Mickey Rooney, RIP

Death finds Andy Hardy.


Love looks a little alarmed.

Mickey Rooney died yesterday. Variety says the actor was 93 when he passed away, but if you told me he was 113 I might have believed you; there comes a point when you just figure that impish old man is immortal and stop keeping track of his age.

The movies that made Rooney famous, on the other hand, were built around watching his character grow up. The Andy Hardy series, which MGM produced from 1937 to 1946, feels like an in utero version of the family sitcoms that started cropping up on TV a decade later, from the small-town setting to the loving-but-stern father whose advice guides his son toward the right decisions. (The movies were also a direct inspiration for Archie Comics, though the Archie stories evolved in a different direction.) In the early films, you even have that eternal curse of the sitcom, the far-too-precious child actor: Rooney mugged shamelessly in the first few installments of the series, though eventually he toned it down a notch and added some nuance to his performance.

Sometimes you pick up a book just because the title sounds insane, and it turns out to be really good.

Between that hammy acting and the frequently formulaic plots, it's easy to underestimate these movies. But there are lyrical little moments in them that can catch you by surprise. Consider Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), with its intertwined tales of Andy Hardy juggling girlfriends and trying to get his own car. It isn't exactly scintillating stuff, though if you're a fan of Freudian subtexts you'll be glued to the screen. But then, about an hour into the picture, there's a quietly engrossing amateur-radio sequence, a wonderful moment that belongs in the syllabus of any class on the prehistory of cyberspace.

Or take Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940). It's a fairly ordinary picture, good but not overwhelming, until a strangely haunting scene where Rooney kisses Judy Garland and she starts to cry. "Betsy's tears, the most affecting moment in all of the Andy Hardy movies, seem to issue from absent circumstances, from a different scene which has disappeared," Robert B. Ray writes in The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy. "Their power to disturb derives initially from Garland's acting, more realistically expressive than this B-series can bear."

One of the best Andy Hardy movies is not, strictly speaking, an Andy Hardy movie at all. The Human Comedy (1943) stars Rooney as a teenaged telegraph messenger in a little California town. He isn't Andy Hardy, but of course if you cast Mickey Rooney as a small-town boy in 1943, audiences will think of Andy as they watch. But now Rooney isn't mugging for the camera at all, and now he finds himself bringing people news of their sons and brothers dying in the Second World War. The first draft of the script was written by William Saroyan, a self-described "spiritual anarchist" who despised war, giving the movie a somewhat different flavor than the standard World War II propaganda picture. It's sentimental stuff—too sentimental, really—but like a lot of homefront stories it has a darkness to it; its celebration of community pulls its power from the fact that the community is being ruptured by the battles overseas. That, and the fact that it's Judge Hardy's boy who has to bear tidings of death.

There is, as promised, a scene where he dances to some rock'n'roll music on a jukebox. Just so you know.

The anti–Human Comedy is Andy Hardy Comes Home, a 1958 flop that tried to revive the series. This time, instead of delivering news of military deaths, Rooney delivers a scheme for military production. Andy Hardy has grown up to be a lawyer at a Santa Monica aircraft company, and he wants to bring a missile-parts factory to his old hometown. It's a disorienting picture to watch: It feels like one of those made-for-TV movies where the cast of some ancient sitcom reunites decades after the fact—a Return to Mayberry or Still the Beaver for the Hardy series—except it's set in the late '50s, a time when The Andy Griffith Show didn't exist yet and Leave It to Beaver was just getting started. Instead of nostalgia for the '50s, we get nostalgia in the '50s. But that wistful pining is braided into a script whose premise is that the best thing that can happen to Hardy's boyhood home is for the military-industrial complex to descend on it. The result is an awkward mixture of backward-looking nostalgia and forward-looking technocracy. As a movie, it's pretty terrible. As a cultural artifact, it's pretty interesting.

That was it for Andy Hardy but not for Mickey Rooney. With the series finished, he still had more than a half-century's worth of voiceover parts and character roles ahead of him. But it's those early movies that define his work for me: unpretentious little pictures that might not seem to offer much but sometimes deliver far more than they promise.

NEXT: Jerry Brito on the Final Step in Privatizing the Internet

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  1. Man shoplifts weapons parts

    Trooper William Carvounis, 35, of North Brunswick, N.J., concealed handgun grips, a pistol magazine and a hat while paying for other items Jan. 8 during checkout at the store outside Hamburg, Pa., records said.

    Carvounis is ordered to pay $267 restitution, a $150 fine and $843 in court costs, records say. He’s been accepted into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition first-time offender program that could lead to a clear record down the line.

    Wondering how he got off so light? Here’s the previous paragraph:

    A New Jersey State trooper who shoplifted from a Berks County Cabela’s sporting goods store will pay a fine and enter a first-time offenders program, court records say.

    1. Alright, so I messed that up by including the “Trooper” part.

  2. RIP, Mickey Rooney. You will always be remembered for your over-the-top racist portrayal of a Japanese guy in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

    1. Forgot it was in that movie. If you watch “I am Bruce Lee” on YouTube, they show one of these pictures. Understandably, it pissed off Bruce Lee to see Asian roles played by Caucasian actors, and the studios refused to allow actual Asian actors to play significant roles. Pretty amazing how overtly racist Hollywood was back then.

      1. Yeah, Bruce Lee developed the idea for the TV series “Kung Fu”, and the studio liked it enough that they produced it, starring…David Carradine.

    2. That was one my first experiences of someone being offended on behalf of other groups. College friends and sometimes roommates just entirely offended watching that movie (circa-’98 or ’99). IIRC, they wouldn’t even finish the movie.

    3. He made up for all of that by playing the mentally handicapped guy in Bill.

    4. You should see Dragon Seed, in which Katharine Hepburn and a bunch of others play Chinese villagers resisting the Japanese occupation.

  3. This is definitely someone I thought had died already. I remember him more as the older actor than the young guy.

  4. I’ve been aware of Mickey Rooney the character actor my entire life. And I always knew his claim to fame was being a “child star”. But I never knew what he actually did as a child. I’m not sure at all what that signifies.

    1. I just remembered–he was in Erik the Viking.

      1. True awesomeness, that.

  5. I remember him mostly from “Boy’s Town” and “Night at the Museum.”

  6. My eyes! The goggles do nothing!

    1. That’s pretty much what I remember him for.

      Jiminy Jillikers!

      1. “Watch out, Radioactive Man!”

        “Congratulations, Bart Simpson: you’re our new Fallout Boy! … That’s what I’d be saying to you if you weren’t an inch too short.”

  7. Who?


  8. I loved him in The Wrestler.

  9. I wonder if anyone picked him in Howie Carr’s Death Pool.

    1. I’d look on his website and check, but anything that could stream radio is blocked at work.

    2. Mickey Rooney is survived by Abe Vigoda.

  10. I thought he was great in The Black Stallion (1979). Besides looking like my stepfather, he had the same reserved yet deeply caring and knowledgeable manner that I could only appreciate in later years.

  11. Rooney is wonderfully irritating as Puck in Warners’ 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will be airing as part of TCM’s salute to Rooney. The whole programming tribute is a 24-hour thing starting at 6:00 AM Sunday April 13, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t until about 4:30 AM Monday.

  12. Mickey Rooney as Tim Robbins’ Grandfather in Erik The Viking

  13. If you had asked me, I would probably have said he died in the ’90s.
    Maybe that was Jimmy Cagney.

  14. He was just about the last of the big ’30s stars left. Are any others still alive, besides Luise Rainer (now 104)?

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