Apr 7, 2014

Mickey Rooney: Gay-Vague Teen Hunk of the 1940s

Mickey Rooney, who just died at age 93, played elderly men for so long that it's hard to remember that once upon a time he was the biggest teen hunk  in Hollywood.

Born Joe Yule in 1920, Mickey got his start as "Mickey McGuire," a preteen rapscallion in a popular series of silent movie shorts. In the mid-1930s, he moved on to teenage dramas, many with the strong gay subtext common in the era.

In  Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), his rough street kid Dick falls in love -- quite literally -- with the upper-crust Ceddie (Freddie Barthlomew).

In The Devil is a Sissy (1936), his rough street kid Gig is torn between regular guy Buck (Jackie Cooper) and upper-crust Claude (Freddie Bartholomew).
In Captains Courageous (1937), his rough ship mate Dan falls in love wih upper crust Harvey (Freddie Bartholomew).

Audiences never tired of two teenage boys gazing into each other's eyes.

But Mickey -- and MGM -- hit paydirt with the Andy Hardy series, 16 movies (1937-1946) about a rambunctious small town teenager.  Who was girl-crazy, a new and bizarre characteristic for teens in mass media of the day (boys were expected to become interested in girls at the end of adolescence, not at the beginning).

At first parents and peers -- and audiences -- disapproved of Andy's interest in girls, thinking it made him effeminate (see my post What Kind of Flower Are You?)  The producers countered by displaying Andy's muscles as much as possible.  He strips down for bed; he bounces down the stairs shirtless; he goes swimming, even in winter, and in a revealing Speedo-style swimsuit.  As much as 30% of each movie is devoted to beefcake shots of Mickey Rooney's body and bulge (visible here).

Here Jackie Cooper (left) is a little more obviously bulgeworthy.

The ploy worked.  The Andy Hardy movies hit the top of the box office, and Mickey Rooney was named the most popular star in Hollywood three years in a row.

He also starred with Judy Garland in three popular movie musicals about kids winning or saving things by putting on a show, and continued the male-bonding romances in Huckleberry Finn, Boystown, A Yank at Oxford and Men of Boystown.

Mickey Rooney was always nonchalant about gay people, even in the 1940s, perhaps because his own heterosexual interests were so very obvious, with nine wives and innumerable affairs.  In the 1950s, when gay beefcake hunk Rock Hudson hit on him, he was bemused but not offended: "I like girls," he said.  "I thought everybody knew that."

Mickey Rooney kept working into his 90s, with starring roles in such movies as Wreck the Halls (2008) and The Empire State Building Murders (2008), and small but memorable roles in The Muppets (2011), Driving Me Crazy (2012), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2014).

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