To an aficionado of classic black-and-white movies, the death of Mickey Rooney has special significance. Over the past two decades we have seen the departure, from this vale of tears, of so many, many stars and supporting performers from the true Golden Age of Hollywood, which means the 1930s in particular. With the recent death of Shirley Temple and now the passing of fellow ’30s child star Mickey Rooney, only two major leading performers remain with us: Olivia de Havilland (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, Raffles, Four’s a Crowd, The Heiress, The Snake Pit, and so many others) and Luise Rainer (well-deserved consecutive Academy Awards for her performances in The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth). (De Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine also died just recently.)
These passings are a constant reminder of just how far the nation and its culture have gotten from the culture of that era: a time when the movies seemed well aware that life is full of travails and that drama and comedy both require conflict and trouble, but were nonetheless full of optimism, simple but by no means ignorant faith in God, an open admiration for what is truly beautiful in the world, and a clear desire to add to that stock of beauty.
Mickey Rooney (b. Joe Yule Jr., 1920) was an immensely talented actor and dancer and a good singer as well. During his heyday in the 1930s, he spent some time as the nation’s most popular film actor, displacing fellow MGM star Clark Gable. The diminutive Rooney (he was only 5’2″ tall) earned his popularity—he was no glamorous leading man or muscular hero, but he made his very ordinariness a source of appeal and audience identification. His persona was that of a talented young man full of energy, vivacity, and joy in life, but whose immaturity leads him into trouble. His characters ran into difficult problems, often of a seemingly intractable nature, but they just pushed forward and gave it their best, in what used to be seen as the American Way. Along the way, his characters learned valuable life lessons. In Rooney’s best films, as in most other movies of the time, liberty implies personal responsibility and vice versa.
Some of Rooney’s most noteworthy performances are in Boy’s Town, Strike Up the Band, Girl Crazy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Human Comedy, National Velvet, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which is now under attack because of the broad comedy with which he depicted his character, a Japanese man, a decision Rooney later said he regretted), The Black Stallion, and Night at the Museum (just because it’s one of his last films).
The best and most memorable of Rooney’s characters was Andy Hardy, the obstreperous, impulsive, girl-crazy son of stolid and sensible Judge Hardy of Carvel, Idaho, who appeared in several movies, mostly in the late ’30s and the ’40s. In these films, Andy typically would get himself into a good deal of trouble, usually in pursuit of a pretty girl, and ultimately, once things got too far out of hand, he would reluctantly turn to his father, the judge, for help. Judge Hardy would dispense the appropriate advice, which Andy might or might not accept on first try, and Andy would pay a price for his mistakes while fortunately avoiding catastrophe. Often the films include travails which Andy does not initiate, such as the death of a close friend, and Andy’s struggles with these problems show how good character is often strengthened in the crucible of crisis.
The Hardy family films seem hokey and outdated to many people (especially critics) today, but the conflicts they depict and the ideas they suggest about personal responsibility, honor, courage, perseverance, self-control, and decency remain true today and are sorely underrepresented in the culture of our time. The Hardy movies are only a part of Mickey Rooney’s legacy as an actor, but an important achievement indeed. To get a flavor of Mickey Rooney’s abilities as an actor start with Andy Hardy and work your way ad libitum through the rest of his films. They are enjoyable and often more than a little inspiring.