Love Laughs at Andy Hardy: The Adolescent Arcadia, 1880-1940
Jeffery P. Dennis
During the Depression, a dozen or more cherubic, extravagantly optimistic child-actors roamed the studio lots, singing, dancing, and charming strangers in hundreds of musicals, comedies, and melodramas built around a single theme: rich people are miserable. The girls were the busiest: Virginia Weidler, Cora Sue Collins, Ann Gillis, Jane Withers, and the still famous Shirley Temple (oddly, almost all were nine or ten years old in 1937), but there were a number of boys: Freddie Bartholomew and Ra Hould (both thirteen in 1937), Dickie Moore (twelve), Bobby Breen and David Holt (both ten). As they entered adolescence at the beginning of the War, many of the girls managed to maintain their cherubic-charming shtick, simply becoming singing, dancing young ladies rather than singing, dancing moppets; but cherubic-charming did not sit well in teenage boys; audiences who became queasy even over Andy Hardy’s mild foppishness found even a sophisticated accent anathema: they longed for rugged, muscular football heroes and spunky, enterprising rags-to-riches rapscallions. Bobby Breen and Ra Hould retired outright the moment their voices cracked; Dickie Moore, rechristened Dick, transitioned to roles as troubled, often psychotic youths, in the same way that modern teen idols start reading for psycho-killer roles the moment Tiger Beat stops asking them to take off their shirts for photo shoots. But most of the former cherubs embraced their sissihood making it a plot device: they played weak, effeminate dandies, rich (because no middle-class or working-class household could produce such offspring), miserable (because all rich people are miserable) until they meet an adult or older peer who teaches them how to become “regular fellas.” Then they fade out marching off to war beneath a Stars and Stripes vigorously unfurled.
Born in 1924 in Dublin, Freddie Bartholomew became one of the most famous child stars of his generation, with an upper-class British accent, angelic face, a gentle, trusting manner, a china-doll fragility ideal for roles as a male Shirley Temple.[i] After his American film debut in MGM’s Oliver Twist (January 8th, 1935), he starred in a number of costume dramas, Anna Karenina, Professional Soldier, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Lloyd’s of London, Captains Courageous, and Kidnapped, winning a huge fanbase by being gentle, polite, and trusting to strangers who would eventually become his surrogate parents. Even in childhood, his film friendships have an aggressive, demanding quality, with an arguably erotic intensity. In Little Lord Fauntleroy (April 2, 1936), for instance, the twelve-year old Freddie plays Cedric, heir to a British Lord whose commoner mother, called “Dearest,” was disowned after her husband’s death. Raised on the mean streets of Brooklyn, he befriends an orphaned, English-mangling bootblack played by fifteen-year old Mickey Rooney. The girlish curls and frilly lace outfits of earlier versions of Fauntleroy are gone, but still, the hardened bootblack and overly polite mama’s boy hardly romp or hijink; their time together instead involves wistful glances and discussions of dreams. Freddie is younger, smaller, a porcelain doll to be put on a shelf. Maybe Mickey just likes to gaze at him.[ii]
When Freddie is sent to England to live with his wealthy/miserable grandfather, the two must endure a long, painful goodbye. Somewhat inarticulate, Mickey says “Gee, I wish you didn’t have to go. I really wish you weren’t going.” As a parting gift, he gives Freddie a drawing of four muscular boxers, that is, a beefcake poster. The oddly overt acknowledgement of their same-sex desire does not occur in the 1886 novel by Francis Hodgson Burnett, nor in the 1921 silent version, nor in any of the more recent versions[iii].
The action shifts to England, where Frederick is Pollyanna-ing the stuffy estate staff, interspliced with scenes of Mickey reading long letters and being depressed. “Are you lonely?” asks Guy Kibbee, the kindly grocer who has become Mickey’s unofficial guardian.
“I wish he was here,” Mickey moans. “Boy, I wish he was here.”
He gets his wish at the end of the movie, when Freddie invites him to come live in England on the estate.[iv]
Though adolescence had already hit, Freddie continued to play china-doll sissies for another year or two. In Listen, Darling (October 18th, 1938), the fourteen-year old plays Buzz, a scrappy sissy with an absent father and gal pal Pinkie (sixteen-year old Judy Garland). Film historians today often mis-identify Judy as Freddie’s girlfriend, and the two actors were in fact puppy-love dating at the time before she moved on to more physical relationships Billy Halop, Frankie Darro, Jackie Cooper, and practically every other young actor in Hollywood, and he moved on to more clandestine affairs.[v] However, director Edward L. Marin took great pains to ensure that on screen the two express no romantic interest in each other, or in anyone else. Though Judy fell head-over-heels for Mickey in Love Finds Andy Hardy just a few months before, here she sings “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”, which became a “love-at-first-sight” standard, to her mother. Heterosexual desire was still acceptable for children, but somewhat discomforting for teenagers.
