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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Andy Hardy's Private Secretary (1941) and Spring Reunion (1956)



Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (1941) celebrates the high school graduation of Mikey Rooney as Andy Hardy, a member of the class of 1941.  Spring Reunion (1956), starring Betty Hutton and Dana Andrews, is a look at another class of ’41 at their 15th reunion.  The first movie idealistically launches teenagers into their newly proclaimed adulthood at the first major accomplishment of their lives—commencement, and the latter film looks back with a wistful sadness and even frustration, questioning just what have they accomplished since.  


We’ve mentioned before the deeper meaning of being a member of a high school graduating class in the spring of 1941 in this previous post on Peyton Place (1957).  Though World War II had already begun and most young people were likely expectant that the U.S. would join the Allies sooner rather than later, it must have been a strangely unsettling feeling graduating from high school that spring of 1941.  Plans for further education, or job options, would have been made probably only tentatively, with an uneasy suspicion of the lack of permanence in a world catching fire.


Andy Hardy plans to go to college, but with his typically jubilant frenzy, he never gives the impression he suspects his plans might be knocked out by the war.  (We discussed his next venture in this post on Life Begins for Andy Hardy - 1941) Mikey Rooney, a workhorse actor whose well over 300 films began when he was barely old enough to tie his shoes, had traded a long run as “Mickey Maguire” for a long run as Andy Hardy by 1937 and Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary was tenth in the series.  He could play the part with his eyes closed, and the mugging all-American fella in the sweater vest was Louis B. Mayer’s schmaltzy paean to American boyhood, a mantle not always worn comfortably by Rooney.

Lewis Stone is his long-suffering pop, Judge Hardy; Fay Holden is his adoring and somewhat ditzy mom; Sara Haden is back as doting maiden Aunt Milly who lives with them, and who teaches English at the local high school.  Older sister Marian is absent from this entry in the series and it is explained that she’s away in New York City.

Ann Rutherford’s back as Mikey’s best girl Polly, and spends most of the movie in a jealous snit.  The main diversion for the Hardy clan, besides Andy’s struggle to graduate, is the Land family.  Widower Ian Hunter lives in a small cottage on the other side of the tracks with his son Harry, played by Todd Karns; and his daughter Kathryn, played by Kathryn Grayson in her first movie.  She is the reason Ann Rutherford’s in a jealous snit. The secondary characters are always more interesting in the Hardy series because we already know Andy’s going to be okay no matter what. His family will always bail him out, and he’s Uncle Louis B. Mayer’s pride and joy.


Young Miss Grayson is fresh-faced and natural, and I think her appearance here is actually less affected than some of her later performances when her career had hit its peak in the following decade.  Her voice, of course, is lovely and she gets to display her talent more than once in this film, most notably in selections from Lucia di Lammermoor.  Louis B. Mayer convinced her to turn down her dream of an operatic career in favor of the movies.  A purely unselfish act on his part, you understand.


Todd Karns, son of our favorite smarmy bus passenger, Roscoe Karns (“Shapely’s the name, and that’s the way I like ‘em”), also made his film debut in this movie.  It is never said that the Land siblings are twins, but they are both graduating, and because they are poor, Karns does not have the requisite white flannel pants, and Grayson does not have the requisite silk stockings (still available even with the war on?) to take part in the ceremony.  Mickey Rooney, their fairy godfather, will take care of that.

They had lived with their dad in Europe for several years, but the war has put a damper on his travel business (nobody wants to vacation in war zones, go figure), and working in a garage is the only job he’s been able to find.  His ability to speak nine languages will be just the angle for Judge Hardy to give him a hand up at the end of the movie.  Anybody who enters the Hardys’ magical sphere is always the better for it.  

There is something amusingly snobbish about Louis B. Mayer’s version of a perfect America where Andy Hardy, the son of a judge, and Polly Benedict, the daughter of the local banker, are regarded as typically middle class—both will be presented with brand-new cars by their dads—while Mr. Land, who must work in a garage as a mere “working man,” the expression used to be, is regarded as somehow pitiable.  Judge Hardy must remind his son to be nice to the Land kids and include them in their own graduation ceremony.

Kathryn Grayson is the private secretary in the title, assigned to help Mickey in his duties as class president in the final hectic weeks of senior year.  He has the ceremony to arrange, the yearbook, is writing the class play, and as a result of his over-extending himself, he flunks his English final.  Even Auntie Milly could do nothing to save him.

