Skip to main content

How Mickey Rooney showed America its heart

By Neal Gabler
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
Mickey Rooney, who started as a child star in vaudeville and went on to star in hundreds of movies and TV shows, has died at the age of 93. Mickey Rooney, who started as a child star in vaudeville and went on to star in hundreds of movies and TV shows, has died at the age of 93.
HIDE CAPTION
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
The long career of Mickey Rooney
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Neal Gabler: Rooney was very unusual in Hollywood. A child actor with enduring success
  • He says he had quality unlike male stars of Golden Age: not powerful, but plucky, vulnerable
  • He conquered through energy, determination, not strength. His image was hopeful, sincere
  • Gabler: He expressed how Americans wanted to see themselves

Editor's note: Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." He is working on a biography of Edward Kennedy.

(CNN) -- Mickey Rooney, who died Sunday at 93, may have been the most unusual major star in the history of Hollywood. Why? For one thing, at the peak of his fame, he was only a youth. In the late 1930s into the 1940s when he topped the Hollywood box office, earning the then huge sum of $150,000 a year, there were few child actors with his clout. In fact, unlike today, there weren't many child actors at all. Only Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin could begin to rival him.

Then there was his size, even into adulthood. There were other diminutive stars in Hollywood's Golden Age, such as Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Humphrey Bogart, but no one as pint-sized as Rooney, who topped out at just 5-foot-2. We like our stars to be outsized. Rooney was definitely undersized.

Neal Gabler
Neal Gabler

But Rooney had something else that no other star had. Male stars -- then as now -- were largely figures of power: not just Cagney and Bogart, but Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, even Spencer Tracy. Moviegoers were attracted to their ability to dominate, to bend the world to their will. Rooney didn't exude power. He exuded pluck.

Rooney never played the conventional hero vanquishing forces of evil. He was best known as Andy Hardy in a series of films at MGM: the quintessential young man in the quintessential small town with the quintessential family and honoring quintessential American values. About the only things he vanquished in these movies were his own doubts or his own lovesickness or his own moral quandaries. Andy was eager, loving, decent, thoughtful -- not the qualities we ascribe to movie heroes but the very qualities Americans, particularly as they emerged from the Great Depression -- liked to ascribe to themselves.

Remembering Hollywood star Mickey Rooney
Actor Mickey Rooney dies at 93
Actor Mickey Rooney dies at 93

He didn't conquer through strength. He succeeded through sheer energy. "Let's put on a show," the joking line attributed to Rooney in those Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland pictures, expressed what Rooney was about: not American muscle, but American determination.

And if Rooney didn't convey power, he didn't convey manliness either. (Hell, he wasn't even a grown man in his heyday.) The great male stars of his time didn't cry. They didn't even wince. They were stoics patrolling America's mean streets. Only Jimmy Stewart among them even seemed to have a tender side. But Rooney was no stoic. He did cry. He was open and vulnerable and wounded and occasionally scared.

Think of the last scene in "The Devil Is a Sissy" where he stares into the night after his prisoner father is executed. He couldn't stare down the world the way the other male stars did. He could only stare into it, often with wonder and pain. After all, he was still a boy, he could expose his heart. He could be hurt.

And there was one more thing about Rooney that made him an unusual star in the Hollywood constellation. Almost every great star then, male and female, was a cynic. They were hard-boiled, had learned to survive life, but lived without illusions. Think of Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon" or "The Big Sleep" or Bette Davis in just about any of her pictures. Rooney, again partly because of his youth, was devoid of that cynicism.

He was hopeful, idealistic, utterly sincere. In a movie world of doubt, Rooney alone was a true believer. In these three ways -- pluck and heart and idealism -- Rooney may have come closer to the American ethos in Depression-era America than any other star. He was loved not because he expressed what we could only hope to be, but because he expressed what we liked to think we actually were.

Take Rooney in what is arguably his best role, as Homer Macauley in Clarence Brown's screen version of William Saroyan's World War II novel, "The Human Comedy," from 1943. Homer's job is to deliver telegrams, including those informing families of their sons' death in battle -- more Rooney sadness. This was MGM head Louis B. Mayer's favorite film because it captured the idealized way he viewed America, with Rooney as the idealized American boy--though the director Billy Wilder once recalled to me a time he found Mayer throttling Rooney on the lot after some transgression and yelling, "You're Andy Hardy! You're America!"

That Rooney was. His death is a reminder of an earlier time when Americans had a more innocent vision of themselves. Rooney's persona may not have worn well over time -- it was a young man's persona -- but in the '30s and '40s he was the personification of that innocence, and a vestige of it has passed with him.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT