(Sorry this one took so long, folks. My time management skills ain't what they used to be. Also, I wanted to choose my words carefully. In fact, I'm rewriting as we speak--KJ)
“The audience and I are friends. They allowed me to grow up with them. I've let them down several times. They've let me down several times. But we're all family."
From 1927 to 1936, Mickey Rooney played the cigar-smoking title character in the Mickey McGuire comedies, a moderately successful series of two-reelers. That's a very young Billy Barty to Rooney's right in the above picture. Ostensibly based on a character in Frank Fontaine's Toonerville Folks comic strip, the McGuire series was really a knock-off of the popular Our Gang shorts (Little Rascals when shown on TV.) Original or not, I find them just as funny. Here's a look at a few, both from the silent and talkie eras:
The Browns could have used Barty last season.
According to Rooney, always eager to take credit for the whole of Hollywood history, Walt Disney named his famous mouse after Mickey McGuire. Rooney only made this claim after Disney was dead and buried (or frozen solid), so I don't know that you want to put too much stock in it. One thing is certain, Rooney got his first name after Mickey McGuire, having been born Joseph Yule. His stage mother changed it to capitalize on the series. She couldn't use McGuire without infringing on a copyright, so she changed that, first to Looney, and then, fearing that might get in the way of future dramatic roles, switched the L with an R, saving Bugs, Daffy, and Porky the trouble of filing their own copyright infringement suit.
Manhattan Melodrama (1934). This particular photo isn't from the movie itself, but one taken behind the scenes, possibly a publicity shot. Clark Gable and Mickey Rooney both played Blackie Gallagher in the film, at different ages, obviously. Art didn't imitate life, as Rooney grew up looking not even remotely like Gable.
Manhattan Melodrama played at this theater in Chicago, where John Dillinger caught it. What he thought of Rooney's performance remains unknown.
As forest sprite and mistake-prone matchmaker Puck in the 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Other than when he played the same character a year earlier at the Hollywood Bowl (on which the movie is based) I believe this is the only time Rooney ever performed Shakespeare. He does it well, coming off better than some the adult actors in the film. Laurence Olivier, no stranger to the Bard, considered Rooney "the greatest actor of them all."
Mickey Rooney and fellow child actor Freddie Batholomew appeared in five films together, including the very exciting (if somewhat waterlogged) Captains Courageous (1937), pictured above. Batholomew was the bigger star when he made that, and some earlier movies. By the last two, he had been eclipsed by Rooney. The young actors are said to have been very good friends, no matter who got top billing.
As Father Flanagan, Spencer Tracey looks ready to wring some absolution out of teenage delinquent Rooney in Boys Town (1938). Edward Flanagan was a priest who ran an orphanage/experimental town for underprivileged youth outside Omaha, Nebraska, still in existence today. Whether the real Father Flanagan ever captured a bunch of gun-toting gangsters as he does in this film seems doubtful, but it certainly lifts the movie out of the realm of Sunday sermon. In fact it was a huge hit, and is still highly regarded today. While I generally like Boys Town, I find it a bit disjointed at times, thanks to a comic subplot involving a school election that has Rooney going back and fourth between hardened delinquent and lovable goofball. He's good playing both, a little too good, as it doesn't always seem like he's the same character. I think MGM may have been trying to walk a thin line here, wanting to show that their young star was a capable dramatic actor, but not at the expense of the lovable goofball. And why exactly was the lovable goofball part so worth preserving? For the answer to that, we have to go back a year earlier.
Due to space considerations, I've skipped over Ah, Wilderness, a film based on Eugene O'Neill's play, but it had some success at the box office, and MGM decided to reunite most of the cast for A Family Affair, a comedy-drama about a judge and his family, who went by the last name Hardy. As you can see on the poster, Lionel Barrymore gets top billing. He plays the judge. Then, in slightly smaller letters, there's Celia Parker and Eric Linden. This is highly appropriate as she's in love with Linden, to the consternation of her magistrate father. Mickey Rooney's name is below all that, in much smaller letters, though he does fare somewhat better than Charles Grapewin, whose billing he tops. A Family Affair was meant as a one-shot film, but better-than-expected box office returns convinced the powers that be at MGM to turn it into a regular series, but not with Barrymore, a big star who wasn't going to waste his time doing "B" pictures, i.e., the low-budget film you saw first in a double-feature.