Todd Karns, who is understandably fed up with Mikey’s antics with the resentment a poor kid has for an upper-middle class kid who’s getting a brand-new car for graduation, nevertheless finds the loophole to get him a makeup test and together with Kathryn and Ann Rutherford, stays up all night and force-feeds English grammar rules into Mickey’s thick head.

Kids today might regard the importance of English grammar on the same level of unbelievability as the apparent social shame of not owning white flannel pants.

Todd is given the chance to pay off his graduation fee and contribute to the festivities by being allowed to decorate the high school auditorium for graduation.  Not only does he win the prestigious $25 prize for academics and citizenship, but his artistry is rewarded by being offered a job creating window displays for a local department store.  This is more than just a convenient happy ending or a deus ex machina, at least for our purposes in examining the cultural background of movies.  It tells us a little more.  These are kids who want to work, have seen their father struggle, and they want to help him and pay their own way.  The Great Depression is receding, but it’s all these teens remember and it will mark them for life, and a job, any job, made one a winner, at least in one’s own mind. We might wonder how Kathryn can have such a polished coloratura soprano voice with no mention of voice teachers, but we can accept that Todd might not have plans for college and be thrilled at starting a career in a department store.  

If you can find a department store in your town that is not a chain, they still likely may have an outside advertising agency handling that for them.  Once upon a time, retail was local, every facet of running the store, nothing outsourced, and the boss was the owner.

At one point, Mickey announces, “I don’t live in the present.  I belong to the future.”

The future, at least fifteen years down road, is where Spring Reunion takes us. The town of Carson might not be so very different from the Hardys’ town of Carvel, but the seaside burg has undergone a lot of real estate development in the backwash of the war. Jean Hagen, who plays Betty Hutton’s girlhood chum, returns to her old hometown for the reunion with the bemused, incredulous, “What happened to this town anyway?  Supermarkets, ranch houses….”  

The movie sinks us into sleepy springtime nostalgia with the opening credits taking the form of yearbook pages.  Betty Hutton had been “most popular girl.”  Dana Andrews had been “most likely to succeed.”  Jack Frazer plays the football hero.  Jean Hagen had a less stellar high school identity; she is comically noted as a chess club captain and assistant proofreader of the yearbook.  When she arrives to attend the reunion, she is on a much-needed vacation from her husband and four kids. She is perhaps back not so much to relive the glory of her high school days—they were not so glorious—as she is on much-delayed, last-chance at being the person she wanted to be then.

Betty Hutton is one of the organizers of the reunion, and it’s easy to see why she was voted most popular.  No “clique” is inferred here, her popularity comes from her genuine likeability and her friendliness with everyone.  Betty Hutton is really quite appealing in this quiet role.  Some of her other movie performances tend to jump into your face and choke off your air.  This role, her last film, perhaps because of the nuance of wistfulness, of sadness below the surface, is more intimate and draws our interest and our sympathy.

Betty’s problem, opposite from Jean Hagen’s, is that she is not married and has no children.  She helps her father run a successful real estate business, but the refreshing sight of seeing a woman in this period capably handle a business with authority is tempered by the sight of the woman questioning her self-worth because of not being in a romantic relationship.  Her bigger problem is one she does not see:  Her father, who calls her “Kitten,” is entirely too clingy.  Played by Robert F. Simon, Papa seems to enjoy his daughter’s company more than his wife’s.  She is played by Laura La Plante, and her eyes are wide open to the situation, and she tries to tactfully pull him away.  A subtle point made with the set decoration is seen late in the movie when we see two photos on either side of her father’s desk at the office.  One is a portrait of his wife.  The other, perched across the desk on the other corner as if in a world of its own, is a photo of he and his daughter together.

We see some old friends at the reunion, character players who would find more prominent places in pop culture in television: Irene Ryan as the innocent class advisor growing tipsy on spiked punch would later play Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies.  Herbert Anderson was the dad of Dennis the Menace, Ken Curtis was Festus on Gunsmoke, Richard Deacon came back as Lumpy Rutherford’s dad in Leave it to Beaver.  Betty Hutton would also make a break for the world of TV in her The Betty Hutton Show as her next gig.  It was a time of new beginnings.


Though she is mocked as a no-talent leftover from an old school show, voice actress Sara Berner is splendid as Paula Kratz, who does impersonations of movie stars being interviewed by Louella Parsons.

There are the usual jokes at the reunion about weight gain, hair loss, and the anxiety of not measuring up to who they thought they’d be fifteen years down the road, still dwelling in the identities they had in high school. The football hero is the only one who seems to be a case of arrested development, enjoying game reels of himself and reliving past glory on the gridiron.  The others are more uncomfortable with themselves.


