Entry number eight in the Hardy series sees America’s favorite family confront illness and the possibility of one of their own dying. Despite that depressing description the return of director George B. Seitz brings us a more typical Hardy family entry, much lighter overall than MGM's previous Hardy title, W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke's Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever from earlier in 1939.
While other Hardy titles introduce more famous actresses Judge Hardy and Son provides Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy with a stream young actresses to share the screen with. This begins and ends with his steady, Ann Rutherford’s Polly Benedict, but also introduces characters played by June Preisser and Margaret Early, each of whom return briefly in entry number ten, Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (1941), and, most notably this time around, Martha O’Driscoll’s only appearance in the series as Elvie Horton.
Given O’Driscoll’s later appearance in House of Dracula (1945) along with brief Carvel visits from Werewolf of London (1935) Henry Hull, as the Hardy family physician, and two-time Academy Award nominated supporting actress Maria Ouspenskaya, later of The Wolfman (1941) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), this is undoubtedly the Andy Hardy movie that will attract the most Universal horror fans!
But other than the then up-and-coming O’Driscoll as Elvie, our horror heroes don’t get much to do in Judge Hardy and Son. Such is the fate of the contract player.
Hull had already appeared with Rooney in a pair of earlier MGM hits, spending most of his time opposite Spencer Tracy in Boys Town (1938) and in a less memorable role earlier in 1939 in Babes in Arms. That hit also featured June Preisser performing some of the acrobatic dance moves that first brought the former vaudeville and revue star to MGM's attention. As for Hull, his best scene as Dr. Jones in Judge Hardy and Son comes when he allows Rooney to cling to him and burst into tears all over his shirtfront.
Ouspenskaya has the more important role in Judge Hardy and Son, appearing in the opening scene alongside Egon Brecher as an elderly couple calling upon Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone). Carvel may be idyllic, but its banks will still foreclose if you can't pay the mortgage. Ouspenskaya and Brecher, as the Volduzzis, have come to the Judge hoping he might have an idea to help save their home. Judge Hardy naturally asks if they have any children who might be of assistance.
“We had a daughter, but she’s … dead,” Ouspenskaya says, her pause arousing the Judge’s suspicion and soon giving son Andy Hardy a mystery to unravel through the younger female population of Carvel.
Back home Andy is having a heck of a time repairing the tire on his old jalopy. His attempt to rig up the tire with an inflated piece of an old hot water bottle is indicative of Andy’s real troubles in Judge Hardy and Son: money.
No sooner does Andy break open his bank for $2.11 than does old pal Beezy (George Breakston) pass through for his only scene, dropping off a poster advertising Carvel’s 4th of July dance and collecting $2 that Andy owed him. Eleven cents isn’t getting Andy his tire, but luckily sister Marian (Cecilia Parker) pulls up and loans him another two bucks. It’s all she can spare because she’s soon departing for a little vacation at the lake. Andy thanks Marian profusely, adding that her generosity at least proves that, “you must have been young once yourself.” Sweet kid.
Down to the tire shop where his girl Polly happens upon him while selling tickets for the 4th of July dance. Guess how much this meeting costs Andy? His funds are back down to the eleven cents.
Andy battles money woes throughout Judge Hardy and Son and only puts himself in a worse position after discovering he can charge just about anything around Carvel, which he does after finding out about the fifty dollar prize being awarded to the author of the best speech about Alexander Hamilton on the Fourth. Problem is, Andy didn't pay enough attention to the flier announcing the contest. In a stipulation so contrived that it’s funny, it turns out that the fifty dollar prize is for the best Hamilton essay by a girl; the best boy wins a twenty volume set of biographies!
Furthering Andy’s financial possibilities is the opportunity the Judge soon presents him with. He offers Andy a reward if he can discover any surviving children of the Volduzzis, that elderly couple from the opening scene. Andy decides that the answer to the Volduzzi mystery lies in the middle name of someone his age and that he’s going to investigate any of his peers whose middle initial begins with a “V.” The idea is so harebrained that we know it will yield results. After all, why are we wasting time on it otherwise?
Andy’s investigation begins when he goes for a walk with Polly and they wind up near Elvie Horton’s (O’Driscoll) rather impressive home. Andy leaves Polly behind and is soon being served shakes on the Horton estate while quizzing Elvie about her name. Does she spell it out, E-L-V-I-E, or is it L period V period? Elvie and the writers cheat us a bit on this point, but this is a Hardy movie so when it all winds down we don’t care too much about the slight. It’s during this visit that Andy originally finds out about the Alexander Hamilton contest.
