Mass entertainment came of age in the 1930s, when idle workers dug into their pockets for dimes and sought refuge at the movies. All the escapist genres grew out of the Depression era, from musicals to Westerns to screwball comedies. On that crowded bill, the greatest escape of all was to a small town where seemingly everyone lived comfortable, healthy lives without being ostentatious; where boys pursued girls with a toothy wholesomeness; where dads were wise and moms were loving. Even today, that sweet, innocent place still tugs at the American heart.
To Americans of the 1930s, that place was Carvel, the hometown of Andy Hardy. As played by Mickey Rooney, Andy exuded an optimism that was infectious, even if his enthusiasm sometimes got the better of him. A tendency to fib his way out of trouble sometimes led to misunderstandings with the girl next door, requiring Andy to seek the counsel of his sage-like Pa. These stories resonated with audiences. Rooney portrayed Hardy in 16 movie features, including eight between 1937 and 1939; together, they made up a dramatic serial that was among the first to capture the imagination of the entire country.
While few Americans of that era could seriously dream of dancing like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or guarding a stagecoach with pistols cocked like John Wayne, many imagined themselves living the life of Rooney’s character — a boy grounded in uniquely American values, ready to burst forth into the wider world.
Rooney died last week at 93, with relatively little fanfare given the extent of his fame 70 years ago. He outlived most of his fans, but, in many ways, he had lost them long ago. Married eight times, the thickening Rooney ceased to conjure up any memories of Andy Hardy. Rooney was a solid actor and one of the last links to Hollywood’s golden age. But his misfortune was to violate a powerful ideal that he helped to create, and that millions of his fellow Americans have been aspiring to, and reacting against, for the better part of a century.