair (1937) has the distinction of being the first film in what became the wildly popular Hardy Family series for MGM. The plot centers on Judge James Hardy (Lionel Barrymore) and his family as he faces political opposition from the town citizens during his re-election. This charming story about a small-town American family struck a chord with moviegoers who immediately clamored for more of Judge Hardy and his brood. The Hardy Family films, totaling sixteen in all, were a profitable sensation for MGM, and so was their young breakout star Mickey Rooney as teenage son Andy.

A Family Affair began when Sam Marx, a story editor at MGM, convinced the studio to purchase the rights to a play called Skidding by Aurania Rouverol that he had seen years before in New York. Marx wanted it for MGM's B-unit, which made features that were typically the second film on a double bill. They were cheap to make and gave up-and-coming filmmakers a chance to show what they could do on a limited budget. The B-unit was under the supervision of producer Lucien Hubbard, and it wasn't easy for Marx to convince him to buy Skidding. "I practically had to get him down on the floor with my knees in his neck to make him buy the play," recalled Marx in a 1986 interview. "Hubbard had so little confidence in the project that he wound up letting me produce it for him under his supervision."

Director George B. Seitz, who would go on to direct 14 of the 16 Hardy films, was tapped to direct after deals fell through with two other directors, Richard Thorpe and Edwin L. Marin. For the cast of Judge Hardy and his family, MGM lifted most of the actors from one of its earlier films Ah, Wilderness! (1935) including Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington, Cecilia Parker and Mickey Rooney. Ah, Wilderness!, the only comedy ever written by Eugene O'Neill, was a coming-of-age tale set in small-town America. It was similar enough in tone to A Family Affair that MGM hoped to duplicate its success.

The distinguished Lionel Barrymore wasn't particularly keen on acting in a B-picture, but he was under contract and made the best of the situation. Sixteen-year-old Mickey Rooney understood that the small part of Andy Hardy was an opportunity. "I knew A Family Affair was a B-picture," says Rooney in his autobiography Life is Too Short, "but that didn't stop me from putting my all into it." Rooney almost missed out on being a part of the Hardy family, however. Another juvenile actor named Frankie Thomas was set to play Andy, but by the time shooting was to begin in the fall of 1936, he had grown too tall and was replaced by the more diminutive Rooney.

To everyone's surprise, this small B-picture that was shot in only 15 days on a shoestring budget was a smash. The Variety review called A Family Affair "wholesome entertainment, well done by a capable cast and superbly directed." Frank Nugent's New York Times review said, "Mr. Barrymore knows how to handle these things, and so do the other members of the cast...we rather enjoyed our eavesdropping at Judge Hardy's home." Exhibitors, pleased with the film's business, sent telegrams to MGM calling for another Hardy film. One exhibitor from Rochester, New York wired MGM, "For God's sake let's have more of that Rooney kid. He really wowed them...The kid's a gold mine...Please make another Hardy picture right away."

It was unusual for studios to make sequels in 1937, especially a sequel to a B movie. However, MGM head Louis B. Mayer recognized potential when he saw it and soon ordered a second Hardy film called You're Only Young Once (1937). This time out, only Mickey Rooney, Cecilia Parker (Marion Hardy) and Sara Haden (Aunt Milly Forrest) reprised their original roles. Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington in the roles of Judge and Mrs. Hardy were replaced by Lewis Stone and Fay Holden. Ann Rutherford also replaced Margaret Marquis as Andy's love interest, Polly Benedict. Andy's second sister, Joan Hardy, was dropped entirely from the series. Though the character of Andy Hardy is secondary in A Family Affair, he soon became the focus of the Hardy series. As Mickey Rooney's stardom skyrocketed, the film titles started featuring Andy Hardy's name beginning with Love Finds Andy Hardy in 1938.

Over the next few years MGM cranked out Hardy pictures as quickly as audiences could gobble them up. From 1937 to 1939, MGM was averaging one Hardy picture every three months. In 1942 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the series a special Academy Award "for its achievement in representing the American way of life." The Hardy series lasted until its last film in 1958 called Andy Hardy Comes Home.

Producer: Lucien Hubbard, Samuel Marx
Director: George B. Seitz
Screenplay: Hugo Butler, Aurania Rouverol, Kay Van Riper
Cinematography: Lester White
Film Editing: George Boemler
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: David Snell
Cast: Lionel Barrymore (Judge James K. Hardy), Cecilia Parker (Marion Hardy), Eric Linden (Wayne Trent), Mickey Rooney (Andy Hardy), Charley Grapewin (Frank Redmond), Spring Byington (Mrs. Emily Hardy).
BW-69m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Andrea Passafiume

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