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.
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.
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.