Thanksgiving, family - say the first and you think of the second. And when you think about family, many of the pictures that come to mind are pictures that were produced by Hollywood.
So as we prepare for today's feast, it seems appropriate to examine how Hollywood has portrayed the American family over the years, and how much it has reflected - and shaped - the way we think about family life.
A good place to begin is with the Andy Hardy movies. Although it has been 32 years since the last one - and although they're dated, to say the least - they still typify much of what Hollywood has tried to convey.
In 15 movies, beginning with A Family Affair (1937) and concluding with Andy Hardy Comes Home (1958), MGM presented an idyllic depiction of what it held up as a typical small-town American family. Mickey Rooney was Andy Hardy, the quintessential American teenager. His father, usually played by Lewis Stone, was a stern but understanding local judge who could always set matters right with his son in man-to-man talks; his mother, usually played by Fay Holden, was "swell," and there were other family members and all kinds of girlfriends who were just as nice as they could be.
Low-budget films, they turned handsome profits that offset many an MGM bust; they served as vehicles for launching the careers of many MGM starlets, including Judy Garland, and they obviously made people feel good about themselves during the depths of the Depression and World War II. So much so that the series was given a special Academy Award in 1942 for "furthering the American way of life."
The theme underlying the Andy Hardy series - and one that is enunciated in the majority of movies in which the family is the central focus - is that the family will always come through, says David Parker, a curator in the Library of Congress' motion picture, broadcast and recorded-sound division.
"It's a life-affirming sort of thing," Parker says. Despite destitution, disease, death, discrimination, divorce, despair and discord, movies about
families "tend to end with children and parents saying 'I love you.' That's the way it has to come out. . . . It says that no matter how impossibly things get out of line - things that would sink the average family - that you can pull it out."
Even in MGM's The Great Ziegfeld, ostensibly a biography of showman Florenz
Ziegfeld but really a musical revue, this theme was somehow worked in.
"There's a scene out of nowhere where Ziegfeld goes back to his father, an old music teacher, and they say to each other, 'You were right, I love you, father.' 'I love you, son,' " Parker says. "MGM had to have it . . . (It was as if they were saying) the studio that brought you Andy Hardy has to put Hardy-like sequences even in a movie about putting on a show."
For a very modern example, there's Parenthood, the 1989 movie that spawned a television series. In the movie, we see three related families - one headed by compulsively conscientious Steve Martin, one by pushy, snobbish Rick Moranis, and one by beleaguered mother Dianne Wiest. After a plethora of painful and funny crises, any number of which would destroy many a family, all come together in a happy ending that is as implausible as it is touching. The family has come through.
It comes through on the movie screen because we want it to, Parker says. The television series Bonanza was so popular, he adds, because it aired at a time (1959 to 1973) "when the family was less cohesive, and when people wanted to envision a time when the family was cohesive and worked together for common goals. The more worried we are about the family falling apart, the more we run to Andy Hardy."
During World War II, people wanted to be reassured that all would turn out well, and that particularly the boys at the front and the families they left behind would do just fine.
So in Guadalcanal Diary, Parker says, fellow GIs become surrogate brother and father figures. On the home front, in Since You Went Away, with Claudette Colbert writing to her soldier-husband, we see that things may be a little rough in the old homestead, but that it's going to be all right.
In less-stressful times, Parker notes, it seems permissible to make movies in which the theme is family tension and disunity.
"The '50s family was stable, so we could tolerate The Young Stranger or Blue Denim, which suggest that all is not well with the family unit. You can say it is the beginning of something that's going to develop later - (the upheaval of the '60s) - or say that it can be tolerated by the myth machine
because things are not so dire."
Often in films about the family, it's a death or serious health problem that draws everyone together and ties up the loose ends. Terms of Endearment, in which Debra Winger gestures lovingly to her mother, Shirley MacLaine, as she expires of cancer, and East of Eden, in which a father, Raymond Massey, and his son, James Dean, are finally reconciled as Massey lies on his deathbed after a stroke, are just two examples.
And even in A Woman Under the Influence, in which we see Gena Rowlands' family falling apart on the day she returns from a mental hospital, the film conveys the message that "there is a chance the family is going to make it, that salvation is going to happen," Parker says. "It's more tenuous than other pictures, but it's still there - that even if tomorrow is like today, we'll barely make it day by day."
Which is not to say that some movies aren't unrelenting in their examination of family problems. Death of a Salesman, a critique of the Horatio Alger myth and of the larger American dream, provides little for those who would like to believe tomorrow is another day to hang their hat on. In Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, the son has to leave home because he can no longer stand his crazy family life.
But in general, through the years, Hollywood has celebrated the family as, at the very least, "the place where, when you have no place else to go, they have to take you back," Parker says.