Next up is Euphrasia V. Clark. I normally get a kick out of June Preisser, but her “Phraisie Daisy” act is a bit hard to take in this one! By this time Andy has found out he’s only eligible for the set of biographies in the Hamilton contest, so he proposes that he write the essay, Euphrasia submit it and they split the prize money. Phrasie Daisy is up for the idea as long as Andy drop Polly in favor of taking her to the 4th of July dance. Euphrasia soon backs out of their deal but holds Andy to the date with a touch of blackmail. All that and it turns out her middle name is Van Stump anyway.
Andy then pays a visit to Carvel’s young southern belle, Clarabelle V. Lee (Early). Her middle name is Voris but Clarabelle is sold on Andy’s essay scheme after he explains to her that the only way to become a big shot in Carvel is to show everyone you’ve got “brains oozing out all over.” Clarabelle replies, “I don’t think it’s right likely that I have enough brains to ooze with,” and Andy explains that that’s okay as he’ll be the one actually writing the essay. Clarabelle's Southern pride winds up foiling Andy’s plan on late notice.
Back home Emily Hardy (Fay Holden) and Aunt Millie (Sara Haden) have left for Canada to celebrate their parents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary, but the Judge and Andy come home to find Emily has returned ill that same night. She’s put to bed, but not before passing out in her husband’s arms and initiating panic in the Hardy household. After Hull’s doctor warns Andy that Mother Hardy is reaching a critical phase in what has developed into pneumonia, he advises that it might be best to interrupt sister Marian's vacation at the nearby lake.
It was a dark and stormy night, but they are the Hardys so they overcome the treacherous weather with a little help from their friends.
Because of Emily Hardy’s illness Judge Hardy and Son develops into the most overtly religious of the Hardy family entries. While the Judge is always quick with a prayer at supper time, Judge Hardy and Son even finds Andy praying aloud and the Judge commenting upon the fickleness of their faith: “How strange it is. We thoughtless, selfish human beings must have tragedy come to our lives to make us call on God for help. I don’t think I’d have been able to stand it the past two hours, alone here, without that faith, without that solace.”
Scott McGee’s brief article on TCM.com traces Judge Hardy and Son’s most famous bit of prayer directly to Metro Goldwyn Mayer boss Louis B. Mayer, the world’s biggest supporter of both the Hardys and motherhood in general. In a story that dates back at least as far as Bosley Crowther’s 1958 book about MGM, The Lion’s Share, Mayer scolded writer Carey Wilson over the prayer included in his original script and then dropped to his knees before Wilson and implored, "Dear God, please don't let my mom die, because she's the best mom in the world. Thank you, God." Wilson wisely chose to use Mayer’s prayer.
Judge Hardy and Son is aptly titled as the Stone and, especially, Rooney characters are the main focus. O’Driscoll scores in her role as Elvie Horton and the other younger actresses all make their mark to some degree as well. Despite such a large cast Ann Rutherford and Cecilia Parker, as Andy’s girlfriend and sister respectively, each get a bit more to do than they have in other entries with Parker especially shining in a few moments of brotherly love with Rooney. Fay Holden, despite being our center of attention, is mostly sedate from fever in this entry and Sara Haden winds up with the shortest shrift of any main Hardy family member.
The third and final Hardy release in what is often regarded as Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, Judge Hardy and Son is not mentioned in the same breath as the better regarded classics from that time, but it made its money, as all Hardy films did. Scott Eyman pointed out in his Lion of Hollywood that the three Hardy movies from that year each took in over $1.2 million at the box office and were completed on budgets of approximately $300,000 apiece. In an interview with James Bawden, Ann Rutherford says that Mayer told her that this particular entry, Judge Hardy and Son, had greater profits than the 1939 Garbo classic Ninotchka.
Judge Hardy and Son is an overall entertaining and better than average Hardy series entry. It provides some of the series’ best dramatic moments courtesy of Emily Hardy’s illness and also allows Mickey Rooney plenty of time to scheme and flirt as Andy.
That said, the funniest line in the movie may actually come from Lewis Stone at the very open of Judge Hardy and Son. Before the Volduzzis happen along Judge Hardy’s courtroom is empty. The Judge is busy with his head down in his work when he says, without looking up, “Court’s in session, what’s the first case, bailiff?”
“There ain’t any,” comes the response.
“Isn’t, not ain’t,” the Judge says, raising a finger to correct before catching himself. “Excuse me, I was thinking of my son, Andrew.”
By entry number eight we’ve come to know the Hardys so well that we get the joke even better than Carvel’s own bailiff does.
Judge Hardy and Son can be purchased as individual Made To Order DVD from the Warner Archive or as part of The Andy Hardy Collection, Volume 1. It should also be noted that Warner Archive recently released Volume 2 of The Andy Hardy Collection, so now you can own the entire Hardy Series by purchasing both sets.
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Images illustrating this post are either screen captures from my recording of Judge Hardy and Son off of Turner Classic Movies or, in the case of the crisper images, original promotional photos that I have on hand and available for sale at the time I write this.