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Henry Aldrich

Henry Aldrich

The quintessential teenager of the 1940s, Henry Alrich was born on the Broadway stage in 1937. He reached his widest audience through radio, a string of "B" movies, and a television series. Henry Aldrich, who was likable, clean-cut, and monumentally prone to mishap, influenced a whole generation of teen characters on the radio, in movies, and even in comic books.

While college youths had become popular culture stereotypes in the 1920s, high school kids didn't really get that much notice until a decade later. Swing music and the jitterbug craze helped put them on the map. Writer Clifford Goldsmith introduced Henry Aldrich in his play What A Life! According to radio historian John Dunning, Goldsmith "was virtually penniless and making his living on the high school lecture circuit when he wrote the play." In 1938, the then immensely popular crooner Rudy Vallee invited Goldsmith to write some skits about the Aldrich Family for his weekly radio variety show. Next came a similar invitation from Kate Smith's variety show, and by the autumn of 1939 The Aldrich Family was a regular weekly radio program, sponsored by Jell-O on NBC.

The family lived in a typical small town and consisted of Henry, his parents, and his older sister Mary. His high school pal Homer was underfoot virtually all of the time. The opening of the show became one of the best known, and most quoted, in radio. Henry's long-suffering mom would call him—"Henry, Henry Aldrich!"—and he'd reply, in his harried adolescent croak, "Coming, Mother!" Ezra Stone, who had created the role on the stage, was the first radio Henry, with Jackie Kelk as Homer. House Jameson, who also played the radio detective known as the Crime Doctor, was the head of the household.

The show, though it touched on real family situations, was played for rather broad comedy. Preoccupied with girls, cars, and school, Henry saw no reason why he shouldn't have all the rights and perks of the adult he felt he'd be any day now. His anxious and elaborate schemes and his frequent dreams of glory led him into all sorts of unforeseen complications. His parents, of course, rarely understood him, and often acted as though he might have contracted some rare disease that caused him to run amok on occasion, or behaved as if he might even be an alien invader masquerading as their son.

Paramount Pictures turned Goldsmith's play into a movie in 1939, casting Jackie Cooper as Henry. The script was by Charles Brackett and writer-director Billy Wilder, whose several brilliant creations included the same year's Ninotchka for Garbo. Cooper appeared in the second film in the series in 1941, with Eddie Bracken as his sidekick, and then turned the role over to Jimmy Lydon. Less handsome and gawkier than Cooper, Lydon made nine Henry Aldrich films. John Litel, who'd also been girl detective Nancy Drew's screen father, was Sam Aldrich, and Olive Blakeney was Henry's mom. She later became Lydon's off-screen mother-in-law.

Henry and his kin were early arrivals on television, with The Aldrich Family premiering on NBC on October 2, 1949. An actor named Robert Casey was the first of five juveniles who took turns enacting the role of Henry Aldrich. Jackie Kelk moved from radio to TV to play Homer, and House Jameson returned to repeat Sam Aldrich. Three actresses portrayed Mrs. Aldrich: Lois Wilson (1949, 1951), Nancy Carroll (1950-51), and Barbara Robbins (1952-53). Jean Muir, a movie actress in the 1930s and 1940s, had been scheduled to take over the part in 1950, but because of her liberal sympathies she found herself listed in Red Channels, the right-wing publication dedicated to rooting out alleged Communist sympathizers from the entertainment business. Muir was blacklisted by the sponsor and the network and never got the chance to say, "Henry, Henry Aldrich!"

The Aldrich Family remained on radio and television until 1953, when Henry stepped aside to make way for a new breed of teenage stereotypes.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Dunning, John. Tune In Yesterday. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Eames, John Douglas. The Paramount Story. New York, Crown Publishers, 1985.

Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell's Film Guide. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1987.

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