Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Short Piece About Mickey Rooney

The recent passing of Mickey Rooney brings to mind his performance as lyricist Lorenz Hart (as in Rodgers and Hart) in the musical bio-pic Words and Music (1948), whose “Manhattan” sequence I’m embedding above. In most audiovisual media, short height on a man is a joke, a gag, a punchline — something to let the audience know when an adult male character isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. 

But Words and Music portrayed Hart’s unhappiness about his short height (Wikipedia says he “stood just under five-feet tall”) as a serious issue — one of the few Hollywood movies to do so. To me, Rooney’s appearance in Words and Music looks like MGM trying to figure out what to do with its former #1 box-office star, now that he had clearly aged into a short-statured (5’2”) — and therefore less marketable — adult, one who could no longer play the juvenile roles, like Andy Hardy, on which he made his name.  (For example, Words and Music includes the last big-screen duet between Rooney and Judy Garland.)

However, the real root of the real Hart’s depression (and alcoholism) was his being gay in a homophobic world, which was something that Hollywood at the time couldn’t acknowledge. So, one of the few times that Hollywood treats short height as a serious issue, it’s as a stand-in for something censored.  As an adult male who stands 4’8”, I get the idea that serving as the surrogate for a prohibited subject is the only reason that Words and Music presented the issue of short stature so seriously in the first place.

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