Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)

Love Finds Andy Hardy is the fourth installment in a series of sixteen movies about a family living in a generic, fictional America town. The titular character is played by Mickey Rooney in all sixteen of the films, and he has by far the most significant role in the film. Apparently, earlier installments were more focused on the family as a whole, but by now the series had turned into a vehicle for Rooney, who was at the time one of Hollywood's biggest draws.

If you're wondering why time basically swallowed up a film series that lasted into double-digits, the answer - at least in my opinion - is that this thing is about as boring as movies come.

That's unfair, of course. I'm watching this more than eighty years after its release, and - as I'll cover in a moment - it likely influenced countless pieces of media I'm familiar with. Tropes and jokes are boring after you've seen them a thousand times, but they were all original once. And, as far as I can tell, this was the first modern serialized Christmas "episode" of its kind

That may require some explanation. Televisions certainly existed in 1938, but there were no networks and only a few local stations. The first TV sitcoms wouldn't air until the late 40s. Three Andy Hardy movies were released in 1938, followed by three more in '39. These are technically films, but the series is closer to our modern idea of a TV show. This was, essentially, the Andy Hardy Christmas episode, and I suspect it inspired generations of family sitcoms to come.

That more or less ends the "things making this interesting" portion of the review.

Again, I'm being unfair. Actually, I'm ignoring an incredibly significant aspect of this movie altogether: sound. This was the first MGM production to make use of new recording technology, giving the film better sound than... and you're already asleep, right? Yeah, I don't care about the recording device they used, either, but it's the other reason I suspect this got selected for the National Film Registry above movies people still care about.

Okay, one more important note: Judy Garland co-stars in this, so that's going to elevate anything in importance. And, for what it's worth, both her and Rooney are good. You can see why they're among the highest regarded stars of their generation. It's just... the movie still isn't actually interesting to watch in 2022.

Let's back up and talk premise. As I mentioned, this is the forth installment in the series, a fact that seems to not matter at all. There seems to be a little continuity in the form of recurring characters and at least one brief mention of something that happened in the previous movie, but it all feels minor. The story, to the extent there is one, is pretty isolated.

The plot, or at least the A-plot, centers around Andy wanting to get a car to bring a date to a Christmas Eve dance. Said date is mainly relevant, because he wants to look cool. His current girlfriend, Polly, is going away for Christmas, so he agrees to take another girl, Cynthia, in exchange for eight bucks from a friend who is also going out of town and wants his girlfriend seeing someone he trusts to dump her after the holiday. Andy needs the eight dollars to pay off a used car he's already put a down payment on. Also relevant is Betsy, four years younger than Andy, staying next door for the holiday.

Betsy's the one played by Garland. Her deal is that she wants to be thought of as more grown-up. She wants a little romance and has a very bizarre crush on Andy, despite the fact - and I really can't stress this enough - that Andy is garbage.

Seriously, garbage. He's awful to Cynthia, to say nothing to the circumstances around how he wound up being her boyfriend. He's a solipsistic narcissist fixated on appearances. And I'm not even getting into a throwaway line from Polly about him forcing her into a kiss. Bizarrely, we're expected to sympathize with the kid and root for him.

Naturally, Polly returns early, creating a situation where Andy technically has two dates to the upcoming dance. The movie doesn't follow through on this the way later versions of the trope do. Instead, Betsy tricks Cynthia into dumping him. At first, Andy's elated, but then he gets dumped by Polly after she discovers the whole debacle.

By this time, Andy actually does have the car, though he's left without a date. Or at least he is until Betsy shows up in an expensive dress, and he takes her despite her age. It turns out that because she's played by Judy Garland, she has magic singing powers that make her (and by extension him) the stars of the ball.

On Christmas, Betsy smooths things over with Polly, who agrees to take Andy back. And since his grandmother's illness wasn't fatal after all, his mother makes it home to enjoy Christmas with the--

Oh, shit! I forgot about the B-plot. Right, right. Andy's father is a successful judge, and he eventually learns the value of youth when his son brings him to a friend who owns a ham radio. It's a boy the judge recently sentenced to work off damages to a tractor he wrecked, so he doesn't think the kid will help him. But not only is he willing to help, the ham radio proves the perfect solution to send a message to the judge's wife at her mother's house, since Andy's grandmother is possibly dying.

Right, right. The C-plot. I think. Yes, I'm pretty sure the attention spent on the dying grandmother outranks that paid to the new cook or Andy's sister's boy trouble. Close call, though.

I'm only half joking here. Early in the movie, we learn the kid's grandmother is seriously ill, and there's concern she won't survive. Andy's mother travels to be at her side, and they occasionally get calls or messages on how that's going. Everyone's briefly sad, but the lack of significance paid to this compared to Andy's dumb dating issues or his attempt to procure eight bucks is incredible.

But eventually, at midnight on Christmas Eve, their mom shows up with good news: Grandma isn't going to die this Christmas, so there was no reason to stick around and spend Christmas with the woman who gave birth to her. Or, you know, have her family come up for the day. The whole thing feels tacked on in an attempt to force drama. Which... I mean... yeah, okay, that's basically what everything that came after this would do. They just got better at it over time.

The movie makes for an odd experience, and not a particularly interesting one. The vast majority of jokes no longer land, and the tone is utterly bizarre. I get the impression some earlier installments were a bit risque, but despite the subject matter, Andy's interest in women ends with wanting kisses, which makes this feel somehow both skeezy and sexless. None of it feels honest or authentic, and the characters aren't at all likable. Andy feels like a precursor to Zack Morris in a world populated with dull, lifeless people.

As a side note, I think this technically counts as a musical, but it's a close call. Garland gets three songs, two of which are sung back-to-back at the party. The third is sort of an "I wish" song earlier that's ambiguously non-diegetic.

The Christmas elements are mainly notable in how muted they feel. They put up a tree on Christmas Eve, but it's really only around for the scene. Likewise, there are some decorations at the dance, but there's no real story reason the dance has to be Christmas themed - it feels like more of a random choice. There are a few gifts, but these are pretty incidental, too. The most significant Christmas element is the concern around grandma and the mom's last-minute reappearance for the holiday. This definitely feels like an early version of the Christmas miracle cliché, even though the movie doesn't give any of this the weight it logically deserves.

I don't want to be too dismissive of this movie. Mickey Rooney does some really impressive physical comedy here, including exaggerated faces, pratfalls, and double-takes. He was really, really good at this stuff. Likewise, Garland's talent shines through, particularly when she's singing. In 1938, that was probably enough. But - again - this isn't 1938, and this stuff isn't new anymore. I'm not going to chime in on whether this counts as good for its time - I just haven't seen enough from the era to speak with any kind of authority on that subject. But regardless of whether it was good then, it doesn't offer much to make it worth seeing now.

Oh, and in case anyone's curious, I will not be tracking down the other fifteen installments in this series.