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 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT