On September 23, 1920, Joseph Yule, Jr. was born in Brooklyn, New York. Born to two vaudevillians, show business was in his blood from birth. At seventeen months, he made his stage debut in a review alongside his parents, wearing a tuxedo specially tailored to his tiny body. From the beginning of his career, he was a small fellow with a huge personality. Joe Yule, Jr. would go on to have the longest film career in history, acting consistently for nine straight decades. His career began in the silent era, went through the pre-Code era, the Breen era, and the Shurlock era, and lasted throughout the rating system era, ending in the twenty-first century. Perhaps you wonder why you don’t recognize the name of such a prolific actor. That is because he, like many actors of his day, acted under a pseudonym. When establishing himself as a child actor, he took on the first name of his recurring character in the Mickey McGuire series. In 1932, he became known as Mickey Rooney, a name which remained with him until his death in 2014.
In honor of Mickey Rooney’s ninety-eighth birthday, which would have fallen on September 23, I am going to discuss the peak of his career, his adolescence and early manhood, when he was one of the brightest stars in Hollywood. By analyzing the early Code years, Mickey Rooney’s career during it, his years as a top star, and the time until his enlistment, I will show how he led America from Shirley Temple to World War II.
Shirley Temple’s first film with Fox Pictures was released throughout the United States on May 4, 1934, just two months before the beginning of the Production Code Administration on July 15, making six-year-old Shirley a star just when people were demanding wholesomeness. Change was in the air, with the National Legion of Decency, the Payne Fund Studies, and talk of government censorship creating increasing discontent with Hollywood’s indecency. Shirley Temple’s fourth credited film at Fox Studios was Baby Take a Bow, an early Code film which received PCA Seal of Approval No. 3. It was the beginning of a new time for Hollywood, during the early days of which Shirley Temple was the princess. She made two more films in 1934 and four in 1935, becoming the top box office star during the first whole year under the Code. She retained this honored position in 1936, 1937, and 1938. She made another four movies in 1936 and three per year in 1937 and 1938.
During these days, the glory days of her childhood, Shirley Temple was the most beloved star in the world. The depressed nation found even more hope from her youthful grin than from President Roosevelt’s famous smile. She was every girl’s idol, every child’s best friend, and every parent’s dream child. She was the role model and mascot of an entire civilization. After the years of flaming youth in the 1920s, American films were plunged into the dismal filth of the pre-Code era, which did nothing to dispel the gloom of the Great Depression. Then, little Curly Top burst onto the screen with her girlish charm and youthful innocence. Through her, the nation reclaimed the innocence which it had lost in the wild years since the Great War. The timing was perfect. Shirley Temple was the ideal symbol of a newly cleansed nation and film industry, one which adored a sweet little girl instead of immoral vamps. After The Public Enemy and The Story of Temple Drake, it’s no wonder that people cherished “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”
On July 20, 1934, Blind Date, Mickey Rooney’s twentieth film, was released in the United States, making it Mickey Rooney’s first picture in the Breen Code era. In 1935, after three less-prominent films, he performed the role of Puck in Warner Bros’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream at age 14. After that, he was signed at MGM, where he first appeared in an uncredited role in Rendezvous, a spy movie with William Powell and Rosalind Russell released later that year. Mickey’s first credited role at MGM was as a younger son in Ah! Wilderness, a film adaption of the play of the same name and his last film released that year. In 1936, he made four MGM feature films, but he played supporting characters in all of these, often appearing alongside the younger and more famous Freddie Bartholomew, MGM’s British child star. In 1937, his first film was A Family Affair, the first movie to feature the Hardy family; he appeared as Andy Hardy for the first time alongside Lionel Barrymore as Judge Hardy and Spring Byington as Mrs. Hardy in this film, which was an unexpected success. After a few more side characters in MGM films, Mickey Rooney was given top billing in a Monogram Films production, Hoosier Schoolboy, which was from a small company but won him acclaim. Among his more notable films that year were his sixth, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, a musical which paired him with Judy Garland for the first time, and his seventh, You’re Only Young Once, a sequel to a A Family Affair and the first Hardy film with the famous cast. The next year, his career boomed as he made eight films at MGM. Among these were three Hardy films, two supporting roles, two more prominent characters, and his big break, Boys Town. He received great acclaim for his dramatic performance as a troubled boy at the reform school. That same year, he and Deanna Durbin were given an Academy Juvenile Award “[f]or their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement.” That award was a symbol of the fact that, by 1938, America was beginning to prefer adolescents such as Mr. Rooney and Miss Durbin to the eternally childish Shirley Temple.
After appearing on the top ten box-office stars list as No. 5 in 1938, Mickey Rooney jumped to the top of the list the next year, where he would remain through 1941. His first film released in 1939 was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a critically unsuccessful film which was made to showcase him as the lead. In addition, he made three more Hardy films as the series became the most popular film series in America. His crowning achievement that year was Babes in Arms, a dramatic youth musical with Judy Garland, for which he was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award. He began 1940 with the leading role in Young Thomas Edison, for which he won great critical acclaim; his picture was on the cover of Time magazine to coincide with the film’s release. This was followed by another Andy Hardy film and then another musical with Judy Garland, Strike Up the Band. In 1941, he made two more Andy Hardy movies, in which Andy faced the serious topics of failing a course in high school and going to New York to find his own way. Between them, he appeared in the dramatic sequel to the highly popular Boys Town, repeating his role of Whitey Marsh in Men of Boys Town. Like its predecessor, this film was very popular and successful because of the dramatic performances by Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy, and the rest of the cast. Finally, he concluded the year with one of his finest musicals with Judy Garland, Babes on Broadway.