"When people go to Las Vegas, they talk to each other about who won how much money last night, not all the people who lost. We go with the success story - it keeps our spirits up. It's the same thing here. We seek out stories where the family comes through.
"So we can't be totally contemptible of happy endings. Other kinds of endings might put us in traction, incapable of moving. This gives us some hope. . . . Hollywood has always said there's always another streetcar - always another chance."
FAMILIES ON FILM
V indicates film is available on videocassette.
ALL FALL DOWN (1962) Warren Beatty, Eva Marie Saint. William Inge's story of a narcissitic young man, his family and the older woman who falls for him.
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy. World War II veterans try to readjust to family and civilian life. Nelson, $29.95. V
THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985) Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson. John Hughes' look at teens who alternately rebel against and try to cope with adult authority. MCA/Universal, $19.95. V
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958) Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives. Tennessee Williams' dark, brooding look at a dying Southern patriarch and his emotionally crippled son. MGM/UA, $19.99. V
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1983) Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Rip Torn. Vestron, $14.99. V
CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (1950) Clifton Webb, Myrna Loy. A turn-of-the century efficiency expert has to be very efficient to cope with his 12 children.
CLAUDINE (1974) Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones. Sad/funny treatment of the romance between a garbage collector and a young ghetto mother of six.
DAD (1989)Ted Danson, Jack Lemmon. A hug-a-minute movie in which a son, in tending to his terminally ill father, becomes a better father himself. MCA/ Universal, $89.99. V
DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS (1960) Robert Preston, Dorothy McGuire. William Inge's play about a family's life and problems in 1920s Oklahoma.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1951) Fredric March, Mildred Dunnock. Willy Loman and his family come unglued in Arthur Miller's tale of the downside of the American dream.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1985) Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich. Made for TV. Lorimar, $19.99. V
EAST OF EDEN (1955) James Dean, Raymond Massey. John Steinbeck's Cain-and- Abel allegory set in pre-World War I California. Warner, $19.99. V
EL NORTE (1983) David Villalpando, Ernesto Cruz. Powerful story of a brother and sister who flee Guatemala to find a better life in the United States. CBS/Fox, $59.99. V
FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer. Cautionary tale for married men tempted to fool around. Paramount, $14.99. V
FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1950) Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor. Hollywood's ultimate daddy's-little-princess film. MGM/UA, $19.99. V
FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961) Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Miyoshi Umeki. Denizens of San Francisco's Chinatown sing and dance their way through Rogers and Hammerstein's musical about the conflict between the old and new ways. CBS/ Fox, $19.98. V
THE GLASS MENAGERIE (1950) Kirk Douglas, Jane Wyman, Gertrude Lawrence. Tennessee Williams' psychological study about the dream worlds occupied by a lame girl and her faded Southern belle mother. Made for TV in 1973 with
Katharine Hepburn and Sam Waterston. Remade for the cinema in 1987 with Joanne Woodward, John Malkovich and Karen Allen; MCA/Universal, $79.99. V
THE GODFATHER (1972) Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall. Francis Ford Coppola's epic about a Mafia patriarch and his sons. Paramount, $29.99. V
THE GODFATHER II (1974) Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall. Coppola goes back to chronicle the Corleone family's immigrant experiences, then ahead to examine their attempts to blend with mainstream American culture. Paramount, $29.99. V
GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine. An Oklahoma family resettling in California during the Depression struggles against hunger, poverty and prejudice. CBS/Fox, $19.99. V
HEARTLAND (1979) Rip Torn, Conchata Ferrell. Frontier saga of what it was like trying to raise a family on the Wyoming prairie. HBO, $69.99. V
I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER (1970) Melvyn Douglas, Gene Hackman. A grown son faces the problems of caring for his elderly father. RCA/Columbia, $69.99. V
I REMEMBER MAMA (1948) Irene Dunne, Barbara Bel Geddes. A Norwegian immigrant family in San Francisco. Fox Hills, $19.99. V
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) James Stewart, Donna Reed. Frank Capra's classic demonstrates family values through trials and tribulations. Video House, $14.99. V
THE LIFE OF RILEY (1948) William Bendix, Rosemary Decamp. Sort of the All in the Family of its day.