Dana Andrews has no interest in the reunion.  He’s only in town to sell his family’s beach house, which Betty, as a real estate agent, is happy to handle.  It is only a desire to see her again that evening that he shows up reluctantly at the reunion.  The event fills him more with disgust than nostalgia.  He had been class president, but squandered opportunities through the years with an inability to be happy at anything.  Perhaps he could have used a secretary like Kathryn Grayson.

They leave for a long walk and what ends up being a long night of talking about themselves, escape on a sailboat, and renewing something of what could have been a romance in high school if either had been ready for it.  They may not be ready for it now, but their mutual attitude is they have nothing left to lose, and maybe nothing left to expect from life.

They end up on the rocks—literally, as the sailboat takes refuge below the lighthouse where the local lighthouse keeper, played by our old friend James Gleason, longs for company and card players. He and Dana are old friends.

Meanwhile the football hero, his wife out of town, cozies up to Jean Hagen, who is half excited and half scared to be finally paid the attention she never was in high school.  She comes daringly close to an affair, but will think the better of it by morning when she decides she wants to return to her family.

Betty and Dana have not come to their senses in the light of day.  They decide to run off to be married, but her dad makes one last ditch effort to keep her by dangling a job, a partnership for Dana. Dana walks out, because he always walks out on opportunities and doesn’t want to feel trapped, and it is supposed to be a moment of triumph for our Betty when she runs out into traffic with her suitcase to go with him.  Perhaps her first impulsive move will be his first effort at commitment and both will be happy at last.

Where were Kathryn and Harry Land fifteen years after graduation?  Did he make it through the war?  Did she ever sing in public again?  Did they go to their 15th reunion at Carvel High?

*********

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

D-Day 75th anniversary - Earn This.


Marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day today, Turner Classic Movies is showing a roster of films related to this monumental event.  Probably chief among them is The Longest Day (1962), which is of special interest to classic film fans because of its large cast of notables from the heyday of the studio system. I'm not sure that even with the recreation of the most horrible moments of battle we have come to understand or appreciate the significance of the military effort, equally parts poignant and Homeric.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), made long after the studio system ended but still boasting Everyman/star Tom Hanks to head the team, perhaps makes the best show of recreating the chaos and horror of the landings.  Those sequences are heart-stopping.  But for me, it is the end of the movie when Tom Hanks (oh, look, if you don't like spoilers, why do you even read this blog?) is mortally wounded and, in a haze of sincere and almost sardonic acknowledgement of his circumstances, tells Matt Damon, the Private Ryan whom Hanks and his men have come to save, "James, earn this.  Earn it."

In the film's final moments, Harrison Young, who plays Ryan as an elderly man returns to the military cemetery at Normandy to pay tribute at the grave of Hanks's character, a scene which brings me to tears no matter how many times I've seen it. He speaks to the grave marker cross and, as if in defense, tells Hanks he has tried to live his life the best he could.  When he and his family are about to leave, he asks his wife to tell him he's a good man.

This hints at the larger message of D-Day, when U.S., Canadian, and British troops desperately hurled themselves against Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" in a campaign long planned and not without problems and tragic mishaps. Thousands of men died, and all who participated knew that would happen.  It was the beginning of the end of the grip of fascism on Europe, and Europeans, including young Anne Frank in her secret annex, prayed for the day to come, rejoiced when it did. Anne wrote in her diary,  “'This is D Day,' the BBC announced at twelve. 'This is the day.' The invasion has begun.”

Classic film fans are perhaps more aware than those who are not of the powerful idealism of that era, and of that generation that journalist and author Tom Brokaw justly coined, "The Greatest Generation."  We can show the recreations of explosions in a movie made after the fact, made more successful at the box office by using famous actors, but the best way to learn from and cherish the event is to remember the idealism that made so many give up everything, including their own futures, for us to have a chance at ours.

Now, fascism has taken foothold on our shores and in our government, even among some military personnel who dishonor their uniforms with political patches that announce their slavish allegiance to a man instead of the Constitution, and among civilians the Nazi emblems and thuggish imitators have unleashed idolatry unthinkable to those men struggling to reach the beaches, to stay alive a few more feet, and then a few more.  Private Ryan was warned to earn their sacrifice, and he worried that he had not.

We need to worry more about that.  We cannot honor the service personnel of D-Day if we have squandered the gift of freedom from fascism and the world they saved just for us.

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