The Four Musketeers (Freddie, Judy, Mom, and wise-cracking little brother played by child star Scotty Beckett) embark on a cross-country trailer trip in search of men. Ostensibly they are looking for potential husbands to keep Mom from the banker, but Freddie searches more assiduously than one would expect if he’s merely trying to fix up his friend’s mother. When he meets the handsome lawyer Walter Pigeon, he can barely conceal his attraction. He asks so many questions and comes on so strong that Pigeon suspiciously asks: “What is it that fascinates you so [about me]?” Forced to deflect attention away from his own “deviant” desire, Freddie accuses Pigeon of being gay: “You’re not a woman hater, are you?”
Pigeon accepts an invitation for dinner, but then changes his mind and drives away. Freddie feels personally betrayed, and snippily dislikes him for the remainder of the film, promoting staid banker Alan Hale as a replacement and oozing with disgust when Pigeon and Mom finally kiss. Clearly he was in the market for a male friend of his own.
Ronald Sinclair was a violin prodigy from Dunedin, New Zealand, who signed on with Republic under the improbable name Ra Hould to compete with Freddie Bartholomew, whom he resembled in angelic looks and scrappy-sissy affect. In his first starring role in Dangerous Holiday (1937), the thirteen-year old plays according to type as a sissified violin prodigy who runs away from his manipulative, money-grubbing family to find himself. He fights and skinny-dips with ruffian boys, adopts a dog, and eventually finds an older mentor in the form of burly, square-jawed Big Boy Guinn, a gangster with a heart of gold who is pretending to be a G-man (federal agent). No reason is ever given for Ron’s interest in Big Boy, who is cool, indifferent, and even hostile, telling him to “get lost” three or four times before finally warming up. When they do bond, Big Boy treats Ron not as a surrogate child or little brother, but as a romantic partner. Receiving a phone call from Ron, he tells the other gangsters “You know how women are! They can’t keep their hands off you!”
Next came Boots and Saddles (1937),
with Ron as a dapper English sissy-boy who inherits a ranch, and, since
Freddie Bartholomew was busy filming Kidnapped, MGM’s Thoroughbreds
Don’t Cry, released on Thanksgiving Day (November 25th,
1937), with the not-quite-famous Mickey Rooney, seventeen years old, in role
of the tough older boy who falls for the waif.
Again a wealthy British sissy
who owns a horse, Roger Calverton (Ron) approaches superstar jockey Timmie
Donovan (Mickey at seventeen) outside the locker room (to hire him), but
Mickey thinks he is a gay groupie making a pass at him, and snipes “Get
But soon Mickey, who expresses no interest in girls throughout the
movie, warms up to the younger boy. They
begin to date, going to movies, dinners, and horse shows together.
Fifteen-year old Judy Garland, daughter of the landlady at the local
jockey boarding-house, is also sweet on Ron, and competes openly with Mickey
for his affection.
When Ron falls
off his horse during a jockeying lesson, Mickey insists on doctoring him: he
makes Ron lie down on the bed and begins enthusiastically rubbing liniment
into his legs and thighs, stopping just short of his buttocks.
Ron protests that he feels fine, but Mickey exclaims “I’m just
getting started.” Mickey’s
obvious joy in the physical contact seems much more than medicinal, and one
wonders what else he intends for the afternoon?
Judy evidently wonders the same thing: she stands outside the door
and sings to attract them. In
an astonishingly vivid “humorous” scene, Ron keeps pulling up his pants
and jumping off the bed so he can listen to Judy sing, and Mickey keeps
pulling his pants down and throwing him on the bed again.
and Mickey stop competing and woo Ron jointly.
Though Ron agrees that he might marry Judy someday, his salvation
does not come through the promise of future heterosexual identity, but
through learning manliness from Mickey: he becomes an accomplished jockey
and canny racing speculator, shifting from effete, old-world inherited money
to American capitalism of the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger sort. In the last
scene, all three drive away in a horse van, singing gleefully as they embark
not on a marriage but on a horse-racing business.
Ronald was not particularly busy during the next few years, as scrappy sissies were going out of style, and besides, Mickey Rooney was grabbing up all the adolescent roles. He took small roles as the young Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1938), a sissy conned by the Dead End Kids in They Made Me a Criminal (1939), and the boy King Edward in Tower of London (1939), before getting a break at Columbia with The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1939), an adaptation of the then-popular novel[vii], about a single Mom raising five children. Ronald played Jasper King, a poor little rich boy who befriends the family in spite of his father’s snobbery. Three installments followed in 1940, but they were only tangentially related to the novels, and Ronald’s character was minimized. He was falling prey to the same large-scale elimination of scrappy sissies that felled Freddie Bartholomew.
