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It's impossible to overestimate just how big a star Will Rogers was in his day--more than a star, really, a cultural figure whose homespun humor contained deadly barbs against the pretentiousness of modern society and the flaws and foibles of political pursuits. His stature was such that journalist and cultural critic H.L. Mencken dubbed him "the most dangerous writer alive," poet Carl Sandburg called him "without embarrassment a great man," and no less than President Franklin Roosevelt credited him with returning Americans to "a sense of proportion."
Handy Andy (1934), Rogers's 47th film appearance, may not be quite worthy of such superlatives, but in its own gently comic way, it was typical of his jibes against the pitfalls of wealth and the frivolities of the leisure class versus the values of home, work, and family. In many of his pictures, Rogers played a small-town judge or businessman who cherished the most simple, direct American way of life, bringing him into conflict with snobbish offspring, wives led astray by oily sophisticates, and greedy types eager to cash in at the expense of simple folk -- all of whom are eventually deflated by Rogers's wry humor and shrewd homilies.
Handy Andy fits firmly within this formula. The film casts Rogers as a small-town pharmacist, Andy Yates, pressured by his wife into selling his business to a large drugstore chain. Much like the wife in the drama Dodsworth (1936), Mrs. Yates longs to be free of the everyday realities of home and commerce to live the high-life among the more fashionable idle classes and to pursue a career in music. Andy goes along, mostly to quiet his wife's nagging, but finds himself at loose ends without his business, trying his hand at hobbies ranging from golf to raising pigeons to gardening, with disastrous and humorous results. He accompanies his social-climbing wife to New Orleans, where he has to rescue her from an entanglement with a gigolo. In the end, Andy's homespun values win out. His daughter is finally united with the young man she loves (against her mother's disapproval), Mrs. Yates learns the folly of her pursuits, and Andy gets his business and old way of life back.
The film was based on the play Merry Andrew by Lewis Beach (unrelated to the 1958 Danny Kaye circus film of that title), but the script contains some characteristic Rogers quips. When a hunter comes into his drugstore wearing a vest full of shotgun shells, Andy remarks, "Where are you going, to a disarmament conference?" When asked to dance at a New Orleans costume ball, he replies, "I used to shake a leg; they shake yet, but not in the same way."
The ball scene required the star to dress as a comic Tarzan in pink tights and loin cloth and do a wild adagio dance with fireball Conchita Montenegro, one of several elements of the plot that Rogers found rather ridiculous. Distinguished stage actress Peggy Wood, who played Mrs. Yates, said in a 1970 interview that neither she nor Rogers liked Handy Andy much: "I thought what I had to do was just plain silly, and he thought so, too." Will also referred to the movie as "an animal picture, with actors" because of the two dozen homing pigeons, Great Dane, and cat with a litter of kittens featured in the story.
Robert Taylor made his feature film debut here as the young man the Yates daughter is in love with. Taylor had been signed to a contract by MGM, where he would stay for the next two decades as one of the studio's biggest male stars, but with no projects set for him at his new home, he was loaned out to Fox to make Handy Andy. Taylor later commented on Rogers's kindness to him and the star's efforts to make the newcomer feel at ease. Taylor also said in a 1965 interview with Lawrence J. Quirk that "since he had always cherished the American way of life, he could think of no one he would rather have started his film career with than Rogers, who stood for rock-ribbed American principles and attacked sham and corruption with the sharpest weapon of all: humor."
Will Rogers's consideration of his fellow workers also extended to his crew. Peggy Wood noted that the film was ahead of schedule, and on the last day of production, during a scene in which Rogers had to lie in bed, he wouldn't get up. He lay there, stalling long enough to assure that the crew would get their full pay for the shoot.
Singer-actress Peggy Wood (1892-1978) was one of the leading stars of Broadway for decades, appearing in works by Shakespeare, Shaw and Noel Coward, who wrote Bitter Sweet specifically for her. She also made her mark on television as the star of the long-running acclaimed series Mama, as the matriarch of a Norwegian immigrant family. She was still using her considerable skills as a singer late in her career as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music (1965).
Handy Andy premiered at the Roxy Theatre in New York in August 1934. The following month it was the opening night feature of the first drive-in theater in Los Angeles, initially called simply The Drive-In (because there were no others) but later renamed the Olympia.
Beach's play was also the basis for a later adaptation, Young as You Feel (1940), part of a series of B films Fox produced about a fictional family called the Joneses, starring Jed Prouty and Spring Byington. Coincidentally, Rogers made an unrelated film in 1931 also called Young as You Feel.
Director: David Butler
Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel
Screenplay: Kubec Glasmon, Henry Johnson; adapted by William M. Conselman from the play Merry Andrew by Lewis Beach
Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Original Music: David Buttolph
Cast: Will Rogers (Andy Yates), Peggy Wood (Ernestine Yates), Mary Carlisle (Janice Yates), Paul Harvey (Charlie Norcross), Robert Taylor (Lloyd Burmeister).
by Rob Nixon
The Films of Robert Taylor by Lawrence J. Quirk, (Lyle Stuart, 1979)