How does Hollywood depict motherhood? I cannot speak definitely about pre-Code and post-Code films, but the Code demanded that mothers be reverently and adoringly presented. This was largely because of Joseph Breen’s great respect and love for his own mother; he is quoted as saying, “What formal training I have had, I got entirely from Catholic schools, aided, I am happy to say, by a fine old Irish mother and an Irish Grandmother” (Doherty 14). The Code films of the pre-war years contains a certain type of maternal character which is an endearing addition to any plot: the kind, patient, lovable, affable, round, mature mother of children who are grown or nearly grown but still need her loving advice and wisdom. I will discuss three examples of this type of mother from three MGM stories, Ma Thayer in Rich Man, Poor Girl, Mrs. Kildare in the Dr. Kildare series, and Mother Hardy in the Andy Hardy series.
Ma Thayer is the only character in Rich Man, Poor Girl, a charming romantic comedy from 1938 about social differences, who is sympathetic and impartial to every member of the family as well as to her daughter’s wealthy fiance, Bill. Joan, her sensible daughter, and Bill, her kind and adoring employer, are in love, but Joan is afraid that their economic differences will prevent a happy marriage. Bill knows that Ma is the person to ask for advice, and she immediately welcomes him, treating him like a son. Ma understands everyone in the household, including her husband, who wants to own his own hardware store, her older daughter, Joan, who is a stubborn girl, her younger daughter, Helen, who “wants to be a society girl and wear pretty clothes,” her son, Frank, who wants to build air planes, and her nephew, Henry, who wants to be an adventurer. Ma is a tower of strength throughout the whole movie, but she is also an old-fashioned wife; when Bill offers to give the Thayers a grand apartment, she refuses to say that she likes the offer which her husband does not, telling him that Pa is the head of the family. She is not oppressed or down-trodden; rather she is a depiction of glorious womanhood, since she chooses to be a dutiful wife and mother. Henry is a trouble-maker who never can keep a job and constantly complains about the injustices of the “great middle class;” at the tensest moment of the film, everyone is furious with Henry, but she retains calm authority over him. Her only desire is to go sailing again, since she comes from a long line of sailing people; she is a happy, lighthearted soul when Bill takes them all sailing on his boat, the Hilda. In the end, everyone gets his dream come true, including Ma, since Bill gives her the Hilda. She never asks for it, since she is happy just to see her family’s wishes fulfilled.
Mrs. Kildare is the mother of Dr. Jimmy Kildare, the star of the Dr. Kildare series from 1938-1942; she appears in the first five films as well as the eighth. Jimmy lives at the Blaire General Hospital in New York City, and his parents still live in his hometown of Dartford, Connecticut, so some travel has to take place for Dr. and Mrs. Kildare, Sr. to enter each movie. Whether Jimmy decides to go home for a visit or his parents surprise him with their presence at the hospital, Mrs. Kildare always ends up having a private conversation with her son. Jimmy is a very wise, courageous, and sensitive young man who puts ethics and curing patients above rules and the advancement of his career. His mother says that she “taught him right from wrong with the power of prayer and the back of a hairbrush.” His noble ideals put his medical career in jeopardy in almost every film in the series. Jimmy usually has a feeling about what he thinks he should do, but his renegade plans often involve some risk or sacrifice, so he is understandably concerned. Thus, he asks his dear mother what he should do. She always advises him to trust his own insight, do what he knows to be right, and be true to himself. Once he has her approval and blessing, Jimmy can do anything. Mrs. Kildare loves her two doctors very much, and she prides herself on always knowing how they think and feel. She has a lot of pride about her beauty as a young girl; she tells Jimmy that she could have married any man in the state, but she fell in love with his father. From the first film, it is clear that Jimmy’s parents want him to live in Dartford and join his father’s medical practice. Jimmy has been offered an internship at a big New York hospital, and he wants to go and find his own place in medicine. You can see throughout the whole series that the Kildares, especially Martha, miss their son, but they are fine, unselfish parents; even though Jimmy’s plans do not coincide with their own, they always support his wishes. Jimmy is the Kildares’ only child and Mrs. Kildare’s pride and joy, but she is a good enough mother to want him to lead his own life.
