This week at Saturday Matinee, we'll pay tribute to the cliffhanging serials - which were often screened during Saturday matinees of yore - by taking a look at one of the Mickey Mouse Club's popular serials: "The Hardy Boys." Truth be told, I only know "The Hardy Boys" through Disney. I've never read The Hardy Boys books in my life, sad as that is. I knew who they were, but my kids-solve-mysteries book series of choice was The Boxcar Children. I liked reading about the misadventures of Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden rather than those of Frank and Joe Hardy. However, The Boxcar Children never made it to television. The Hardy Boys were more fortunate. Disney produced two "Hardy Boys" serials for "The Mickey Mouse Club": "The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure" and "The Mystery of the Ghost Farm." Other studios have created their own Hardy Boys television shows, the most well-known being ABC's "The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries," which ran from 1977 to 1979. Disney's version remains the best, in my opinion, and this week, we'll take a look at the first episode.
Today's episode: "The Stranger"...
Frank Hardy then begins narrating, explaining how he and his younger brother Joe live in Bayport, U.S.A. "Bayport's a quiet sort of town, especially in the summertime," he tells us. Frank's busy repairing the screen door when the phone rings. Aunt Gertrude asks him to answer it, she's busy in the kitchen. A mysterious gloved hand is tapping a knife against a statue, before hanging up. It could be the beginning of a mystery, but Frank doesn't think so. He'd rather work on a real case with his father, the famous Fenton Hardy. Frank then introduces us to his younger brother, Joe.
Joe is busy washing the car, imagining it's a mystery in itself, talking to the hose as if it were the sheriff. Frank sneaks up behind Joe, pointing the hose at him. The two fight and are egged on by a young boy walking by. Before anyone can introduce themselves, the boy runs off. Could this be the stranger that the episode is titled after? Frank doesn't think so, and tries to get Joe to continue working around the house. He can't find his wire cutters, and Joe is too busy thinking about mysteries to worry about where he left them.
The phone rings again, with Joe answering this time. Again, a gloved hand taps a knife against the statue. Joe pretends he's a Chinese laundry man and tells the caller to go away. The phone rings once more, and Frank soon realizes it's their neighbor Iola. He keeps her busy on the phone while Joe rides his bike over to her house. He sneaks into her living room and demands to know why she keeps calling. Iola tells him that she has a message: his father is coming home from the city. She was delivering it in a code which she made up. Joe's too excited with the news to be angry at her, and heads back to his house to tell Frank the good news.
Disney's "The Mickey Mouse Club" were structured in four specific segments: the newsreel, the Mouseketeers, the serial, and the Mousekartoon. Of the four segments, the serials were always the most popular. The first season saw three notable serials: "What I Want To Be," "The Adventures of Spin and Marty," and "Corky and the White Shadow," along with a series of shorter educational serials. "The Adventures of Spin and Marty" was the most popular from the first season, prompting Disney to produce two more "Spin and Marty" serials. In addition, they kept actor Tim Considine (who played Spin Evans) in their company by also casting him as older brother Frank Hardy for "The Hardy Boys." Cast as younger brother Joe was newcomer Tommy Kirk, whose only other Disney experience at the time was reporting for several newsreels.
The pair worked together not only in "The Hardy Boys" but in 1959's The Shaggy Dog, which marked Considine's only theatrical film for Disney. He was best known in his television roles: Spin Evans in "Spin and Marty," Frank Hardy in "Hardy Boys," and Steve Abernathy in "Annette," one of the final serials for "The Mickey Mouse Club." In addition, Considine played young Gabe Marion in three episodes of Disney's "The Swamp Fox." By contrast, Tommy Kirk would become a known through his theatrical roles in films like Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. He left the studio after Merlin Jones, but returned a year later for its sequel, The Monkey's Uncle.
Considine and Kirk have great chemistry as brothers Frank and Joe. You can see Frank taking on the more responsible "big brother" role, occasionally reining in Joe from some of his out-there assumptions and thoughts. And yet, there's still the sense of "omagosh, a mystery!" that pervades them both. That's largely due to the small town suburban setting. Small town suburbia would be the last place a kid can find a mystery, which makes "The Hardy Boys" all the more exciting for an audience. It suggests that even in places like small town suburbia, kids can still have an opportunity to solve crimes and discover treasure. Their imagination runs wild as a way to make up for the otherwise low-key environment they live in.
I think what makes "The Hardy Boys" so endearing after all these years is that it plays to that childhood fantasy. Thus, children get enthralled, while adults are reminded of the joys of childhood summers. The serial gives us ordinary people in an ordinary life, and elevates them to extraordinary levels thanks to a mystery. Honestly, the mystery itself - in this serial, not in general - is not what is important. When Iola calls out, "Joe, can't I be a Hardy boy, too?" she's representative of all the viewers. The audience becomes invested in seeing how the characters handle the mystery. We're more interested in seeing them take the steps to solve the mystery.
The complete adventure of "The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure" is available in "Walt Disney Treasures: The Hardy Boys," which was released in 2006. Unfortunately, the "Walt Disney Treasures" line ended before we ever saw "The Mystery of the Ghost Farm" released. However, the introduction to the serial is featured in one of the five "Mickey Mouse Club" episodes included in 2005's compilation disc "The Best of the Mickey Mouse Club." Hopefully, Disney will get around to releasing "The Mystery of the Ghost Farm" (along with other "Mickey Mouse Club" serials) via Disney Movie Club or the burn-on-demand Disney Generations line.