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 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT