James Dean has been called America's First Teenager, but the title might be better suited to Mickey Rooney, who died Sunday at the age of 93.
Rooney was no sulking sex symbol, of course. Standing just 5 feet, 2 inches, he looked like a small-scale adult and had the animated face of a boy even into his old age.
But in the role of Andy Hardy, whom he first played at the age of 16 in 1937's "A Family Affair" and continued playing for a total of 16 feature films, Rooney was the epitome of the American teenager -- just not the kind we're used to seeing now.
Rooney grew up on screen during the late 1930s and early 1940s, before the teenager became synonymous with emotional tumult. In the years leading up to World War II, before rock music and its attendant evils, Rooney was adolescence incarnate: a bundle of energy, mischief, wholesome desire (never lust, mind you) and sunny spirits. Teenagers would eventually evolve into hot-rodding rebels, drug casualties and today's cellphone-enabled social networkers. In Rooney's time, however, there was no youthful problem that couldn't be fixed by an upbeat musical number.
Rooney may never have said the exact words, "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" Still, the line has stuck to him even in death, showing up in one variation or another as an obituary headline. It wasn't the Andy Hardy movies, but Rooney's other musicals with Judy Garland that popularized the "put on a show" notion. You can hear it in Busby Berkeley's "Babes in Arms" (1939), when Rooney, as Mickey Moran, galvanizes a troupe of young talents with a rousing speech, flopping his hair forward to punctuate every other word.
To this day, the "show" line remains a sarcastic catchphrase for any instance of bright-eyed optimism. Well, what's wrong with optimism? The young Rooney, in his earnest sweater vests and collared shirts, existed before the unimpressed, unenthused attitude known as "cool." Andy Hardy might get into trouble -- a white lie here, a broken heart there -- but his upstanding father, Judge Hardy (played first by Lionel Barrymore and later Lewis Stone), could usually provide a happy ending and, invariably, an important life lesson.
Rooney himself took a while to grow out of his youthful impulses. He went through seven marriages (the eighth stuck) and spent much of his fortune on drinking and gambling. His career suffered -- that's him in the 1968 quasi-hippie bomb "Skiddoo" -- but he also pulled off a few comebacks. He was widely acclaimed as a racehorse trainer in 1978's "The Black Stallion" and won an Emmy for playing a mentally disabled man in the 1981 television film, "Bill." He kept making movies, if sometimes obscure ones, up until this year.
Rooney won a 1983 Academy Honorary Award for "60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances." In his acceptance speech, he recalled a lifelong career "of working with, playing with, like children, the people that we all are on the screen." Few actors have made being a teen look like so much fun.