Anything that can go wrong…
MGM made sixteen Andy Hardy films. It might sound funny to us today, but movie serials were the thing before the advent of TV, and the Hardy movies were easy and quick to shoot because they used the same sets and mostly the same cast every time. Plus the stories were pretty formulaic. Andy would get himself in some kind of a jam and would have to figure a way out, a pretty girl crosses his path, and he and his dad may sit down for a man-to-man talk. One of these was 1940’s Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, about a trip to New York City that goes embarrassingly awry.
Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) is seventeen and in love. Again. Not with Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford), though. The two of them have decided to cool it a little bit because they think they’re getting too serious, and Andy’s not too sad about it because he has a huge crush on society girl Daphne Fowler (Diana Lewis). He’s so dead gone he sneaks out to the Hardy mailbox and cuts Daphne’s picture out of magazines before anyone else can look at the mail. It all goes into a botany scrapbook that Andy guards meticulously.
Life in Carvel is relatively comfortable under the circumstances, but then Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) finds out he has to go to New York because the estate of Carvel’s founder has decided to cut off funding to the town orphanage. Then Polly and another classmate, Beezy Anderson (George P. Breakston) find Andy’s scrapbook, and Andy fumbles out a little lie about being a good friend of Daphne Fowler’s. Long story short, Polly and Beezy dare him to send them a photo of he and Daphne for the cover of the school magazine.
Andy does his darndest to get out of going to New York, but go he must, and the family arrives to find Betsy Booth (Judy Garland) in the cute little apartment she’s rented for them. She’s fifteen years old now, and the Hardys still say she’s a great playmate for Andy even though she’s quite the sophisticate, although in a down-to-earth way. Betsy’s more than eager to show Andy the town, but Andy’s more than eager to meet Daphne and save face. His mother has brought Grandma’s etiquette book and Andy really wants to get off on the right foot.
The first thing to do is make contact, and Andy writes a letter to Daphne, which he delivers to her himself at her penthouse, but her mother politely brushes him off. They move in different circles, she explains, which is why it’s better that Andy stays in his own sphere.
Then Andy finds out that Daphne is doing a fundraiser at a tony restaurant to benefit a local animal shelter, so he rents a tux and borrows a pearl stud from Betsy’s dad, then shows up at the restaurant, thinking he’ll accidentally-on-purpose run into Daphne and her entourage.
Long story short, Andy gets in over his head with the bill, which runs to around forty dollars, he loses Betsy’s dad’s pearl stud, which is worth about four hundred dollars, and he finds out New York isn’t Carvel. He also learns a few lessons about every American being equally important, no matter how humble their beginnings.
Meanwhile, the faithful Betsy waits in the wings, dropping some not-so-subtle hints about how she’s nobody’s baby. She even has some tricks up her sleeve, if Andy is smart enough to slow down and appreciate her.
Okay, straight up: This is a delightful movie. It ticks all the franchise’s usual boxes, and (spoiler alert) seeing Beezy and Polly get what’s coming to them is pretty satisfying.
I also like that Judy Garland was brought back for an encore. Her star was rising rapidly in 1940, her chemistry with Mickey Rooney was legendary, and the public liked her, so why not?
Judy was overjoyed at being included in the series again. She liked that the Hardys were regular people with regular problems. “I didn’t feel I was acting,” she said. According to Rooney biographer James Neibaur, Debutante turned the series’ usual dynamic on its head, making Betsy the sophisticate and Andy the country bumpkin, and there’s nothing Andy can do about it. Yet the movie doesn’t allow her to
Mickey was less than enthused about Debutante, although critics liked him. James Agee of Time Magazine said that “Mickey Rooney thrives on his ability and determination to steal anything up to a death scene from a colleague.”
In spite of his good standing as an actor, Mickey thought the series had run its course and was ready for more serious roles, but he was a good sport and got the job done. According to Judy Garland historian John Fricke, MGM was busy cooking up more movies for he and Judy to star in together, starting with Strike Up the Band.
The unique part about Andy Hardy Meets Debutante is that it turns outward. Judge Hardy and Andy’s usual man-to-man talk takes place among monuments to and busts of great Americans, emphasizing how many of them started from nothing and became prominent members of society. Americans should wear their twin heritages of freedom and opportunity like a fine pair of shoes. It was a timely message in 1940, when a world war was escalating and certain Americans were loudly proclaiming the cause of isolationism.
In addition to the hefty shot of patriotism, MGM marketed Debutante as pure escapism. So much so that everyone should take the day off just to see it. Make it a holiday. The public apparently agreed, because the film would gross $2.6M and rank number seventeen of all box office releases for 1940.
Seen today, Andy Hardy Meets Debutante is a lot of fun and holds up well. Sure, it presented an idealized view of Americana, but for the most part these movies were very slice-of-life comforting. Like mac and cheese or meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
For more vacations gone wrong, please see Sally at 18 Cinema Lane. Thanks for hosting, Sally–this was a great idea!
Coming up in May (click the images for more info):
Thanks for reading, everyone, and I hope to see you on Tuesday for an early “May the Fourth Be With You” post. It’s going to be…unique.
Andy Hardy Meets Debutante is available on DVD from Amazon.
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Fricke, John. Judy Garland: A Portrait In Art and Anecdote. Boston, New York, London: Bulfinch Press, 2003.
Neibaur, James L. The Essential Mickey Rooney. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2016.pp