There's a scene in the movie "The Devil is a Sissy" where Mickey Rooney is talking tough about his father in prison, who is about to go to the electric chair. After he finishes talking, the camera zooms in and shows a pained expression, one that speaks volumes. Mickey was only a teenager at this time, but was already a movie veteran.
What can you say about an actor whose career went from the silent era to the 21st century -- who made films with everyone from Jean Harlow and Clark Gable to Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson?
Mickey Rooney was amazing, a masterpiece of nature. He could play everything from wacky comedy to straight drama. And as the described scene from "The Devil is a Sissy" indicates, he was able to convey, at quite a young age, a facial expression that spoke volumes about the character he was playing.
The younger MGM actors had to cry a lot. Jackie Cooper talked about that. Crying was a part of the characters they played. And when Mickey Rooney would burst into anguished sobs after his little friend Pee Wee (Bobs Watson) was struck by a car in "Boys Town," there wasn't a dry eye to be had.
Rooney did so many films over so many years, it is hard to pinpoint significant favorites. It is perhaps best to recall particular scenes. The look on his face when washed-up prizefighter Mountain Rivera (Anthony Quinn) must humiliate himself in the wrestling ring at the conclusion of "Requiem for a Heavyweight;" his display of shock when he discovers his boss (Frank Morgan) slumped over dead in "The Human Comedy;" or the gaze in his eye when he trips on the stairs, and looks up to find Polly Benedict's pretty face in "A Family Affair," which started the famous Hardy Family series.
As Andy Hardy, Mickey Rooney represented the classic American teenager, or at least how MGM studios wanted to present adolescence during the late thirties and the World War Two era. He was a wholesome family oriented boy whose mischief was just that, and whose father-son talks with Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) offered a calming anchor for the emotions of post-Depression Americans who soon found themselves in a world war. Andy Hardy's fresh enthusiasm helped Americans believe in the security and tranquility of the American family while trouble continued overseas. Once the troops came home, the Hardy series ended.
This era also saw him in the iconic put-on-a-show musicals with Judy Garland. Films like Babes in Arms, Strike up the Band, and Girl Crazy further helped Americans believe in the spirit of youthful vitality. The post war confusion and angst of James Dean and rock and roll seemed impossible during these innocent, carefree depictions of adolescent life.
Rooney himself entered the service after starring alongside Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet," and when he returned home a couple years later, things had changed. His post war films like Killer McCoy and Words and Music were far from the major box office hits that kept him among the top movie stars before the war. He kept working and turned in great performances, but there was little he could do with low budget comedies like A Slight Case of Larceny, The Atomic Kid, and He's a Cockeyed Wonder.
Rooney persevered, through two failed TV series, a series of lackluster movies, and occasional top level movies like the aforementioned "Requiem for a Heavyweight." or his great role in "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." As late as the 1970s, he was nominated for an Oscar for "The Black Stallion," and in the 1980s his career was fully resurrected with the massive success of the Broadway show "Sugar Babies."
Mickey Rooney continued acting into the 21st century and was a frequent guest at autograph shows. Sometimes warm and friendly, other times cranky and curmudgeonly, Mickey Rooney earned his status as a legendary figure in motion pictures. Dying at the age of 93, Mickey Rooney lived a long and successful life.