Monday, May 23, 2011

My Life with Andy Hardy: Carvel, USA

The scent of lilacs on warm breezes reminds us of school graduations then and now, of hometowns and our old high school haunts. Join us at the corner drugstore for a soda as Bijou writer Victoria Balloon muses on America’s favorite high school youth of the 1930s.

Whenever I need soothing, I watch an Andy Hardy movie. MGM made this series of B movies from 1937-1946 featuring the lives of the Hardy family with the focus on the adventures of son Andy.

A high school youth growing up in the small town of Carvel, Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) falls in love with various girls and gets into financial scrapes, usually related to the complexities of his love life. Father Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) deals with the best and worst of human nature as seen from the bench while guiding his family though real-estate deals gone sour, multi-million-dollar inheritances, and the occasional family vacation.

A number of stars were in these films (the role of Judge Hardy was played first by Lionel Barrymore, then by Stone) and many young starlets passed through them (Ann Rutherford, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Donna Reed, Kathryn Grayson and Bonita Granville were a few of Andy’s love interests). These films, along with Boys Town (1938) and the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals made Rooney the Motion Picture Herald’s most popular actor of 1939 and 1940.

These films are snapshots of an America never quite touched by the Depression or the looming war in Europe. Nothing really bad ever happens. At the most difficult moments Judge Hardy is there for a “man to man” talk with Andy, and when Judge Hardy needs comfort, there is always the simple wisdom of “Mother” Hardy.

I didn’t have a hometown, but I knew what a hometown was supposed to look like from the Andy Hardy pictures. You could walk to the drug store for a milkshake or ride a bike to the movies, and you could drop in on friends without having to arrange permission and a ride days in advance.

Of course, after watching each of these films ten times or more, I realize that not every storyline has aged well. These days Andy’s insistent groping would get him charged with sexual harassment if some girl didn’t first knock him flat, and the artificial coquetries of both Marian Hardy and Polly Benedict can grate on one’s nerves. Judge Hardy needs to stay away from real estate deals and his wife needs to read a newspaper. The only one who seems to consistently show sense is Aunt Millie.

But for the sake of cinematic diversion I watch through historian’s glasses, and during those antediluvian moments I turn my attention to settings. Indeed, if I shut my eyes, I can walk through the Hardy house. I know what Andy has hanging on his bedroom walls (a Yale pennant and a painting of a clown). I know which china pattern adorns the Hardy table. (Spode’s Blue Willow – a studio favorite or else the only complete set of dishware on the lot; it appears in many MGM films of the time.) What I have never been able to figure out, is where exactly is Andy’s hometown of Carvel?

A quick look on the Internet has New York and Ohio as top contenders, but no proofs are given to back up the claims. Carvel certainly isn’t in the South; in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) there is snow at Christmas, and Andy’s conversations with a Southern belle are a minor plot point in Judge Hardy and Son (1939). It certainly isn’t in the West; in Out West with the Hardys (1938) the Hardys went “out west,” considered by Mrs. Hardy to be a very long trip.

Indeed, somewhere in the northeast is a strong possibility; in Love Finds Andy Hardy we learn that Mrs. Hardy and her sister are from Brigham, Canada – a city in Quebec just over the border from Vermont. There are also references to “the City” sprinkled about in several films, as if Carvel were only a train ride away from New York City. Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941) implies that Andy and Betsy Booth drive from Carvel to New York City in a day, and that Andy hitchhikes out of New York and back to Carvel in a night.

However, Ohio cannot be ruled out. In Judge Hardy's Children (1938), Andy’s sister Marian condescendingly chides her brother for “those awful Midwestern A’s.” Andy often says “warsh” for “wash” – a pronunciation often associated with Ohio and Indiana – but I suspect that has more to do with Mickey Rooney’s growing up on the Vaudeville circuit than any characterization of Andy.

Yet in the same film, Judge Hardy makes an announcement on Radio station KTON. With a few exceptions, call signs beginning with K are west of the Mississippi. Current lists have KTON registered (but non-operating) around Killeen-Temple TX, but a list of call signs in operation in 1936 don’t have KTON registered at all. Did MGM film the scene at a local California station, or did they make up the call sign?

(I purposely do not include clues from Andy Hardy's Dilemma: A Lesson in Mathematics (1940), a one-reel short designed to highlight the services of specific charities and clearly filmed around Los Angeles County, because I just can’t see Carvel with palm trees; and Andy Hardy Comes Home (1958), because frankly, I find it depressing – Judge Hardy has passed away and Andy realizes how much Carvel has changed since he was a boy.)

Perhaps the most important clues to the whereabouts of Carvel are not within the Andy Hardy films, but with the then head of MGM studios. From Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: the life and legend of Louis B. Mayer:

“The best pictures (I) ever made – the only pictures I really ever took an active hand in – were the Andy Hardy Series… They were good and wholesome. They had heart. You can’t imagine how much good they did for America.”

