Classic Film Talk: ‘A Family Affair’ (1937)

Today we reminisce about

A Family Affair (1937)

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Directed by George B. Seitz

Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Cecilia Parker, Eric Linden, Mickey Rooney, Charley Grapewin

* Published specifically for The Fifth Annual Barrymore Triology Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In The Good Old Days of Hollywood and Gabriela at Pale Writer *


Participating in blogathons and other events gives me the opportunity to diversify my watching habits so that I am constantly moving between different decades and genres. As a result, I also see films that were made by a variety of studios. It never fails that I am moved whenever I get to watch an MGM film after being away for a while. With MGM, it feels like coming home. The studio with more stars than there are in heaven always has a specific standard of quality and appeal that I have not found with rivalling production companies.

“Louis was a dreamer and the movies are the greatest medium of dreams ever invented.”*

One of my favourite classic film series from MGM and of all time focuses on the Hardy family of Carvel, a fictional town located somewhere in Midwestern America. The town of Carvel was largely modelled upon the All-American visions of MGM head Louis B. Mayer who had moved to the United States as a toddler from what is now known as Belarus. Mayer’s childhood had been marred by severe poverty and with parents who were not well integrated in society, still speaking their native tongue at home and not being able to offer much support to their offspring. The only chance Mayer had was to break free on his own and try his hand at something new. All the rest is history and slowly but surely, Mayer transformed Carvel into an ideological quaint, everyday small town in the heart of America where good people lived and justice prevailed.

The inspiration for the Hardy films originated from a theatre play called Skidding which had a successful run on Broadway from May 1928 to July 1929. Author Aurania Rouverol had based the story on her own experiences growing up in Idaho. MGM executives had no special attachment to the cinematic adaptation of Rouverol’s story, later given the title A Family Affair, and had low expectations for its box-office performance since it was considered a “B” movie with relatively little money and time having gone into its production. The studio was really only trying to capitalise on the success of 1935’s Ah, Wilderness!, a film that promoted family values and appeased Depression-era audiences. To their surprise, A Family Affair was a runaway hit and from there grew one of cinema’s longest running series with 16 motion pictures made from 1937 to 1946.

The Hardy Family, Take 1. (L) Lionel Barrymore as Judge James K. Hardy. (R) Spring Byington as Emily Hardy, Cecilia Parker as Marion Hardy, Sara Haden as Milly Forrest, Julie Haydon as Joan Hardy Martin, Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy.

If you are unfamiliar with the Hardy family, there was never a better time to introduce them! The patriarch is James K. Hardy, a seasoned District Judge who has never had a decision reversed by the Supreme Court. He is a man of his word and upholds the highest morals in both his personal and professional lives. Emily Hardy is the Judge’s wife and together they have two children, Marion and Andy. Also living in their household is Emily’s sister, Milly, a spinster schoolteacher at Carvel High School who is primarily a secondary character. Notable supporting characters include: Polly Benedict who is Andy’s on/off girlfriend and Betsy Booth, a native New Yorker whose grandmother lives next door to the Hardys.

As would become the standard in Hardy pictures, the family or one of their friends faces a crisis and Judge Hardy puts himself on the line to save the day. This time, Wells & Co. wishes to build an aquaduct that will take Carvel’s unused surplus of water to supply a nearby city of 1 million people. The Aquaduct Deal is supported by nearly everyone in the town apart from Judge Hardy who refuses to bow to pressure tactics despite fierce opposition from his children who feel the social wrath of his decision.

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The judge and his campaign manager fighting the headache of political attacks. No member of the Hardy family is exempt from having salicious and exaggerated stories published about them to discredit James’ re-election for the Judiciary.

A Family Affair stands out from the other films in the series due to the nature of its storyline and the more abstract presentation of Carvel. The town is not as picturesque and pristine as it would subsequently become, appearing more crowded with people and having buildings with darker exteriors. It was likely more accurately reflective of semi-urban life during that time and while it worked for this film, it would not remain a standard. There are also little forms of etiquette present that would be modified for future films. For instance, when Marion arrives in town after having been away for a year, she is expected to return home from the train station by her own means. This is a very un-Hardy like as the family usually has send-offs for each other either with everyone being present or at least one of the parents accompanying. Also, the children fight with each other quite a bit more in this film and really yell at each other at one point when they are in their father’s home study. The do continuously squabble as the series progresses but usually it is just nitpicking rather than anything serious. Furthermore, Mrs. Hardy is dressed more fancily with significant make-up and jewellery though she still manages to wear her faithful apron. This is a stark change from her later image as a no-frills country wife who can come off as being a nitwit though being the ever-dedicated mother. The storyline itself is darker and contains more scandalous elements to it such as adultery and divorce. In essence, it seems that this film is as risqué and as pre-Codeish as you could get considering the sterilised nature of the other pictures in the series!

Scandal à la Hardy

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On the brink of divorce: Joan and hubby Bill arguing outside the Hardy family homestead. Someone is thought to have been unfaithful.

Marion phoning home to announce her arrival. She met engineer Wayne on the train ride and he pushes to get together with her while in Carvel. He is working on the aquaduct and when he finds out that Judge Hardy is opposing the project, he convinces Marion to fight her father since it will mean losing his job and any financial security so that they can get married.

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Judge Hardy is considered a traitor by pretty much everyone when opposing the project and is on the brink of being ejected from his post. Can he remain true to his oath as a public official?

