Monday, February 22, 2010

Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (MGM, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary, which I wanted to watch since I’d stumbled on my DVD recording of it and thought it would make a nice envoi to MGM singing star Kathryn Grayson, who passed away February 17 at the age of 88. Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary was Grayson’s first film and her part is somewhat similar to the showcase roles Judy Garland had in two previous entries in the Hardy series, Love Finds Andy Hardy and Andy Hardy Meets Debutante. The film basically provided MGM a comfortable way to introduce new starlets in a series that already had a marketable title — the Hardy films seem more like extended TV sitcom episodes than actual movies, even though they tended (like a lot of other movies on the lower rungs of MGM’s output) to last too long for their own good: this one went on for 101 minutes and could easily have been a half-hour shorter without losing much.

Grayson had been born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on February 9, 1922 (though MGM’s diction coaches were good enough that there was almost no hint of a Southern accent in her voice, speaking or singing) and she was scouted while performing as a radio singer and offered an MGM contract in 1939 in hopes of building her up as a competitor to Universal’s Deanna Durbin — though she put them off for two years and didn’t sign until she was 19. Ironically, the delay was because she had originally wanted a career in opera — and the Met actually offered her Lucia di Lammermoor shortly after she started at MGM, but Louis B. Mayer had her turn them down. It’s a bit hard to believe that story after hearing her sing the Lucia Mad Scene in this film — she’s quite good from a technical point of view but lacks either the odd playfulness of Lily Pons, the Met’s reigning Lucia at the time, or the dramatics Maria Callas would bring to the role later (and forever change opera fans’ expectations for it from mindless, twittering vocal display to intense, riveting drama).

Grayson gets to warble three pieces in this film, the Lucia Mad Scene, Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Voices of Spring” and — in a concession to the pop-minded audience — Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got My Eyes On You.” (Earlier in the film Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy had said of her, “Why does she always have to sing grand opera instead of music?” — expressing the attitude of many of the people who went to see this film as well as Rooney himself, who was taken to a ballet by one of his directors, Clarence Brown, and his only recorded reaction was a lewd remark about one of the ballerinas.) Grayson had a small but technically agile voice, though it wasn’t quite as technically agile as the people at the MGM music department thought it was; she sounds here, as she did in many of her later films, like a mezzo trying to push up (her highest notes on “Voices of Spring” are so scratchy I wondered if they deliberately sped up the recording during playback to make her sound higher than she actually was; it is known that when she sang “There’s Beauty Everywhere” in the film Ziegfeld Follies, the final high B was dubbed in by another singer since Grayson’s wasn’t considered loud or full-bodied enough), and a quiet but winning personality that enabled her to hold her own against Rooney just as she did in her later films with such strong male personalities as Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza (who obliterated her as far as vocal intensity and musicianship were concerned) and Howard Keel (probably her most comfortable co-star; they did the remakes of Show Boat and Roberta, retitled Lovely to Look At, as well as the film of Cole Porter’s stage hit Kiss Me, Kate).

Grayson did winsome quite well — it was her stock in trade and what made her more than just another pretty girl with a great voice — and she dominates this movie the way Judy Garland did with her first two Hardy series films. (Judy got screwed over in her last, Life Begins for Andy Hardy, when at the last minute her four big songs were all removed from the final cut.) Aside from Grayson, Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary is the usual mix, a sitcom-ish plot in which on the eve of his graduation from high school Andy Hardy gets involved in planning the graduation as senior class president, and is so overwhelmed by this task that he hires Kathryn Land (Kathryn Grayson, in one of those fairly common scripting decisions in which a newcomer is put at ease by being given her own first name for her character — though in fact “Kathryn” was a middle name and “Grayson” her mom’s maiden name) as, natch, his private secretary, figuring that since she’s studying typewriting and shorthand rather than any academic courses, this will be good job experience for her.

Andy ended up $14 short in the bank account for the graduation because the check written by Kathryn’s father, Steven V. Land (Ian Hunter), bounced — and Andy’s own father takes it on himself to help the Lands out financially. Since Steven once ran a school in Turkey for American expats (until the war and the uncertain international situation forced all the expats home and he ran out of money and had to close it and return to the U.S. himself) and speaks nine languages, including Portuguese, Judge Hardy arranges for Steven to go on a foreign service job to Brazil — only Andy screws him out of it by rewriting his telegram accepting it to delay his departure by two days so Kathryn and her brother Harry (played by Todd Karns in what’s probably the most intriguing performance in this movie: his rather rebellious attitude and fierce pride makes it seem like he wandered in from a teen movie of the 1950’s and is stuck in a time warp) could attend the graduation. Also, Andy gets so overextended by all the planning for the ceremony that he flunks out on his English final (in an example of the incestuousness with which these films were plotted, the teacher who flunks him is also his aunt!) and it’s touch-and-go for a while whether he’ll be able to graduate at all, let alone participate in the preposterous play he wrote, a ripoff of Greek tragedies in which Andy casts himself as Apollo, the literal deus ex machina.

All turns out right in the end, of course; Andy gets to take a makeup test and graduate after all, he gives Kathryn a place on the graduation platform to sing, he gets a new car as a graduation present from his father, and he sets out for college at the end after assuring his dad, “I’d rather go to college than be six feet tall!” (The real Rooney wouldn’t get to do either of those things.) Andy also manages to persuade his regular girlfriend, Polly Benedict (Anne Rutherford), that there was nothing between him and Kathryn despite him appearing with her lipstick on his cheek and otherwise showing reasonable prompts for one of the jealous hissy-fits Anne Rutherford was always obliged to act in Hardy films with a comely female guest star. The Hardy family movies achieved an exquisite state of comfortable dullness that was enlivened only by the guests — Judy elsewhere, Kathryn Grayson here and the marvelous child actor Virginia Weidler in Out West with the Hardys (a better-than-average series entry which got the Hardy family out west in more ways than one, with a ballsier script that featured funnier comedy than usual) — and this one begins with a sequence in Judge Hardy’s courtroom that only underscores how rarely during the series that we actually got to see Lewis Stone’s character function as a judge.