At five feet, two inches, he was the biggest star in the world.
Mickey Rooney (born Joseph Yule, Jr.) was probably the most talented star Hollywood ever produced. His astonishing career started in the silent era as a child actor. Rooney made the transition to sound with ease, and his career saw work in radio, television and Broadway. Rooney popularity reached a fever pitch in the late 1930s and 1940s. Rooney did it all. As Puck in Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) the fifteen year-old Rooney dazzled with unrestrained energy. Of course, Rooney and Judy Garland added to the American lexicon of optimism and generosity when they exclaimed, “Hey kids, lets put on a show!”
In Boys Town (1938) Rooney is a strutting, hard-shelled delinquent who ultimately reveals his vulnerabilities with choking sobs that are the template for the eternally mixed-up adolescent. Without Mickey Rooney there would have been no James Dean.
As Andy Hardy, Rooney, the small-town kid with a big heart would, at a strategic point in Act III, turn to his father, Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone)—a judge who was proud to judge others—and say: “Pop, can I talk to you, man-to-man?”
There were sixteen Andy hardy movies. They were A movies produced on a B budget. Thus, they were enormously popular and enormously profitable. L.B. Mayer considered the Andy Hardy series as the standard to which all MGM movies should measure themselves. They were a uniquely American, moral fables situated in a bucolic small town of picket fences, and intact families. This is at the America where patriotism is oxygen, where pre-marriage chastity is a given, a landscape absent cynicism and abundant in optimism and neighborliness.
Andy Hardy and the good citizens of Carvel—somewhere in the Midwest—are pious, patriotic, generous and tolerant. They look to family and community for aid in times of need. The only government ever seen is the friendly mailman. Yes, the Andy Hardy series represents an idealized small town America. It is a place, a state of mind, ripe for fashionable scorn, a fat target for postmodern irony. But it was an ideal to which movie audiences believed was true. And Andy Hardy, as played by Rooney, became the prototypical American male that audiences understood and loved.
Clark Gable was The King, and Cary Grant was, well, perfect. But no American male could convince himself that he could be just like Gable or Grant. Whereas Rooney, a short guy crackling with manic energy, was all too human. Men looked at Rooney and saw some aspect of themselves. Women viewed Rooney with romantic longings, frequently leavened with maternal yearnings.
Such was Rooney’s genius that when his fondness for booze, gambling and prostitutes was on the verge of being exposed in the press, L.B. Mayer summoned Rooney into his office where the emotional and manipulative mogul grabbed his little star by the shoulders and into his face shouted: “You’re Andy Hardy! You’re the United States! You’re a symbol! Behave yourself!”
Of course, Rooney was incapable of behaving himself, especially with women. He was a man who loved women. And Rooney’s single-minded courtship of a virginal hillbilly starlet from Grabtown North Carolina, Ava Gardner, threatened, in L.B. Mayer’s mind, the very foundations of MGM, if not America.
Certainly, one of Rooney’s most surprising roles is in The Human Comedy (1943) an overwritten, self-conscious film, that Rooney steals playing a telegram delivery boy, during World War II. Rooney exquisitely charts his character’s arc from energetic kid zooming across country roads on his bicycle, to the gradual realization—he underplays the transition perfectly—that he is, in the eyes of the parents to whom he makes his deliveries—the angel of death.
Countless times, Rooney was a Hollywood has-been. But such was his talent and drive that he always managed to bounce back with a performance—often in bad movies—that redefined Mickey Rooney.
No longer boyish after World War II, Rooney turned in some of his greatest performances. Andy Hardy went noir with Quicksand (1949), as a grease monkey who falls for a bad dame. In Drive a Crooked Road (1954), Rooney once again plays an auto mechanic who falls for the femme fatale. And as a musician in The Strip (1951), Rooney tumbles into a world of graft and corruption. He also jams with the great Louis Armstrong, another reminder that Rooney’s talent was inexhaustible. In all three films, the signature crackling energy that defined Mickey Rooney disappears under some serious naturalism. Rooney underplays his roles, even lowering the timbre of his voice. Rooney gives us a new image to ponder, that of a lonely, defeated man living a life of diminishing expectations.
In Baby Face Nelson (1957), Rooney plays a sociopath who guns down innocent people just to steal a car. Rooney’s performance in this low-budget programmer directed by Don Siegel and with a taut script by Irving Schulman, is one of Rooney’s lesser known vehicles, but it is one of Rooney’s most unexpected and disciplined performances.
Seraphic Secret wrote about Rooney and Ava Gardner’s Not So Hollywood Wedding Night in 2011. It’s been one of our most popular posts.
Hollywood, in its Golden Age, was a dream machine spinning images of adventure, glamour, and most of all, romance.
MGM’s roster of female stars constituted the greatest collection of beautiful and talented women the world has ever known.
One of the greatest was Ava Gardner.
As an emerging starlet in the early 1940′s, before she made a single movie the Southern beauty was simply breathtaking, the talk of the town.