Born September 15th, 1922, the blond, pug-faced Jackie Cooper broke into show business at the age of two, under the wing of his famous uncle, director Norman Taurog (whom he hated in real life). He starred in fifteen of Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts (1929-31), then moved on to pout or bawl on cue, plus hug and kiss surrogate father Wallace Beery (whom he hated in real life) in a dozen or so of the tearjerkers that Depression-Era audiences loved. His beloved mutt is shot by an evil dogcatcher in Skippy; his wrong-side-of-the-tracks buddy’s mother dies in Sookie; he’s a handicapped boy who wants to be a reg’lar feller in When a Feller Needs a Friend (a treacly version of the newspaper comic strip); milquetoast real Dad and martinet Stepdad compete for his affections in Divorce in the Family. An advertisement to Peck’s Bad Boy (about an orphan forced to live with his horrible relatives) crocodile-tears in rhyme:
From the trembling limps of a heartbroken boy tumbled these words,
when he thought the “Dad” he loved had failed him:
“If they don’t want me, I don’t want them!”
By the age of nine, Jackie was being promoted as “America’s Boy,” which meant white, Anglo Saxon, and Protestant (in spite of his Jewish-Italian roots), plus “brave, fearless” (though in real life he was clingy and emotional), “loved by mother and father” (though his real parents had long since split up), and “popular with dozens of buddies” (though he had no close male friends).[i] He had his own fan magazine, half a dozen Big-Little book titles, enough advertising gimmicks to shame Little Orphan Annie, dinner at the White House (where he was the celebrity, FDR the awestricken fan), a spoof blind date with vampish Talulah Bankhead (she thought Mr. Cooper meant Gary Cooper, but she didn’t seem to mind the substitution), and armies of hysterical fans who screamed, fainted, and grabbed at his clothes with the mania later reserved for teen-dreams and boy bands.
As he entered his teens, Jackie found the studios falling out of love with him. So he struggled valiantly to transition from the passive, feminine “America’s Boy” to a hard, masculine “all-American Boy.” He devoted hundreds of hours to boxing and wrestling lessons. Fan magazines began to publish beefcake photos of Jackie in boxing trunks or skimpy swimsuits, displaying a hard-packed musculature that made Mickey Rooney seem downright scrawny. He began having sex at the age of thirteen, and was seen on the arms of a dozen regular girls and Hollywood starlets, including Judy Garland, Bonita Granville, and Deanna Durbin; unseen were his escapades with prostitutes and seduction of middle-aged diva Joan Crawford.[iii] He took movie roles as Dead End Kids-style street toughs and military-school brats. Three times, in Lord Jeff, Spirit of Culver, and Two Bright Boys (released in England as Man’s Heritage), he miltary-school bonded with Freddie Bartholomew to invite comparison with the more flamboyant sissy. But he had become so thoroughly promoted as vulnerable, sensitive, and clingy that audiences simply wouldn’t accept him as tough, not even tough with a heart of gold. So he found himself in domestic comedies and melodramas, playing somebody’s insufferably noble boyfriend or best buddy, and still asked to make with the waterworks, or at least produce a tearstreak or two, in nearly every picture.
That Certain Age (October 7th, 1938) paired the sixteen-year old Jackie with Deanna Durbin, the somewhat plump teenage songbird who had spent the last two years saving Universal from bankrupcy with a series of musicals about saving things from bankrupcy by putting on a musical. Preoccupied with “boyish” interests, Jackie is only mildly concerned when Deanna, his next door neighbor and buddy, starts acting goofy over suave, sophisticated visiting reporter Melvyn Douglas, or when the cad Melvyn leads her on; but eventually he decides to be her boyfriend, not her boy friend, and initiates his first hetero-romantic on-screen kiss.
