Thursday, January 12, 2012

THAT HARDY BOY

 
Considering they're the most profitable film series of Hollywood's Golden Era -- and the only one to receive a special Academy Award ("for its achievement in representing the American way of life'') -- the Hardy Family films are awfully late arrivals on DVD, with six of them released recently by the Warner Archive Collection as "The Andy Hardy Collection, Vol. 1.''
The Hardy films seemed quaintly dated to me when I first encountered them in the mid-1960s on WNBC's "Movie Four'' (WCBS, which began rolling out much of the MGM library back in 1956, passed on the series, the station's head programmer explained to me years later, because of Metro's insistence that stations purchase the Hardy, Kildare/Gillespie and Maisie series as a package). My first article about movies, published for my high school newspaper in Queens, the Bryant Clipper, complained that Mickey Rooney's eponymous Andy Hardy was so totally unlike contemporary teenagers.
I hadn't watched any of the films since. "Love Laughs at Andy Hardy'' (1946) -- the unsuccessful final film that ended the series proper (there was an unfortunate, Rooney-produced attempt to revive the series, "Andy Hardy Comes Home'' that I actually saw on its original theatrical run in 1958 at Astoria's long-gone Grand Theatre) -- slipped into the public domain after MGM failed to renew its copyright in 1974. By 1980 it was among the earliest major-studio titles to turn up in bad dupes on VHS. MGM/UA Home Video didn't get around to releasing six other Hardys (which by then, along with 10 others, were owned by Turner Entertainment) on VHS until 1990.
Those six standalone releases included "Love Finds Andy Hardy,'' the series' most famous episode (featuring Judy Garland), which was released by Warner Home Video on DVD in 2004 and is currently out of print, as well as three films in the new DVD set: "Andy Hardy Meets Debutante,'' "Andy Hardy's Private Secretary'' and "Life Begins for Andy Hardy.''
The Hardy series was a spinoff of Clarence Brown's 1935 adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's family comedy "Ah Wilderness'' (1935) which featured Rooney, new to MGM, as the younger brother (he played the older brother in the flop musical remake "Summer Holiday'' in 1948, which bookends the Hardy series; both are available from the Warner Archive) in early 20th century Connecticut. O'Neill not being amenable to a sequel, the principal cast (Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington, Rooney and Eric Linden but not Wallace Beery) were reunited for "A Family Affair'' (1937), a contemporary comedy about the family of an Idaho judge based "Skidding,'' a 1929 Broadway hit by Auriana Rouverol.

 
It was so successful that MGM raja Louis B. Mayer ordered up a series to be directed by "Family Affair'' helmer George B. Seitz, a veteran of the silent era ("Perils of Pauline'') who had turned out a procession of quick but stylish B thrillers for Metro's B-movie unit. The earliest film in the Warner Archive set is the beginning of the series proper, "You're Only Young Once'' (also 1937). Linden's character was given the heave-ho, as was his wife, Andy's married eldest sister. 
Character actors Lewis Stone and Fay Holden replaced Barrymore (who would shortly begin enacting Dr. Gillespie from a wheelchair in the Dr. Kildare series) and Byington, who had begun playing Mrs. Jones in Fox's more downmarket, and frustratingly unavailable, Jones Family series. To explain Holden's accent, they made Mrs. Hardy and her spinster schoolteacher sister (Sara Haden, carried over from "You're Only Young Once'') Canadians.
Jed Prouty, who played Mr. Jones in the rival Fox series, turns up briefly as a newspaper editor who precipitates a financial crisis for the Hardys in "You're Only Young Once,'' which devotes roughly equal time to the romantic travails of siblings Andy and older sister Marian (Cecilia Parker)  while vacationing on Catalina Island.
The non-chronological set skips forward to the Hardys' fifth adventure, "Out West With the Hardys,'' one of eight Rooney films (most notably "Boys Town'') released in 1938. By this point, the Hardys were no longer B pictures (which supported A pictures) but  mid-budget programmers that could play at the top of a double bill. MGM even sent Seitz out to Arizona's Monument Valley to shoot backgrounds projected behind the Hardys -- shortly before John Ford claimed he "discovered'' the place for "Stagecoach.''
"Judge Hardy and Son'' (1939), the eighth installment, was released the year that Rooney became Hollywood's top box-office attraction (a title he held for two more years) and he received a special Oscar -- Rooney and Deann Durbin were cited for their "significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement.'' (The following year, he received a Best Actor nomination for "Babes in Arms''). Understandably, which far outgrossed MGM's prestige pictures, focused more and more on Andy.
Reputedly the schmaltziest of the series, "Judge Hardy and Son'' centers around a medical crisis for Mrs. Hardy (and no, she isn't treated by Dr. Kildare). Carey Wilson, one of several A-list screenwriters who toiled on the series, claimed that Mayer personally wrote Andy's prayer for his mother's recovery. In the movie's other plot thread, Andy is assigned by Judge Hardy to track down the estranged daughter of an elderly couple (Maria Ouspenskaya, the same year she was Oscar-nominated for "Love Affair,'' and Egon Brecher) facing forclosure on their home. Andy's sleuthing technique includes dating three cute girls who may be the couple's granddaughter, much to the annoyance of Andy's long-suffering steady, Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford, Scarlett's middle sister in "Gone With the Wind'').

