Sep 28, 2022

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

Mickey Rooney, who died in 2014 at the age of 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 (previously 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 Andy Hardy movie is devoted to beefcake shots of Mickey's body and bulge.

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

The strategy 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. 

Plus he 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).


  1. The universe is so big and we're so puny and small like Mickey Rooney. Okay, I can't remember how it goes, but it's an Animaniacs bit. (Another friend is an animator.)

    Surprised about Huckleberry Finn. I always picture Mark Twain characters as younger. Must be the cartoon version I watched as a kid in the 80s, the 1970s musicals AMC has on every now and then...

    Surprised to learn 2014 is part of the 90s. Here I thought it was a new century. Though he did have a Simpsons appearance in the 90s, where he helps Bart and Milhouse mend their friendship after Milhouse got the role of Fallout Boy. (And given what we now know about child actors and what they go through, I'd say Bart dodged a bullet.)

    1. He was 18 when he did "Huckleberry Finn," but he was playing younger. In the Mark Twain novel, I think he's 14.

    2. I said he kept working "into his 90s," that is, when he was over 90 years old.

    3. Yeah, I guess it's the musical starting Johnnie Whitaker that throws me. And a cartoon version of Tom Sawyer that was on Special Delivery a few times.

  2. And there was a gay subtext in "Thoroughbreds Don't Cry" (1937) in which Mickey has a scene where he keeps trying over and over to pull the pants off of Ronald Sinclair, plus strong emotions, etc. The film also co-starred Judy Garland.

    1. Tha's a whole other discussion, how starlets become gay icons. Because how gay men like Liz Taylor or Judy Garland or Princess Di is obviously not how gay men like Steve Reeves or Johnny Weissmuller.

  3. The famous Max Reinhardt film of Midsummer's Nights Dream (1935) has Rooney as a wiry Puck and he is great! As well as shirtless

  4. He was an amazing talent who could do almost anything in movie and tv. It's interesting how you point out the studio exploitation of his teen age body a practice which still goes on today with teen idols or any show aimed at teens


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