The MGM history of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

The Long, Fruitful, and Tortured Relationships Between Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and MGM

The Long, Fruitful, and Tortured Relationships Between Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and MGM

The secret history of Hollywood.
Oct. 30 2015 4:09 PM

Judy and Mickey

The long, fruitful, and tortured relationships between Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and MGM.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in a promotional portrait for 1938’s Love Finds Andy Hardy.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, has joined Panoply. And when each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in a transcript excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 7 below, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

In 1932, a schoolteacher named Mary MacDonald was hired by MGM to teach French to a young actress named Jean Parker, who was about to be loaned out to RKO to star alongside Katharine Hepburn in Little Women. Louis B. Mayer was so impressed with her work that in 1935, he created a position for her as the teacher in residence, presiding over a two-room schoolhouse on the lot. Eventually, MGM was signing so many new child performers that MacDonald had to demand more space in which to teach them. When MacDonald told the Mayer administration that she couldn’t take another pupil until she got more fresh air, they gave her an entire bungalow.

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Child stars appealed to Mayer for a number of reasons. Mayer liked to think of himself as the patriarch of a massive, happy family, a picture completed by the idea, if not the reality, of a handful of lovable youngsters running around. He also believed that you could make the most money by reaching the most people. He wanted entire families to be able to share the experience of going to the movies, and so he sought to depict multigenerational family experiences, and you needed kids for that. Child actors needed more management, and more resources to develop, but that just meant they were dependent, rather than independent—at least, in theory. Two of the biggest stars who passed through Mary MacDonald’s school would test that theory.

Mickey Rooney would remember Mayer as a visionary who wanted to use his studio to produce movies that would change if not the world then at least America by presenting an idealized image of how things could be. And there was no better example of this than A Family Affair, the 1937 film in which Rooney first played Andy Hardy, the teenage son of a judge in bucolic small town America. A Family Affair was a modest success nationwide, but theater owners in real small towns reported their patrons were clamoring for more stories about the Hardy clan. So MGM obliged, making 14 more Andy Hardy movies over the next decade.

Rooney’s co-star in many of the Andy Hardy films, and also a series of musicals directed by Busby Berkeley, was his classmate at Mary MacDonald’s schoolhouse, the former Frances Gumm, who was now going by the name Judy Garland. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney had more than discarded birth names in common. Both were short and cherubic-looking teens who had been performing with their vaudeville families since they could talk. Both came from homes that their troubled fathers had broken, forcing the kids to go to work to help a single mom stay afloat. For other stars, MGM was a home away from home; for Mickey and Judy, it was home instead of home, and their relationships with Louis B. Mayer were perhaps the most like genuine father-teenager relationships, in all their complexity.

When Mickey and Judy first met, in 1935, Rooney had already broken out, but Garland’s position at the studio was much more precarious. Judy was signed at the same time as a singer named Deanna Durbin, a blond beauty with a voice for opera. For Judy’s first year at MGM, she was openly in competition with Durbin—no one believed the studio would keep two teenage girl singers on contract for long, and everyone seemed to think they would eventually decide to keep one and ditch the other. MGM even played up the differences between Deanna and Judy by casting them together in a short called “Every Sunday,” in which Deanna did her opera thing, and Judy showed off her very different brand of virtuosity.

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MGM eventually chose Garland over Durbin, but for a long time, Judy wasn’t sure why. They wouldn’t cast her in anything. She was kept busy with school in the morning, vocal coaching and dance lessons in the afternoon, and at night she was often required to sing at studio events or dinner parties at various MGM people’s homes. It was one the latter events that changed Judy’s profile. At the direction of her vocal coach, MGM musical producer Roger Edens, and Ida Koverman, Louis B. Mayer’s personal secretary, Judy was brought in to sing at a surprise birthday party for Clark Gable. It was decided that Judy would sing “You Made Me Love You” to Gable, with a spoken intro couching the song as an innocent girl’s fan letter to MGM’s most manly star.

At the end of Judy’s performance, Clark Gable went up to the 14-year-old and kissed her. She looked over to Louis B. Mayer, who had his arms outstretched, and Judy ran over and climbed into the mogul’s lap. After that night, Judy became very busy. She was immediately cast opposite Rooney in two films: Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, in which Rooney got the part he was born to play—an arrogant horse jockey—and Love Finds Andy Hardy.

Judy was not the love that Mickey’s Andy Hardy would find. In this film, as in most of the films they’d make together over the next five years, Judy would play Mickey’s pal, the smart, level-headed friend who might take him down a peg when he needed it but would also serve as a sounding board to help him figure out his problems with girls he was actually attracted to. In Love Finds Andy Hardy, Judy’s Betsy pines for Mickey’s Andy, who can’t even see her. She actually tries to bribe him into not taking out Lana Turner, playing a teen so sophisticated she wears a skirt suit to the soda shop.