 
The set skips ahead to three titles presented in chronological order. "Andy Hardy Meets Debutante'' (1940) brings back Garland's afflent "ugly duckling'' character, Betsy Booth, still mooning over Andy who thinks she's too much of a "child'' to see as a prospective romance.
Though she's a debutante, Betsy isn't the title character. That's Daphne, played by Diana Lewis, one of many MGM stars who cycled through the series and best remembered as the future Mrs. William Powell. Andy, smitten with her photographs, fibs to Polly and his best male pal Beezy (George Breakston) that he and Daphe have met.
Andy is mortified when Judge Hardy takes the family along on a business trip to New York (in an orphange subplot designed to bring back memories of "Boys Town'') because Polly and Beezy expect  him to bring back a picture of him with Daphne.
Betsy tries to help Andy on his quest, because hick-town Andy is ill-equipped to handle the Big Apple, which he refers to as a "den of sin.'' But in MGM's version of the city, even the nighclub manager (Cy Kendall) that Andy stiffs for a hefty $37.50 tab turns out to be a soft touch.
Clocking in at 89 minutes, "Debutante'' and the other two films in the set feature "A" picture trimmings, including two musical numbers by Garland (including a wonderful rendition of "Alone'') in this cast. While the cast never left the MGM lot, the studio did send doubles for the busy Judy and Mickey to be photographed from the rear outside Grant's Tomb. Their horse-drawn ride through Central Park at dawn may be totally bogus but it's also quite charming.
The final two films in "The Andy Hardy Collection, Vol. 1'' run longer than 100 minutes and are indistinguishable from MGM "A'' pictures like the Thin Man series. "Andy Hardy's Private Secretary'' (1941) is Kathryn Grayson while "Life Begins for Andy Hardy'' (1941) brings Rooney back to Manhattan again for one last series entry with Garland (whose numbers were unfortunately cut this time).
They don't sing and dance together like in their musicals -- that would make Andy less relatable -- but their chemistry together is perhaps the biggest delight of the Hardy series. Which, I have to admit is also worth seeing for its unusually painstaking depiction of small-town American life before World War II, even if it probably is more reflective of L.B. Mayer's fantasies than the real thing.

