Mickey Rooney died Sunday at the ripe old age of 93, ending one of the longest and most impressive careers in the history of American show business, and thus ends an era of American popular culture.
That era actually ended so long ago that Rooney’s death
has been relegated to a few inches deep inside most newspapers, while the golden age of entertainment he exemplified is now seen only on the cable channels devoted to the old-fashioned movie buffs or the late-late-shows of the cheaper UHF stations. Those who do chance upon Rooney’s better efforts will likely find it a bittersweet experience, as it provides a stark reminder of our society’s decline.
Rooney started in show-biz way back in the vaudeville days, when he debuted as a 17-month-old in his parent’s hard-luck burlesque act, and he was a seasoned pro by the time he made his first move at the age of 6. As an example of his natural talent and precocious polish we recommend the 1935 production of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” It’s a slick Hollywood take on Shakespeare that stars Olivia de Havilland and Dick Powell and Victor Jory and all the high-toned stars you’d expect to see in a silver-screen Shakespearean epic, but the stand-out performances are James Cagney’s cocky turn as Billy Bottom and Rooney’s perfectly nasty portrayal of the supernaturally mischievous Puck. Such talent kept Rooney busy at the studios in a wide variety of roles for the next several years, including such notable flicks as “Captains Courageous” and “Ah, Wilderness,” and by the end of the decade he was arguably the biggest star in pictures.
The persona that made Rooney so popular was far from the evil sprite of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” however, and instead expressed the squeaky-clean earnestness of the era when America was coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II. He was the titular character of the hugely popular “Andy Hardy” series, about an all-American boy in an all-American small town, and co-starred with all-American girl Judy Garland in a number of wholesome musicals about all-Americans kids putting on a show in somebody’s suspiciously opulent barn. He got to revive his earlier tough-kid persona in “Boys Town,” opposite Spencer Tracy as the saintly Father Flanagan, but by the final reel he had reverted to suitably endearing form.
At the height of his box-office popularity Rooney went off help out with World War II, and by all accounts his service was brave and distinguished. Originally turned down for duty because of health problems, he joined the USO to entertain the troops until he was allowed to enlist, then continued to entertain his fellow soldiers on makeshift stages built atop jeeps in between battles. He declined to draw any attention to his war record when he returned to Hollywood, and although he retained his popularity for a while he soon found himself struggling to maintain his career in a rapidly changing world.
Part of the problem was that Rooney was now too old for the wholesome lad roles that had once been his specialty, and the barely-five-foot-tall actor was attempting to play prize fighters and race car drivers and other grown-up variations on the tough kids of his earlier career. By the mid-’50s the movies were taking a turn toward film noir and gritty-but-preachy social justice screeds, and by the early ’60s Rooney’s Andy Hardy character and the let’s-put-on-a-show wholesomeness of his musicals was slightly embarrassing to a properly hip movie-goer.
Rooney’s career probably would have ended there if not for his formidable talent, which enabled him to play a variety of character roles with convincing ease. He was one of the slightly disreputable characters chasing after a hidden treasure in the brilliant “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” a nosy Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a gambling-addicted soldier in “The Bold and the Brave,” and countless other roles in movies and television programs ranging from outstanding to downright awful. The former kid actor proved adept at old-man roles in the ’70s, earning him praise as a horse trainer in “Black Beauty” and an Emmy Award as the mentally-challenged “Bill” on a television movie of the same name, but he never regained his superstar status or quite shook the lingering image of good old Andy Hardy.
<div-style=”text-indent:20px;>Rooney got some revenge in the ’80s, when he applied his still-strong talents for piano playing, singing, dancing, and stand-up comedy in the hit Broadway revue “Sugar Babies.” With co-star Ann Miller, who had been the top-billed star of B musicals at Columbia before moving on to second-billed roles in the A+ musicals at MGM back in the ’40s and ’50s, the show went on the road for years and routinely out-drew such rock ‘n’ roll acts as the Rolling Stones. There was still a gray-haired audience for old-fashioned entertainment, and it had the disposable income for the tickets, and even the grumpiest critics acknowledged it had a certain charm. Despite all the money he made from “Sugar Babies,” Rooney continued to work in small roles in such big-budget pictures as “Night at the Museum” and then take to the road to play dinner theaters in mid-sized cities. He was well into his 80s when he played a second-rate venue here in Wichita, which afforded us the opportunity to interview him, and although he was rather cranky at that early-morning appointment he gave an energetic and well-received performance.
According to the obituary writers Rooney found religion and a lasting marriage and some peace with himself in his later years, a marked change from the eight-times divorced life of debauchery that had characterized his earlier days, and we’d like to think his early roles had helped prepare him for the part. All those marriages and the seamier sorts of legends have often been cited as proof of the phoniness of those all-American movies that once made Rooney the biggest star in movies, and that whole era now seems uncomfortably cornball to a properly jaded modern perspective, with Andy Hardy and “let’s put on a show” reduced punchlines in the ironically detached hipster humor, and Father Flanagan and “Boy’s Town” are deconstructed by the post-modernist critics for any subtle signs of pedophilia or some other darkness lurking beneath the surface, but there’s no mistaking the sincerity of those pictures. That’s part of the problem, of course, as sincerity is another one of those cornball qualities that offend the modern sensibility.
Call it progress if you want, but we have our doubts. In an age when “reality” stars become celebrities without any noticeable talents, it’s sobering to look back at an age when a singing, dancing, piano-playing, joke-telling actor who could play anything from Shakespeare to slapstick was what Hollywood was looking for. That gosh-golly gee-willikers enthusiasm of those great Rooney-Garland pictures and the Andy Hardy series got America through the Great Depression and whipped the Axis, whatever else you might say about it, and it’s hard to imagine that ironic hipster detachment that has replaced it will work as well in the coming challenges.
– Bud Norman