Well, they look like a cheerful bunch, don't they? I guess they're not any more happy about appearing in a B picture than Lionel Barrymore. The old dude sitting down is Lewis Stone, who replaced Barrymore as Judge James K. Hardy. Seated next to him is Fay Holden as his wife Emily, who does seem a bit please to be there. Maybe it was a big break for her, B picture or not. Standing to her right is the aforementioned Celia Parker as daughter Marion. There's a kind of look of self-importance on her face. She had a lot of screen time in A Family Affair, and probably expected that to continue in this new series. We'll just see about that. Sara Haden played the spinsterish Aunt Millie. She's not in this picture. Maybe she's out on a date. As for Mickey Rooney--for the time being, I'm not going to tell you his character's name-- standing to Stone's left, there's a look of self-importance on his face, too, but it's a comical, mocking self-importance. Just another acting assignment for the growing (we'll just see about that) boy. Within a year he'll have a whole lot to smile about. Really, they all would, as this series ended up being some of the most successful B pictures of all times. And almost the most successful of ANY type of picture made in the 1930s and '40s. The series was a cash cow for MGM, one that they used to promote their contract players, usually females (Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Esther Williams) to full-blown stardom. Odd that the series was so popular, given their modest budgets, that they weren't particularly cinematic, and had the ordinary feeling of a TV sitcom (an art form that had not yet come into being.)
OK, I'm being facetious here. I know full well why they were popular. The series was officially titled Judge Hardy's Family, but nobody but MGM ever called it that. And even they ended up subverting the whole concept by putting the moniker "Andy Hardy" in 10 of the 15 titles put out between 1938 and 1958. As the good magistrate's son, Mickey Rooney was a cinematic art form all his own and far from ordinary. So who was this Andy Hardy? A teenage screw-up basically. No, it wasn't drugs. I don't think Carville, the small Midwestern town the series took place in, had any dope pushers (alcohol does rear its numbing head in a number of films, but the drunks all date Andy's sister, who attracts them the way email attracts Nigerian billionaires.) Nor did he get anyone pregnant. How could he, given that he pissed off every female, from the frequently dumped Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford) to whatever new girl in town just got dropped off by the moving truck? Not only couldn't he get to first base, he was shut out of the game. Still Andy meant well, which is why he was so appealing, as he fumbled about trying not to let down his his folks, his teachers, his friends, and his dates, only to be continuously sabotaged by his financial needs, ego needs, and carnal needs. He could have also used a few spare parts for whatever junker he was driving. Judge Hardy, a prototype for the wise father types that would later pop up in TV shows like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and The Brady Bunch (though those dads looked considerably younger) would bail his son out of what ever trouble he was in, set him straight, and made sure he learned an important life lesson. A life lesson Andy would promptly forget as soon as the next film in the series had begun. Good thing, too, or else you'd have no movie.
That's my view of what made these sometimes sentimental comedies work. Others saw much, much more in them than that. For instance, in 1942, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed on the series a special Oscar "for its achievement in representing the American way of life."
A world war was waging folks. Things could get a little hyperbolic at times. Even Hollywood award shows.
At some later date, I'll provide you with a more in-depth look at the Andy Hardy films, which I for the most part like (even if watching one doesn't quite make me want to hum the National Anthem.) For now, I'll just give you two clips that should give you some idea what the series was like.
First up, a little father and son talk. Judge Hardy didn't just dispense wise advice to his teenage son, but to everybody: other family members, his daughter's boyfriends, the people who appeared before him in court, lodge brothers always trying to give him investment tips (which, to his later regret, he sometimes took), and he could get a little overbearing while doing so, even if the recipient had the wise advice coming. In the father and son scenes, however, Lewis Stone and Mickey Rooney play off each other perfectly, the good Judge often finding Andy's juvenile glibness--as well as his slang--too mystifying to become properly overbearing in response:
Speaking of gals, the other wheel that drove the series, if not always in the direction our adolescent hero would have liked, was Andy's relations with the opposite sex. I've shown the following clip before, when Ann Rutherford (Polly) passed on a few years back, but it's worth showing again. Here's the set-up. Andy's fallen in love with his high school drama teacher, only to find out she's engaged to a fellow closer to her own age. Polly is there to mend the gaping wound in Andy's heart, but not without first throwing in some salt:
I think that's the closest Andy Hardy's ever come to an on-screen orgasm.