LIFE WITH FATHER (1947) Irene Dunne, William Powell. Nostalgic tale of an eccentric but loving father and his brood in turn-of-the-century New York. Geronimo, $19.99. V
THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942) Joseph Cotton, Anne Baxter. Orson Welles' adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel about strife in a small-town Midwest family. Fox Hills, $19.99. V
MARTY (1955) Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Drake. Paddy Chayefsky's Oscar-winning tale of a loveless Bronx butcher trying to find a mate and deal with a clinging mother; MGM/UA, $19.99. V Also, the original 1953 TV Playhouse production with Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand; Orion, $14.99. V
MOONSTRUCK (1987) Cher, Nicholas Cage, Olympia Dukakis. Funny, romantic latter-day look at the Italian-American family. MGM/UA, $19.99. V
ON GOLDEN POND (1981) Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda. An aged professor comes to terms with death, and his alienated daughter comes to terms with her resentments. CBS/Fox, $19.99. V
ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980) Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton. WASPs have problems too, as Robert Redford's story of a family's deterioration after the accidental death of a beloved older son demonstrates. Paramount, $19.99. V
OUR TOWN (1940) William Holden, Martha Scott, Thomas Mitchell. Thornton Wilder's story of a New England town chock full of family drama and conflict. Goodtimes, $19.99. V
PARENTHOOD (1989) Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen. Ron Howard's humorous look at the anguish of modern child rearing. MCA/Universal, $19.99. V
THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart. The classic comedy about a wedding on the Main Line. MGM/UA, $19.99. V
PLACES IN THE HEART (1984) - Sally Field, Lindsay Crouse, Ed Harris. A widow in 1930s Texas tries to keep her home and family together during the Depression. CBS/Fox, $19.99. V
PRETTY IN PINK (1986) Molly Ringwald, Harry Dean Stanton, Annie Potts. John Hughes' look at the anxieties faced by modern teens. Paramount, $19.99. V
RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961) Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee. A black family struggles in inner-city Chicago. RCA/Columbia, $19.99. V Also, a 1988 stage production with Esther Rolle and Danny Glover. Fries, $69.99. V
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo. The ultimate '50s teen-alienation, generation-gap flick. Warner, $19.99. V
THE REMARKABLE MR. PENNYPACKER (1959) Clifton Webb, Dorothy McGuire. A Philadelphia businessman and bigamist juggles two families with a total of 17 children.
SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944) Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton. Wartime weeper about the family struggles of a soldier who's over there. CBS/Fox, $39.99. V
SOUNDER (1972) Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield. A rhapsodic look at the life of a black sharecropper family in the 1930s. Paramount, $24.99. V
TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983) Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson. An episodic look at the evolution of a mother-daughter relationship. Paramount, $19.99. V
A THOUSAND CLOWNS (1965) Jason Robards Jr., Barbara Harris. A single parent who's dropped out of life is faced with having his son taken away.
A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945) Dorothy McGuire, Lloyd Nolan, Peggy Ann Garner. Elia Kazan's tale of tenement life in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. Playhouse, $19.99. V
A WEDDING (1978) Carol Burnett, Desi Arnaz Jr., Mia Farrow. Robert Altman lampoons social proprieties in this uneven satire about an upper-class wedding. CBS/Fox, $59.99. V
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974) Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands. The effect on a blue-collar family of a mother who's cracking up.
THE ANDY HARDY SERIES WITH MICKEY ROONEY
A FAMILY AFFAIR (1937) Lionel Barrymore, Sara Haden.
YOU'RE ONLY YOUNG ONCE (1938) Lewis Stone, Cecilia Parker.
JUDGE HARDY'S CHILDREN (1938) Lewis Stone, Cecilia Parker.
LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY (1938) Judy Garland, Lewis Stone, Ann Rutherford. MGM/ UA, $19.99. V
OUT WEST WITH THE HARDYS (1938) Lewis Stone, Cecilia Parker.
THE HARDYS RIDE HIGH (1939) Lewis Stone, Cecilia Parker.
ANDY HARDY GETS SPRING FEVER (1939) Helen Gilbert, Ann Rutherford. MGM/UA, $19.99. V
JUDGE HARDY & SON (1939) Lewis Stone, Cecilia Parker.
ANDY HARDY MEETS A DEBUTANTE (1940) Judy Garland, Diana Lewis. MGM/UA, $19.99. V
ANDY HARDY'S PRIVATE SECRETARY (1941) Lewis Stone, Kathryn Grayson. MGM/UA, $19.99. V
LIFE BEGINS FOR ANDY HARDY (1941) Judy Garland, Lewis Stone. MGM/UA, $19.99. V
THE COURTSHIP OF ANDY HARDY (1942) Lewis Stone, Ann Rutherford.
ANDY HARDY'S DOUBLE LIFE (1942) Esther Williams, Lewis Stone. MGM/UA, $19.99. V
ANDY HARDY'S BLONDE TROUBLE (1944) Lewis Stone, Fay Holden.
LOVE LAUGHS AT ANDY HARDY (1946) Lewis Stone, Sara Haden. Budget, $14.99. V
ANDY HARDY COMES HOME (1958) Patricia Breslin, Fay Holden.