Andy Hardy’s influence can be seen in the sixteen year old’s next feature, Gangster’s Boy (November 16th, 1938). While the title promises Dead End Kid-style juvenile-delinquent theatrics and the one sheet advertises “a smash hit to best Boy of the Street records!” (See Chapter Nine), the film is actually a domestic melodrama about an impossibly virtuous all-American high schooler, valedictorian, football hero, and soda-shop patron with plans to go to West Point, when his gangster father shows up and ruins everything. Similarly, Jackie may wander the Bowery in Abe Lincoln of Ninth Avenue (April 12th, 1939), but not as a streetwise Dead End Kid: he runs a newsstand by day and studies law by night, and in between opens Christmas presents with his crippled roommate, whom one expects to eventually say, Tiny Tim like, “God bless us, one and all.”[iv]
Next Jackie starred in Paramount’s What a Life, about the squeaky-voiced teen-nerd Henry Aldrich (see Chapter Five). It proved so popular that he spent the next year trying to distance himself with gritty, raw, and adventurous roles, going behind bars in Big Guy (December 22nd, 1939) riding the range with Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James (August 10th, 1940), and solving a murder assisted by practically every teen actor in Hollywood[v] in MGM’s Gallant Sons (November 15th, 1940). But to no avail: in the Henry Aldrich clone Seventeen (November, 1940), Jackie as the wet-behind-the-ears William Sylvanus Baxter acted goofy over flirtatious visiting socialite Betty Field (ten years his elder, yet his prom date in What a Life).[vi] He spent 1941 doing more domestic melodramas: Life with Henry (January 24th, 1941), a second Henry Aldrich installment; Ziegfeld Girl (April 25th, 1941), a showbiz musical in which his role consisted almost entirely of slurping sodas with Judy Garland; Her First Beau (May 8th, 1941), a remake of That Certain Age, with Jackie moving from boy friend to boyfriend with fifteen-year old Jane Withers as she acts “swacky” over visiting college cad Ken Howell.[vii]
In his last teenage role, Glamour Boy (which unfortunately premiered the same weekend as Pearl Harbor, December 5th, 1941), Jackie plays more or less himself, an 18-year old former “glamour boy” forced to work as a waiter, while a more successful former glamour boy (Jackie Searl, his buddy in Skippy) drops by to tease and ridicule him. Times have changed so much that a current child star, wise-cracking ten-year old Darryl Hickman, balks at the insufferable sentimentality of a Skippy remake, so Jackie takes a job coaching him in little-kid-cuteness.
Meanwhile Jackie auditions for a Gone With the Wind-style musical called Hearts in Springtime, and has an early meet-cute parking-space squabble with starlet Susanna Foster, who happens to be up for the same picture against glamour girl Ann Gillis. An amazing amount of plot twisting results in a fired Jackie on a crosscountry road trip with Darryl, unaware that he is being accused of kidnapping and subject of a nationwide manhunt (he thought the boy got permission to tag along)[viii]. Darryl Hickman would spend his childhood playing wisecracking kids who end up tear-streaming during melodramatic moments with teenage leads Billy Halop, Mickey Rooney, and Jimmy Lydon, and here he gets his chance when he thinks that Jackie has been killed during a shoot-out with the police (he’s actually been knocked out by a falling jar of strawberry jam). But everyone ends up happily employed and happily en-clenched on a studio set.
[i] Cooper, Jackie, with Dick Kleiner. Please Don’t Shoot My Dog: The Autobiography of Jackie Cooper. New York: Morrow, 1981: 49.
[ii] Cooper, op. cit., 97.
[iii] Cooper, op. cit., 85. Jackie reveals that, at the age of fourteen, he shared a prostitute with Willam Tracey, Sidney Miller, and Mickey Rooney. The others took about five minutes each, but Mickey stayed in the room for half an hour; not because he was so proficient at sex, but because he was trying out comedy material.
[iv] He did make two real Dead End Kids clones (See Chapter Four).
Bonita Granville, Gene Reynolds, June Preisser, William Tracy, Tommy
Kelly, even Leo Gorcey.
on the Booth Tarkington novel Seventeen (1918. New York: Bantam
Books, 1963). It was filmed
previously as a silent two-reeler starring Jack Pickford.
The teenage Shirley Temple made the most famous entry in the genre six
years later in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947), acting
goofy over lovable cad Cary Grant and ignoring hunky boy-next-door
[viii] Former child stars would not be regularly portrayed as troubled adults for thirty years, yet Jackie encounters any number of former fans on the road who eagerly believe him to be “deranged” and “a maniac.”
Even though in private life he was athletic, an expert swimmer and
scrappy sissies played more or less the same character in every role, I
will use the actors’ names rather than the characters’ names in
Original novel, Francis Hodgson Burnett,
Little Lord Fauntleroy. 1886. New York: Penguin, 1994.
I have not seen the 1976 Glenn Anderson version, but the 1980
Ricky Schroeder and the 1994 George Baker versions both minimize the
relationship between Cedric and Dick, making Mr. Hobbes his main friend.
Again, recent versions omit any suggestion that Dick stays in England
Clark, Gerald. Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. New York:
Random House, 2000: 117-120. Not
that Judy was particularly promiscuous: Hollywood teens of the 1930’s
lived, worked, and studied together, and in a small world, everyone
eventually ends up dating everyone else. Also, the studios liked the
photo-opportunities of two stars on a date.
The term was slang for the passive partner in a same-sex encounter, or
for gay men in general. See entry “Film Noir” in the Gay Online
Margaret Sidney (1844-1924) published twelve “Five Little Peppers”
novels between 1881 and 1904, children’s favorites well into the