 

Today's Warner Archieve releases are mostly westerns, most notably "The Squaw Man'' (1914) -- reputedly the first feature shot in Hollywood, for the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., soon to be absorbed into Paramount  -- which is offered as a double feature with Cecil B. DeMille's 1931 MGM sound remake starring Warner Baxter and Dolores Del Rio, aka Mrs. Cedric Gibbons (DeMille shares a byline for the earlier one with Oscar Apfel).
There's also a second volume of "The Monogram Cowboy Collection'' comprised of eight features strarring Whip Wilson or Rod Cameron, as well as Richard Brooks' "The Last Hunt'' (Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger), Burt Kennedy's "Welcome to Hard Times'' (Henry Fonda, Janice Rule) and Jerry Thorpe's "Day of the Evil Gun'' (Glenn Ford, Arthur Kenedy).
Two musical composer biopics that were previously exclusive to Movie Unlimited are now available directly from WAC: "The Great Waltz'' (1938) with Ferdinand Gravet(y) as Johann Strauss the younger, with Luise Rainer; and "Rhapsody in Blue'' starring Robert Alda as George Gershwin and Oscar Levant as himself.

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RAY CHARLES: LOOKING BACK

As his 80th birthday approaches, a look at the life and legacy of the late Ray Charles.


"I just do what I do." That's what Ray Charles told Billboard in June 2002 when asked to assess his role in music history. Of course, Charles' self-effacing response belies a groundbreaking career and a legacy that endures today, as fans look toward celebrating what would have been the legendary artist's 80th birthday Sept. 23. Looking back at Charles' storied career, what comes to mind is the phrase "musical genius." In Charles' case, that's no hype.


Rare & Unseen Ray Charles Photos | Charles on the Charts

80th Birthday Year Events | Charles Charity


In 1954, the artist's melding of gospel and blues yielded the pioneering hit "I've Got a Woman"-and forged an indelible imprint on R&B, rock and pop. His earthy, soulful voice graced a steady stream of classics after "Woman," including "Drown in My Own Tears," "What'd I Say," "Hit the Road Jack," "Unchain My Heart," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Georgia on My Mind."

Video below: Ray Charles performs "Hit The Road Jack" in São Paulo, Brazil on September 22, 1963.


Video below: Ray Charles performs "Then I'll Be Home" in Montreux, Switzerland on July 19, 1997.


Just as at home on the Hammond B-3 organ as he was on the piano, he also landed at the top of Billboard's R&B, pop, country and jazz charts-and even the dance chart, collaborating with childhood friend Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan on "I'll Be Good to You."

His final recording, 2004's "Genius Loves Company," made history when it won eight Grammy Awards, including album and record of the year for his pairing with Norah Jones on "Here We Go Again."

But what many may not know is that the inimitable Charles was also a genius when it came to the business side of music. In the early '60s he negotiated a rare feat after leaving Atlantic Records to sign with ABC-Paramount: ownership of his own master recordings. He also established his own labels. Tangerine (his favorite fruit) came first, which later evolved into CrossOver Records.

A songwriter who penned nearly 200 songs, Charles also operated his own publishing companies, Tangerine Music and Racer Music. For these entities, Charles and longtime manager Joe Adams designed and built the RPM International office and studios on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Ray Charles Memorial Library will open in the building this fall.

Charles also found time to manage the careers of other acts, including Billy Preston and '70s R&B group the Friends of Distinction. And way before it was de rigueur for artists to do, Charles set up what became a foundation to help needy children with hearing disabilities and later on support education.


He was an amazing human being," says Jones, 77, who became friends with Charles when both were scrappy teenagers in Seattle. "A true innovator who revolutionized music and the business of music," he adds. "Growing up, we only had the radio; no Michael Jackson, Diddy or Oprah. So it was hard to imagine today's entrepreneurial world. But that didn't stop us. We spent a lot of time talking and dreaming about things that brothers had never done before."

"He really was a genius," says singer Solomon Burke, a former Atlantic labelmate. "He did things the way he wanted."

Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. As many learned through actor Jamie Foxx's Academy Award-winning portrayal in the 2004 film "Ray," Charles became blind by age 7 and orphaned at 15 while growing up in northwest Florida.