Mickey Rooney was MGM’s golden boy, a versatile star equally adept at musicals, comedy and drama. His signature role as the small-town youngster Andy Hardy made him something of a cash cow for the studio. The Hardy movies were cheap to produce and earned enormous profits.
In his compulsively readable autobiography, Life is Too Short, Rooney claims that his mother worked for a time as a prostitute in order to put food on the table during the depths of the Depression. Thus, it’s not surprising that Rooney pursued women like an obsessive compulsive, seeking affection and love in all the wrong places: call girls, ambitious actresses and mature, lonely women—including Norma Shearer—smitten by Rooney’s brash boyish charm.
The first time Rooney laid eyes on Ava Gardner was when she visited the set of Babes on Broadway, in 1941. She was wearing a wispy summer dress and high heels. Rooney wasalso wearing a dress and high heels—a Carmen Miranda costume.
Rooney recalls the dream-like moment:
“Hello,” said Ava. That’s all. Just hello. And without a smile. But she said it in the soft drawl of her native rural North Carolina, and I was a goner. I had known many beautiful women in my lifetime, but this little lady topped them all. She was five feet one, but she invariably wore high heels, so she was about my height when I was wearing five-inch wedgies.
Ava was eighteen years old, Rooney, 21, and his technique with women, he admits, was a combination of early Neanderthal and late Freud. He pursued the gorgeous young starlet with ferocious determination. After turning down five dates Ava finally succumbed, out of sheer exhaustion and because as one of MGM’s most powerful stars Rooney could, Ava understood, do quite a bit to advance her career.
After a night of drinking, dancing and table-hopping at Chasen’s, Rooney was smitten. When he saw Ava to her door at two in the morning Rooney impulsively proposed marriage.
Ava, playing a cool customer but in truth a tongue-tied country girl, gave a little hoot, smiled and ducked into her apartment.
For the next few weeks Rooney kept asking and Ava kept evading.
Soon after December 7, 1941, Rooney presented Ava with a huge diamond ring and once again popped the question.
There is nothing like war to concentrate the mind on love and romance.
Ava said yes.
They kissed and Rooney started to grope the inexperienced young woman from Grabtown, North Carolina.
But Ava Gardner would not sleep with Rooney before accepting the sacraments of marriage. She was a virgin, and she insisted, that was the way she was going to keep it until the wedding night.
Rooney was out of his mind with desire.
Hearing of the engagement, L.B. Mayer hit the ceiling. He accused Rooney of trying to destroy MGM. There was an image to preserve and marriage to an unknown hillbilly starlet did not fit the carefully crafted studio profile of Andy Hardy the clean-cut, all-American boy.
Terrified of Mayer’s incandescent temper Ava was ready to postpone the marriage. But Rooney stood up to the most powerful studio chief in Hollywood and threatened to break his contract if Mayer did not give his blessing to the union.
L.B. Mayer realized he was no match for Ava Gardner’s smoldering sensuality and wisely backed down. The wily mogul even hosted a bachelor party for Rooney. The guest list included: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor, Lewis Stone, Bill Holden, Robert Montgomery, Lionel Barrymore, William Powell and Frederic March.
Ava and Mickey were married on January 10, 1942.
The wedding night should have been an MGM soft-focus dream of deep kisses, moonlight and unquenchable passion.
Mickey Rooney confesses the awful truth:
After the ceremony, we kissed our families good-bye and headed for our honeymoon in Carmel, at the Del Monte Inn…
We didn’t have a normal, sexy wedding night. I was a nervous wreck. Getting there had been more than half the fun. Now I didn’t quite know how to savor my victory. To quiet my nerves I drank too much champagne at dinner and barely made it back to our room before I took off my pants and sank into the bed. By the time Ava emerged from the bathroom, all dressed in white satin and lace, I was snoring heavily—dreaming, no doubt about how nice it was, being married to the most beautiful woman in the world.
The marriage was a predictable disaster. Rooney was interested in booze, betting, and babes—not necessarily in that order. Ava reports in her autobiography, Ava: My Story, that she spent the day posing for MGM publicity photos—her career had yet to ignite—then cooked, cleaned and decorated the house. She was trying to be a good wife.
But Rooney was a serial adulterer who spent all his time at the studio, the track, and a brothel stocked with prostitutes who were dead-ringers for Hollywood movie stars.
Finally Ava walked out on him. One year and five days after he slipped a ring on her finger bearing the engraving: “Love Forever,” they were divorced.
Years later, Ava somewhat wickedly characterized their union as Love Finds Andy Hardy.
Ava’s career soared after appearing as the femme fatale opposite Burt Lancaster in The Killers, 1946. But her love life was tumultuous, a blizzard of booze, wrenching love affairs and failed marriages to Frank Sinatra and Artie Shaw, volcanic and abusive men.
Rooney racked up an astonishing seven additional marriages after Ava.
Neither ever found true contentment in love or marriage.
Hollywood was and still is a dream factory that all too frequently weaves nightmares.
Mickey Rooney R.I.P.