Garland would throughout her life fall for men who brought talent out of her, who spotted it and helped her figure out how to be the best that she could be. And this, maybe more than any of the things they had in common, might explain why Garland developed a desperate crush on Mickey Rooney. On their first Andy Hardy film together, Mickey gave Judy the most important acting advice she’d ever receive. Before their first scene together, he pulled her aside and took her hands, and said, “Honey, you gotta believe this, now. Make like you’re singing it.” And with that, Judy immediately got how to transfer her natural talent for animating the emotion of a song into animating dialogue—even the stupid dialogue that pervaded many of her and Rooney’s movies together.

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But also, it wasn’t a stretch for her to feel these feelings: the troubles Judy’s characters had to deal with in these movies plagued the actress off screen as well. Her love for Rooney was unrequited: Just like Andy Hardy, he saw Judy as his soul mate but couldn’t see her as a romantic or sexual prospect.

And to add insult to injury, Mickey Rooney saw pretty much every other woman in town as a sexual prospect, including Norma Shearer, who was 20 years older than Rooney, and Judy’s co-star in Love Finds Andy Hardy, Lana Turner. To hear Mickey tell it, it was a simple question of him providing the supply to meet the demand: “I began to meet my obligations to a good many of the gals in town who were dying to meet me. Who wouldn’t want to go out with me? I had my own car. I had some nickels in my pocket. And I was somebody.”

By 1939, the Andy Hardy movies were responsible for nearly half of MGM’s yearly profits. That year, Judy appeared with Rooney in the massive hit Babes in Arms, as well as starring in a little movie called The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz was a hit in 1939, but it wasn’t what it would become—it didn’t change the world, and it didn’t give Judy Garland any power. With one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time on her résumé, Judy still had to show up at the studio every day, usually to play a scrappy kid in movies about putting on shows in barns. There was no time to enjoy the spoils of increased fame. She and Rooney were sent on promotional tours that would have them doing 34 live shows a week, with no days off, as the opening act to screenings of The Wizard of Oz. For her efforts, Judy received a special honorary juvenile Oscar that year—and Mickey was the one who presented it.

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When Rooney announced his intention to marry new MGM starlet Ava Gardner in 1942, he was called into Mayer’s office. “I simply forbid it,” Mayer said. “That’s all. I forbid it.”

“You’ve got no right to do that,” Rooney said. “This is my life.”

“It’s not your life. Not as long as you’re working for me. MGM has made your life.”

Rooney was eventually allowed to go through with a small wedding to Gardner, but his inability to stay faithful wrecked the marriage soon enough. Single or married, Rooney was a handful. The studio got in the habit of assigning publicists to their biggest stars who would do a lot more than the usual work of arranging and vetting interviews and writing fan magazine articles under the bylines of their clients. Mickey Rooney’s personal publicist, Les Peterson, served as hybrid wingman, babysitter, chauffeur. He made Mickey’s bets for him at the racetrack and made sure events like a notorious party at Errol Flynn’s house involving multiple prostitutes stayed between friends.

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Mickey understood that Les Peterson wasn’t his friend; he made fun of the fact that his companion was on the corporate payroll by calling Peterson “the vice president in charge of Mickey Rooney.” But Judy Garland wasn’t so savvy, or maybe she was so desperately in need of even illusory emotional support that she didn’t care that her publicity department consigliere was paid to spy on and manipulate her. Betty Asher got so close to Judy that there were rumors they were lovers. In fact, Asher, who was 22, was having an affair with the studio’s Eddie Mannix, who was 49 in 1940, and she was cataloging and reporting back to Mannix every minute detail of Garland’s life and behavior. Garland claimed that she didn’t realize this for years and that when she figured it out, she cried for days.

The final film Mickey and Judy made together, Girl Crazy, is the film where off-screen reality became impossible for Judy and Mickey to ignore. Unhappy that her mother and the studio had talked her into having an abortion, Garland started augmenting her cocktail of pharmaceuticals with actual cocktails, causing tension and delays on set. And on the same set, Mickey Rooney received his draft notice. Louis B. Mayer fought vigorously to keep Rooney out of the war and in Culver City where he could keep making MGM movies and thus minting money. But once the newspapers got wind of Mayer’s appeals to the draft board, the whole thing started to look unseemly, and MGM finally let its pint-size cash cow go serve his country. Assigned to Special Services, he entertained troops at bases in the U.S. and Europe until 1946, when he returned to MGM and made yet another Andy Hardy movie. Now 26, Rooney was patently too old for the role, and the series’ simplistic view of American life had fallen out of fashion. For the first time in his career, Mickey Rooney struggled. By the end of the decade, he was dropped by MGM.

The war years were productive ones for Judy Garland—her relationship with Vincente Minnelli netted two of her best films, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Clock, as well as daughter Liza. But her drug and alcohol use worsened, and in 1947, while shooting The Pirate, she suffered a nervous breakdown. She recovered enough to finish that film and make Easter Parade, her only film with Fred Astaire. Easter Parade was Garland’s biggest moneymaker ever, but this success was unsustainable. Within two years, MGM, the only studio Garland had ever worked for, let her go.

By the early 1950s, not only were many of the now-adult child stars off the lot, but there were few new child stars to replace them. And as of 1951, Louis B. Mayer was gone, too. In 1954 there was just one student in Mary MacDonald’s schoolhouse. She served as principal of the school until the last student graduated, in 1965.