Emily Hardy is the mother of the Hardy family in every one of the sixteen films made between 1937 and 1958, played by Fay Holden in all but the first. She is a calm, sweet presence in all of these movies. She is an old-fashioned wife from the Midwest who is charmingly ignorant about business, finances, and politics. She oftentimes doesn’t know certain things and doesn’t want to, since her husband takes care of those for her. She is an excellent housekeeper, cook, and mother. Her maiden sister, Millie, helps her with these chores but also teaches school. She is very feminine and sensitive, since she never panics at the possibility of their home being lost but frequently cries because of her children’s pain or the fact that they are growing up. In most films, Judge Hardy thinks that a catastrophe is going to befall the family financially, but she always assures him that they can endure it. She usually ends up revealing the solution to him unintentionally through a simple statement or thoughtless comment. The relationship between Mrs. Hardy and Andy is very sweet and tender. Although the enthusiastic youth always has troubles which he finally reveals to his father in a “man to man” talk later in the film, he relies on his mother for simple, unquestioning love. She often scolds him about his manners and decorum; it is obvious that he is a young gentleman because of her careful training. He is usually annoyed by being called her “little man,” a phrase which she uses for him in a few films. He rarely minds affection from his mother; only in Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever does he wipe her kiss off his lips because he is trying very earnestly to be mature. The relationship which the characters in this series cultivate are precious, since they had the opportunity to start working together in the second Andy Hardy film; in the first one, the cast was entirely different except for Andy Hardy. You can tell that the middle films were so easy to make because they could ride on the story and emotion accumulation which they had acquired because of all the previous films. Mrs. Hardy never changes. She is the reason that Andy never really gets into trouble. He may do more than his fair share of kissing, but he never drinks, smokes, or treats a young lady dishonorably because he knows his mother would disapprove.
Having reviewed Ma Thayer, Mrs. Kildare, and Mother Hardy, we see that they are three different characters who share the virtue of being wonderful mothers from pre-war Code films of MGM. Ma Thayer, the mother in a forgotten masterpiece from 1938, Rich Man, Poor Girl, is a charming character who should be remembered with the greatest classic Hollywood mothers. Mrs. Kildare is a jovial and lively Irish mother whose personality and love are twice as big as she is; her relationship with Jimmy is a sweet, sentimental contrast with the seriousness of the medical drama. Mother Hardy is from the most popular and remembered of the three MGM movies or series, and she certainly adds a great deal of the stories’ charm. The day after tomorrow is Mother’s Day; celebrate the day with your mother, another woman whom you love and respect, or a grand mother from the Golden Era of Hollywood!
Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!
Cast for Rich Man, Poor Girl:
Bill Harrison: Robert Young; a millionaire who joins the Thayer family to marry Joan, the oldest daughter.
Joan Thayer: Ruth Hussey; a practical girl who is unsure about marrying her wealthy employer.
Henry Thayer: Lew Ayres; the spirited adopted cousin who wants adventure and loves complaining about injustice.
Ma Thayer: Sarah Padden; the revered mother in this film.
Pa Thayer: Guy Kibbee; the simple but kind father who wants his own hardware store without charity.
Helen Thayer: Lana Turner; a dreamy girl who is intoxicated with high society and disgusted with their commonness.
Frank Thayer: Don Castle; a young man who works hard with his father but wants to build air planes.
Cast for Dr. Kildare series:
Dr. Jimmy Kildare: Lew Ayres; an optimistic young doctor who sacrifices everything to cure patients.
Dr. Leonard Gillespie: Lionel Barrymore; Jimmy’s mentor, the disagreeable old diagnostician who really loves him.
Nurse Mary Lamont: Laraine Day; Jimmy’s sweetheart, who would willingly give up nursing for a more intimate partnership with the handsome young doctor.
Dr. Stephen Kildare: Samuel S. Hinds; Jimmy’s wise old father, the country doctor from Dartford, Connecticut.
Mrs. Stephen Kildare: Emma Dunn; Jimmy’s mother, the revered mother in this film.
Cast for Andy Hardy series:
Andy Hardy: Mickey Rooney; a fearless, fun-loving Midwestern boy.
Judge James Hardy: Lewis Stone; Andy’s sage old father, an honest country judge.
Mrs. Hardy: Fay Holden; Andy’s mother, the revered mother in this film.
Marian Hardy: Cecilia Parker; Andy’s older sister and biggest source of irritation.
Aunt Millie Forrest: Sara Haden; Andy’s maiden aunt, who lives with the Hardys and is a second mother to the children.
Polly Benedict: Ann Rutherford; Andy’s sweetheart, with whom he frequently quarrels and whom he frequently two-times.
Doherty, Thomas. Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. Columbia University Press. 2007.