In the early years of the Code, people flocked to the carefree entertainment which Shirley Temple provided. No matter where her stories were set, her characters faced simple, relatable problems which appealed to the millions because she solved them with a smile and a song. She experienced enough hardship to make her a trooper but not enough to depress the public. However, her popularity lessened in 1939 not just because she was growing up; it was really because the public was growing up. They had reverted to sweet childhood in the entertainment revolution of 1934. Although many dramatic pictures were popular in the early Code years, Shirley Temple’s reigning supremacy at the box office shows that people preferred her childish charm. However, by 1939, they were growing up, and they began looking for an older idol. To replace the golden-haired girl, they chose a mischievous boy with tousled hair. His pictures were about adolescent problems rather than childhood ones. By having an older protagonist, the stories were more moral than those of Miss Temple’s films. Whether he was playing Andy Hardy, Whitey Marsh, or any of his other roles, Mickey Rooney portrayed a young man facing difficult moral and ethical decisions and problems. As Andy Hardy, the average American boy in the average American town, he was both the boy next door and the ideal youth. Most of his pictures were predominantly cheerful, often featuring laughs and music. However, they are not as carefree as many may think. The films often explored and presented serious and difficult subjects, carefully guided by the Production Code Administration to ensure acceptability. Even in a musical comedy, Mickey Rooney and his friends faced problems, made sacrifices, and encouraged other young people to find their own way. However, even as they encouraged young people to follow their dreams and take chances, they never encouraged rebellion; these films always featured wise mentors to guide the young hopefuls.
Mickey Rooney’s top stardom from 1939 to 1941 shows America’s shifting taste to more serious topics. In 1939, World War II began in Europe. Although America had not joined the war yet, the feeling of impending warfare was looming. Thus, people’s views began to shift, even though the Depression had yet to be defeated. Americans needed four years of sweet salve from Shirley Temple to soothe the pain and heal the wounds which had been inflicted by the wildness of the Roaring Twenties and the bitterness of the early Depression. As the early days of the Code helped people find a new morality and regain the decency they had lost, Shirley Temple was a symbol of moral regeneration, since her youth represented innocence and rebirth. However, after four years, America was emotionally and morally stable again, back on its feet because of the Code and the wonderful, clean entertainment it had provided for over four years. Now, Americans were ready to face and embrace more serious problems, still within the decent, wholesome atmosphere which the Code had created. Mickey Rooney’s popularity represents this. It also shows a tendency toward modernity. While many of Shirley’s films were set in America’s past or other countries, all but two of the twelve films Mickey made during his top box office years were set in modern America; the two exceptions were set in America’s past. It was important for people to feel assured about their present and confident in their young people. Andy Hardy and other Mickey Rooney characters represented the modern American boy, the boy who in 1942 would be the man our country sent to defend our freedom in World War II.
After three years as the No. 1 box-office star, Mickey Rooney dropped lower on the list and eventually disappeared from it during the years of World War II. In 1942, Abbott and Costello jumped to the top of the list, having been No. 3 the previous year, while Mickey Rooney dropped to No. 4. That year, he made two Andy Hardy films and another picture promoting British and American relations, A Yank at Eton, which co-starred Freddie Bartholomew and was quite successful. In 1943, Betty Grable rose to the top of the list from No. 8 the previous year as Mickey Rooney sank to No. 9. However, he was nominated for his second Best Actor Academy Award that year for his emotional performance in the popular drama The Human Comedy. He appeared as himself in an Army show sequence in Thousands Cheer, giving a memorable and comical performance as the emcee of the show. His third film that year was Girl Crazy, the last musical in which he would star opposite Judy Garland. This was the first year that an Andy Hardy film was not released since the series was created in 1937. In 1944, Bing Crosby rose from No. 4 the previous year to top box office star, a position he would retain through 1948, while Mickey Rooney disappeared from the list. This is largely because only two movies with Mickey were released that year, since he joined the Army. In May, the 14th Andy Hardy film, Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble, was released. In June, Mickey Rooney filmed his scenes in National Velvet in one month, since he was inducted into the Army in July. For that reason, he made no more films until Love Laughs at Andy Hardy in 1946, which was made after the war ended. While he was in the Army, Mickey Rooney fought and entertained the troops, keeping up morale for his fellow soldiers during the war as he had done for millions of Americans back on the home front during the long years of the Great Depression.
Having reviewed the early Code years, Mickey Rooney’s career during them, his years as the No. 1 box office star, and his career during World War II, I surmise that Mickey Rooney was a vital link in the emotional progress of America from the depths of the Great Depression to America’s fight for victory on two fronts. From 1935 to 1938, Shirley Temple was the leading symbol of decency, innocence, and hope in the early Code era, bolstering Americans’ optimism from a new president with positivity and patriotism from Hollywood. During these same years, Mickey Rooney was a very busy supporting youth actor in many prominent films, working at MGM from 1936 onward, where he gained increasing acclaim as a dramatic adolescent lead. Between 1939 and 1941, Mickey Rooney was the top box office star, showing that American tastes had shifted to more mature youth actors and topics. During these years, Mickey Rooney’s popularity mirrored the maturing attitude of American society, which was recovering from the Great Depression and gaining its moral and patriotic strength to face the next trial, World War II. Although he was no longer the top box office star, Mickey Rooney made eight more successful films from 1942 until his enlistment in July of 1944. During his three years as the top star, Mickey Rooney personified the American boy; Andy Hardy may have flirted with the girls and caused some mischief now and then, but he was a good boy who loved his family, his God, and his country. When the foes of freedom demanded another war, he was the boy who donned a soldier’s suit and risked his life for our freedom, never forgetting the values he had learned back home from his family and the local movie theater. He was an American; he was the man who won the war.
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