The All-American Adolescent according to Two Hollywood Studios: Hardy Vs Aldrich

Cinema, Performing arts, Popular Culture

When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and 60s I was exposed, like everyone else, to saturation levels of US commercial television. Faced with the novelty of a new and revolutionary form of home entertainment, I clocked up the viewing hours (which turned into thousands of hours). Eventually through trial and error I picked out my favourite American programs, a few gems among the preponderance of TV dross and mediocrity.

Back then I was particularly fond of old black-and-white movies on TV (until 1975 all Australian television was in black-and-white!). Drilling down even deeper, 1940s and 50’s movie serials were highest on the totem of my juvenile television tastes. I lapped up countless viewings (and re-viewings) of the like of Ma and Pa Kettle, Blondie, Batman, Tarzan, Bowery Boys/Dead End Kids, to barely scratch the surface of my childhood obsession.

‘Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary’
As an Antipodean-based “honorary American boy”, a lot of my vicarious existence was channelled through Hollywood’s projection of the typical American teenage boy. MGM had Andy Hardy (played by that pint-sized bundle of energy, Mickey Rooney), whilst over at Paramount, the studio eventually tried to counter Andy’s popularity with Henry Aldrich (portrayed initially and briefly by the over-saccharine Jackie Cooper, but mostly by the perpetually perplexed-looking Jimmy Lydon).

Both screen personas had their measure of humorous escapades in each movie in the series…teenagers Andy and Henry got up much the same thing, they were both likeable, both “got into jams, had romantic vexations, and mischievously interfered in the lives of their older brothers and sisters”, with consequences all of which were at worse ephemeral[1].

Hardy and Aldrich each had his own distinctive and characteristic expressions, these verbal calling cards were often reiterated throughout each movie…Andy Hardy, when in ebullient mood, would chirpily respond to Polly Benedict or to another of his many, simultaneous love interests with “You said it, toots!” Henry Aldrich is universally remembered for the opening exchange with his mother who bellows: “Hen-reeeeeeeeeeeee! Hen-ree Al-drich!”, to which Henry from upstairs would haltingly and tremulously reply, “Com-ing, Mother!”

Once I latched on to Paramount’s counterpoint to the Hardys, the Aldriches, I quickly developed a preference for the new kid on the Hollywood block Henry Aldrich over Andy Hardy. The longer the Andy Hardy/Family sequence went, the more it seemed to wallow in “Gee mum'” sentimentality, with a touch of smug bourgeois self-satisfaction. Andy came from a distinctively middle class American family (his father was a court judge, as the good-intentioned Andy himself aspired to and eventually realised)…Henry seemed more to reside in the world of the working class family, not exactly down-at-heel, but hardly flush with affluence. The Henry movies were a bit more gritty, more down-to-earth and lacking the romanticised and soppy wholesomeness of the Hardy Family sagas.

The first Andy Hardy film was released in 1937, A Family Affair with 15 more following within the decade, plus a less successful ‘reunion’ film in 1958 focusing on Andy’s return to Carvel to take up his father’s old judicial post. The character of Henry Aldrich first surfaced in a Broadway play What a Life in 1938 (playwright: Clifford Goldsmith)…from there in span off into fourteen years of radio (1939-53), four years of television (1949-53), a series of ten movies, and an uncountable number of comic books, musical scores, pin-ups, games, and toys.

Stumbling, bumbling Henry!
The Aldrich movies never reached anywhere near the lofty heights of the Hardy films, neither in the returns from the box office or in the esteem of cinema critics✳. Henry Aldrich movies were either ignored by critics or dismissed as inferior B-movies, merely larks and juvenile fun…contrasting sharply with the symbolic status afforded the Hardy series by MGM, the cinematic embodiment of the “Stars and Stripes”, of “America”[2].

Jeffrey Dennis notes how the respective imaginary ‘worlds’ Andy and Henry inhabit sit poles apart. Carvel, the Hardy home town in small town Idaho, is comfortably ensconced in Middle American suburbia, a peaceful and harmonious realm in which the war (WWII) does not enter. Carvel and the Hardys represent an idyllic family lifestyle, with the films’ message a somewhat preachy reinforcement of solid and wholesome American values[3]. Against the stark realities of the Depression and the drift into global war, fictional Carvel offered the American public a chance to indulge in “feel-good” escapist diversions.

Henry’s home town Centerville, by contrast (located in an unidentified state) is a much more grim, dark and foreboding entity. Reminders of the war constantly swirl around the world of Henry and the Aldrich family and that of he and his best pal Dizzy (in the form of war bonds, war relief funds, rationing, air-raid drills)[4].

‘Henry Aldrich, Boy Scout’
Both boys regularly get themselves embroiled in injudicious teenage troubles but Henry Aldrich’s conundrums have the more serious consequences…whilst Andy at his incautious worse may be “fined for driving without a licence, but Henry is threatened with prison, juvenile hall, and a mental asylum”[5]. And Hardy’s often foolish escapades, unlike Aldrich’s, never amount to life-threatening situations.

Critics have also drawn attention to differences in how each screen teenager viewed the perennial adolescent boy issue of “girl trouble”. Whilst the easily love-struck Andy Hardy was unequivocally a dedicated girl-chaser most of the time, Henry Aldrich expressed a more ambivalent attitude towards the fairer sex: “Wimmen – they bore me!”, Henry exclaims in Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour[6]. Teenage Henry is reticence or seemingly indifferent to girls, preferring to spend time messing about with best mate Dizzy. Rather than being a manifestation of latent homosexuality, Henry with his simplified approach to life, most of the time just finds girls too complicated, not worth all the fuss and bother.

American youth in the Andy Hardy and Henry Aldrich films were depicted humorously, often with affectionate nostalgia and occasionally condescendingly. At the same time, both series revolving round the comical misadventures of American teenage boys were a window on the beginnings of a distinct adolescent sub-culture[7], which would take further shape in the years following WWII with the “Rebel Without a Cause” youth generation.

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✳ in 1939 Mickey Rooney was the number one box office star in American films, a position he retained for the following three years, Source: ‘Top Box Office Stars: 1932-1939 (Part 1)’, (Classic Film Guru), https://classicfilmguru.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/the-box-office-stars-1932-to-1939-part-1/

[1] RJ Bresler, Us Vs Them: American Political and Cultural Conflict from WWII to Watergate (2000)
[2] JP Dennis, We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love Before Girl-craziness (2007)
[3] in 1943 the film series was awarded a special Oscar for “achievement in portraying the American way of life”, Timothy Shary, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen” (2005)
[4] Dennis, op.cit.
[5] ibid.
[6] RB Armstrong & MW Armstrong, Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series (2009)
[7] PC Rollins, The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past (2004)