In eight years at a state school for the blind, the young Charles learned how to read and write music. Leaving Florida in 1947, he headed for Seattle ("Choosing the farthest place he could find from Florida," Jones says), where he notched his first hit two years later as a member of the Maxin Trio, "Confession Blues."

Even then, Charles was an enterprising individual. "He had his own apartment, record player, two pairs of pimp shoes, and here I am still living at home," Jones recalls with a laugh. "His mother trained him not to be blind: no cane, no dogs, no cup. His scuffed-up shoes... that was his guide and driving force. He was the most independent dude I ever saw in my life. Ray would get blind only when pretty girls came around."

Signing with Atlantic Records in 1952, Charles as a West Coast jazz and blues man recorded such songs as "It Should've Been Me" and label co-founder Ahmet Ertegun's composition, "Mess Around."

Then he connected in 1954 with "I've Got a Woman," which set off a chain reaction of more hits capitalizing on his bold gospel/blues fusion. But Charles was just getting started. In 1958, he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, accompanied by a band that featured such jazz cats as saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford. Further bucking convention, he recorded "The Genius of Ray Charles," a 1959 release offering standards on one side (including "Come Rain or Come Shine") and big band numbers on the other, featuring members of Count Basie's orchestra and several arrangements by Jones.


Video below: Charles' 1966 Coke commercial, "So Tired."



Leaving Atlantic for ABC-Paramount, a fearless Charles recorded the seminal "Genius + Soul = Jazz" album in 1961. A year later, his earlier dabbling in country music grew serious with the release of the million-selling "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."

Complemented by lush strings and a harmony-rich choir, he scored with covers of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" and Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose"-and spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.




For a black man to do this in 1962 was unheard of," says Tony Gumina, president of the Ray Charles Marketing Group, which handles the late artist's licensing affairs. "He was trying to sell records to people who didn't want to drink from the same water fountain as him. But this was one of his greatest creative and business moves: to not be categorized musically and cross over. Though he never worried about it, he was resigned to the fact that he might lose some core fans. But he thought he'd gain far more in the process."

Gumina was operating his own promotion company working with state lotteries when he met Charles in 1999. The two teamed up on a series of commercials for various state lotteries and also introduced a line of Ray Charles slot machines also accessible to the blind.

"Everything he did had a business acumen to it," says Gumina, who cites Charles' liaison with manager Adams as a pivotal turning point. Originally hired to be Charles' stage announcer, former radio DJ Adams segued into overseeing production of the singer's shows, lighting and wardrobe.

Together the pair designed and built Charles' L.A. business base, RPM International (Recording, Publishing and Management) studio. When he began recording there in 1965, the label rented the studio from him, so he made money on his recordings before they were even released.

To save money on travel expenses, Charles purchased an airplane to ferry his band around to gigs. A smaller plane was also acquired so that Charles could wing in to, say, New York to record a couple of songs before flying back out in time for a show.

"He understood the entertainment business enough to know that you may not be popular forever," Gumina says, "and you need to maximize your product. At the same time, he had as much fun as any rock star but without the sad money stories. There was a time to work and a time to play, and he knew the difference. He didn't have a bunch of homes or a large entourage. That's why he was able to save $50 million before he died."

Calling Charles an "incredibly smart man," Concord president John Burk says he learned a lot from the ailing singer while he was recording his final studio album, "Genius Loves Company."

Video below: Ray Charles performs "It Ain't Easy Being Green" in Trentnton, NJ on Nov. 7, 2002.


Going through "some sticky deal points, he was amazing," Burk recalls. "He had the whole agreement in his head. Without referencing any material, he knew all the terms we proposed and had the deal done for the album in two discussions."

Creatively, Burk says Charles was an artist dedicated to delivering "a true performance from the heart. Part of his creative legacy was his approach to singing. He opened the door to vocal improvisations, changing how people perceived you could sing a song. Many singers today are influenced by him and they don't even know it."


Rare & Unseen Ray Charles Photos | Charles on the Charts

80th Birthday Year Events | Charles Charity

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