The son of Jewish Russian immigrants who began in the junk business in Saint John, New Brunswick, Mayer embraced a self-made American identity, declaring himself born on the Fourth of July. He embraced what we now call “family values” – the sanctity of motherhood, rewarding virtue while punishing vice, and unselfconscious reflections on religion and patriotism. All MGM films bear his stamp of “wholesome entertainment,” but perhaps none more so than the Andy Hardy films.

“Creating this New England utopia was all part of L. B. Mayer’s master plan to reinvent America,” said Mickey Rooney. “In most of his movies that came under his control, Mr. Mayer knew that he was ‘confecting, not reflecting’ America. . . . He wanted values to be instilled in the country and knew how influential films could be. . . The picture helped Mr. Mayer cast a spell on America, on its values and attitudes and images.” (from M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, Michael Troyan)

Rooney’s reference to a “New England Utopia” refers to the section of MGM’s Lot 2 where the outdoor scenes of Carvel were filmed. “New England Street” was created from the original Ah Wilderness! (1935) sets (which were based on director Clarence Brown’s hometown of Clinton, MA) and some of the Polly of the Circus (1932) and David Copperfield (1935) sets moved from their original locations. New England Street wasn’t used exclusively for the Andy Hardy productions (the Hardy home can be seen in several episodes of the 1960s television series, The Twilight Zone), but the Andy Hardy productions were made exclusively on the New England Street set – essentially making the set Carvel, USA.

With the dismantling of the studio system in the 1950s, MGM fell on hard times. In 1967 a fire destroyed part of Lot 2, and this combined with the studio’s sinking fortunes resulted in the sale of all the studio’s assets in the late 1960s and 70s. The backlots were parceled out to developers, and Carvel became prime real estate for housing developments.

To say that Carvel still exists as it has always existed – on celluloid only – misses the point of Mayer’s beloved creation. Andy Hardy’s Carvel is a portrait of small town America, everywhere at once and nowhere in particular, that still inspires a collective nostalgia. Longing for "the Good Old Days," we are longing for our own personal Carvel and what we have lost by growing up. This is why the Andy Hardy series endures; sometimes we all want to go home again.

For more on Andy Hardy and the movie mogul who made him, check out Lion of Hollywood: the life and legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman, available in part as a Google Book.

What went on behind the scenes was just as interesting as what went on the silver screen! M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, Michael Troyan delivers a look at the reality behind the facades with interviews, photograph, and first-hand accounts.

You Said It, Toots! Andy Hardy Fan Site has credit information for each films plus notes, reviews from when the films were released, and some of the more memorable lines.

You can also read parts of Aurania Rouverol’s original 1925 play, Skidding, and see where Andy Hardy originated (in the play, it was Idaho!).

Alas, only two Andy Hardy films are available on DVD . But Turner Classic Movies shows them now and then (Andy Hardy's Double Life is on Thursday, May 26 -- check your local listings!), and at least once a year they show the entire series in order. As Andy would say, “Woo-Woo!”

Now, sit back, relax, and enjoy the delightful original trailer for the fourth film in the Andy Hardy series: Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)


Cliff Aliperti said...

I just read this over on MovieFanFare, but when I went to comment their site white-screened on me so I made it over here!

Great look at a series that has grown on me a lot the past couple of years as it shifted in my mind from hokey to quaint to good fun!

I always assumed Carvel was in New York, but then again guess where I'm from ... New York, of course!

But that assumption might just further confirm MGM's Everywhere USA target for setting, no?

Thanks for the great article, glad MovieFanFare pointed me to it!

Anonymous said...

The original play is set in Carvel, Idaho.

Robert Dreifort said...

What is the name of the theme song played at the beginning and end of all the Andy Hardy films?

BijouBob said...

All we could find is this notation found on IMDb: "The Hardy Series Theme Music Written by David Snell"
So likely the Hardy theme song did not have an actual name, just titled "The Hardy Series Theme Music." Checking further, it appears composer Snell also composed music for the MGM "Maisie" films, which in turn was used in several "Tarzan" films. Amazing to see the many wonderful films for which David Snell composed the music. Here is the link to IMDb:
Great thanks for the fun question!

James said...

I always wondered where Carvel was I assumed in Upstate New York Somewhere but they never really said during the series. I read somewhere it was supposed to be in Idaho but how could MGM explain " Out West with the Hardys " if they are living there. Andy Hardy creator Aurania Rouverol was the mother of writer Jean Rouverol who was a Communist Part member and was blacklisted from Hollywood after WWII. I cannot find anything on her mothers politics but one can see some Socialist Realism in some of the Andy Hardy scripts.