Several casting changes were made during the first four films and it is was not until 1938’s Out West with the Hardys, the fifth film in the series, that the final cast was set in place. In A Family Affair, celebrated actor/writer/director Lionel Barrymore played Judge Hardy and Spring Byington played Emily Hardy. Their roles would be recast for the next Hardy film; replacing them were veteran character actor Lewis Stone and relative newcomer to the screen, Fay Holden. Aunt Milly was played by Sara Haden in the first two films and from the fifth film onwards while Betty Ross Clarke portrayed the character in the third and fourth instalments. Most surprising was the complete suppression of oldest Hardy daughter, Joan, in all subsequent films following A Family Affair.  She is never mentioned again in any form. There is only one instance in the series when the existence of another, nameless child is suggested; one who apparently died in infancy when James and Emily were just starting out as a young married couple. Marion and Andy would always be played by Cecilia Parker and Mickey Rooney. Ann Rutherford would first appear as Polly Benedict in the second film, filling-in for Margaret Marquis.

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The Hardy Family & gang, Take 2 (Obviously not everyone is feeling this photo op!)
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The Hardy Family, Take 3 with the permanent cast members.

Out of everyone involved in the series, it was the young whippersnapper Andy Hardy who would surpass everyone in terms of audience appeal and promotion by the studio.

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Andy manning his post. This would be a recurring sight throughout the series as Andy set-up bets or, more commonly, arranged for a hot date.

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Although this run-of-the-mill role did not demand much of Lionel Barrymore’s talent, he did a wonderful job of moulding the character of Judge Hardy. His effort no doubt helped Lewis Stone in successfully continuing in and expanding the role throughout the series. Lionel was going on 59 years old when he appeared in A Family Affair and had been struggling with various health issues for years. Whether it was arthritis or chronic pain – or both – that ailed him, he sometimes had a very difficult time on film shoots. Some people believe that he did not continue on in the role of Judge Hardy because of his health whereas Mickey Rooney believed otherwise. In Mickey’s own words: “…Barrymore might have carried on as Judge Hardy – if MGM had torn up his contract and, say, doubled his salary. Mr. Mayer wasn’t exactly cheap. … But here Mr. Mayer decided he didn’t want to double Barrymore’s salary because he didn’t actually need Barrymore in the part. He could just get a new Judge Hardy and, while he was at it, a new Mrs. Hardy and a new Polly Benedict, too.”* In any case, Barrymore continued on working at a steady rate and even took part in another long-running MGM film series featuring Dr. Kildare, a fictional medical practitioner played by Lew Ayres. Lionel starred as Dr. Leonard Gillespie in nine Kildare films and in an additional six films after Ayres left the series.

While I have come to appreciate A Family Affair, it is not amongst my preferred entries in the series. This was amongst the second half of Hardy films that I saw because it was only included in Volume 2 of the Andy Hardy Collection, an odd move by Warner Bros. that left many fans disappointed. By that time, I had gotten accustomed to the usual group of actors from Out West with the Hardys onward. To be completely honest, I did not care for A Family Affair when I initially watched it because it was so different from the rest of the series, feeling almost angry that my tried-and-true regulars were not on-screen! This is in no offence, of course, to the cast of this film who was simply doing their job and had no idea that the film’s concept would be so popular. Lewis Stone will always be the real Judge Hardy to me but I give thanks to Lionel for having given such a noble performance in a film that was below his professional accomplishments. That in itself was in the true spirit of Judge James K. Hardy.

Judge Hardy’s motto: “I’ve sworn to uphold the law. It’s my duty.”

Sources:

Life Is Too Short by Mickey Rooney (*pg. 85)

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman (*pg. 26)

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5 thoughts on “Classic Film Talk: ‘A Family Affair’ (1937)

  1. Like you, I found A Family Affair something of a shock after growing up with the regulars. It was upon a second viewing that I was able to place it in perspective and appreciate its good points. Lionel Barrymore is invariably a good point in any movie. The studio seemed to call upon Lionel to play many a family man in this era, and he always gave it his best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s quite something that we both had the same sentiments about the film. It’s very much a black sheep in the series which is quite an odd label to put on a picture that ignited such a long run of films. It remains relatively obscure today and I suppose that even TCM doesn’t really know how to introduce it in the line-up. Just seeing the lack of photos available speaks volumes. It makes me wonder if the studio even had the cast sit for any official photos.
      I really like Lionel and am glad I had the chance to give him credit due for ‘A Family Affair’. 😊

      Like

  2. I like the way, as always, you tried to be measured and fair in your assessment of the film. I’m not exactly a great fan of Mickey Rooney, but I can understand the appeal of this series, which definitely reminds of the Dr Kildare films in its all American goodness ❤ I really loved the attention to detail you paid to the construction of the film series with this experimental starting point and how you discussed Meyer’s influence on it. Thank you for joining our Blogathon my lovely friend! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so sweet; thank you! 🤗
      I hope that you can become more familiarised with the Hardy series in the future. If it’s possible, I would definitely recommend watching the films in order because I think it is more enjoyable. Mickey is very much in the league of Jerry Lewis when it comes to comedy but, at the same time, he was a very effective dramatic actor. There was a charm about him. I’m even more appreciative of you reading about this film because I know that Mickey is not your cup of tea.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the background info. 😊 Mayer was a tyrant but he did have good intentions at times. He was a dreamer like the rest of us.
      Kudos to you for co-hosting such a grand blogathon! 🧡

      Liked by 1 person

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