Stud ... Mickey Rooney with actress Ann Rutherford in the 1938 film <i>Out West With the Hardys</i>.

Mickey Rooney with actress Ann Rutherford in the 1938 film Out West With the Hardys.

"He went through the ladies like a hot knife through fudge," said Ava Gardner of Mickey Rooney, whom she'd married when she was 19. It may seem disrespectful to dwell on this aspect of Rooney's reputation so soon after his death, but it was hardly a secret in his lifetime: he was notorious.

The question is: how did his on-screen image remain squeaky clean despite his real-life endeavours? The answer is a case history in the workings of the Hollywood super-studio MGM.

Click for more photos

Mickey Rooney dead at 93

" Strike Up The Band ", starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. 1940

But first: how did he do it? Rooney was 5ft 2in (1.57m), red-headed and all teeth, the goofiest kid in California. He was said to be, "pound for pound, the most talented performer in the history of Hollywood". When she wanted to hurt him, Ava Gardner would reduce him to tears by calling him a "midget". And yet, in 1939, he was the number-one box office attraction in the world.

Even Rooney himself wondered, in his 1991 memoir, Life Is Too Short: "What was my appeal?" The question wasn't entirely rhetorical, as he went on to explain: "I was a gnomish prodigy - half-human, half-goblin, man-child, child-man."

Dead: Mickey Rooney.

Dead at 93: Mickey Rooney. Photo: Getty Images

Those qualities were as nothing compared to his flirting technique, which he characterised as "a combination of early Neanderthal and late Freud". It was this, perhaps, that led his lover and co-star Lana Turner to dub him, in reference to his best-known role as Andy Hardy, "Andy Hard-on".

To modern eyes, Andy Hardy is as dated as the characters played by Shirley Temple, and twice as grating. Each film - and there were 16 of them between 1937 and 1958 - was a small-town fable, in which Andy, the son of an indulgent, well-respected judge and his calm, homemaker wife, gets into some sort of scrape and learns a lesson from it in the end.

Usually the scrape had something to do with love, which was presented innocently, as a perennial conundrum. "Dad, I don't understand these modern girls," he whines in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), as the judge prepares his parental lesson from an armchair.

This set-up allowed for a continuous stream of MGM contract girls to be tested - Donna Reed, Esther Williams, Lana Turner and Ann Rutherford all had some of their earliest outings as Andy Hardy's love interests. Others were less successful - the unknown Helen Gilbert, for instance, fell by the wayside soon after appearing in Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1939) and stayed on in Hollywood as a gangster's moll.

These women were always pitted against Andy's ever-the-bridesmaid neighbour Betsy, played by Judy Garland. (I've always thought that explained quite a bit about Garland's insecurities: for years she was the childish foil, while others her age rose to sensual stardom.)

Of course, behind the scenes, Rooney understood modern girls plenty well enough. By the age of 35, he was on his fourth marriage. (And he would marry four times more.) But while his steady supply of pretty co-stars gave him ample extra-curricular opportunities, he also wanted to break out of his Andy Hardy prison and grow up.

He tried to argue this with the boss, Louis B Mayer, in 1942. Mayer forbade it. "This is my life," Rooney protested. "It's not your life," Rooney reported Mayer as saying. "Not as long as you're working for me." As Rooney later recalled, it was like talking to Dr Frankenstein.

What did Mayer have to protect? Well, more or less everything. Not simply the success of his business but the colour of his world. Andy Hardy was central to the wholesome idea of America that Mayer sought to project. Like the other movie moguls, he had come from Europe and built an empire of images. The mirror he held up to his adopted home was one of family ties and small-town ethics, of problems that could be solved in 91 minutes.

Now the world was at war: it was even more crucial that Andy Hardy's world view should reign. There was plenty of escapism in Louis B Mayer's Hollywood, but the Andy Hardy series was more than that. It was a set of parables, a system of thought. It's not too much to suppose he thought Mickey Rooney's contribution was a matter of life and death.

Which is why, when Ava Gardner had had enough of his philandering and kicked him out one night after he'd been showing off to his friends and leafing through his little black book of mistresses in her presence, she received a visit from MGM's enforcer, Eddie Mannix.

"Everybody was scared of Mannix," she later told her biographer, Peter Evans. It didn't matter that Rooney had cheated and lied; it didn't matter that he was seeing a 15-year-old girl, using her older sister as the go-between. Mickey's amorous crimes had to be swept under the carpet at all costs.

Eddie Mannix was the man who - along with MGM's publicity director Howard Strickling - kept the stars' private lives out of the press. He explained to Gardner that if she named any other women in the divorce suit, she'd be finished.

Gardner suggested she was planning to cite "incompatibility". Mannix calmed down. He asked her what she was thinking of doing after the divorce. She said she thought she might try to make a go of acting. "I think you should," said Mannix, and when she didn't land Rooney in trouble, the studio gave her a long-term contract with a pay rise. Thus a star, as they say, was born.

Rooney was a perfect example of the vast gap between some of the stars' private lives and their public personas. The way he was treated, meanwhile, was a crystallisation of the studio system. He knew he could play the field as long as he played the Hollywood game too: he'd always be protected. But it could be a trap.

The title of his autobiography, Life Is Too Short, is curious. It's a cliche - as well as a joke about his height - and, like Andy Hardy, likely to date fast. I wonder if Rooney still felt that way at 93?

The Telegraph, London