The Andy Hardy series didn't just turn Mickey Rooney into a star but into THE star. He was the box office champ three years in a row. "A" movies now came his way, though he continued making the "B" Andy Hardy films, unusual for a major star, but the public, as well as Louis B Mayer, demanded it. I haven't been able to track down exactly how these films were exhibited, but, as I said before, B movies were usually shown before the A ones. Since he was now appearing in both, is it beyond the realm of imagination to think Mickey Rooney opened for Mickey Rooney?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939) If Mickey Rooney wasn't the perfect Huck Finn, it's due more to a preachy screenplay--something Mark Twain avoided in the novel on which it's based--than his own performance. I will say that no other actor who's paddled down the Mississippi has been better.
A Yank at Eton (1942) Mickey goes to England to get an education, and ends up being caned by a young Peter Lawford.
Incidentally, this was last film Freddie Bartholomew, left, made with Rooney. See how he towers over both him as well as the man in the center, Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.) Yet scroll back up to the still from Captains Courageous, and you'll see that Rooney's the taller of the two boy actors.
To put it all in perspective, here's a kneeling Rooney along side former Mickey McGuire costar Billy Barty, probably taken in the 1990s. Height is relative.
As a World War II-era telegram boy in The Human Comedy (1944).
Helping 12-year old equestrian Elizabeth Taylor win a steeplechase in 1944's National Velvet. In real life, Rooney was no stranger to racetracks, either, though he spent most of his time there tearing up tickets.
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland never married, but I bet there was more chemistry between the two than with their multiple spouses. On camera, anyway. They appeared in 9 movies together. The first, Thoroughbreds Don't Cry, was made before either achieved much in the way of stardom. There were three Andy Hardy films, in which Garland plays the semi-regular character Betsy Booth. She does a cameo as herself in the Rodgers & Hart bio Words and Music (in which Rooney played the latter songwriter.) That leaves the four "backyard musicals": Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway, and Girl Crazy. The plots for these films can aptly described in one oft-quoted sentence, "Hey gang, let's put on a show!" That exact line doesn't actually appear in any of these films (believe me, I've looked) but that's exactly what they do, thereby saving their parents mortgages, a friend's life, a settlement house, and a desert collage. These shows saved the movies themselves, the scripts of which could be so so incredibly hokey that they made a typical Andy Hardy film look like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not that it matters. The plots, dialogue, character development were all just filler, mere linking devices between one great Busby Berkeley directed and/or choreographed musical number after another.
OK, one of those musical numbers wasn't all that great. In fact, it was downright embarrassing. You know the number I'm talking about.
The one where the participants wear a little too much "make-up."
(Political incorrectness will rear its ugly head a few more times before we're through.)
Whatever its achievement in representing the American way of life, the Andy Hardy films completely ignored the United States entry into World War II. It just never comes up. Mickey Rooney's draft number did, however, and in 1944, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood was shipped off to Europe, where he spent most of his time entertaining the troops. 22 months later he returned to civilian life with several medals for a job well done, and did Love Laughs at Andy Hardy. The only film to mention the global conflict that was now happily over, it capitalizes on Rooney the returning vet by making Andy one, too. This would be the only Hardy movie until Andy Hardy Comes Home, a reunion film made in 1958 minus Stone, who had died, and Rutherford, who couldn't see it helping her career much any. It didn't help anyone's career, as it tanked at the box office.
Andy Hardy Comes Home came in the middle of a decades-long career slump, one that started shortly after Rooney returned to civilian life. He now looked his age, which, at 26, certainly wouldn't have been a problem had he been more conventionally handsome. And taller. It may be unfair given his immense talent, but that lack of stature, which had allowed him to play grade-school kids well into his teens, and then allowed him to play teens well into his 20s, now made him look a little ridiculous in any kind of romantic role, a leading lady having to bend over and risk slipping a disk to give him a kiss. Did he have any other options? The MGM musical was still going strong, and would for another decade. You'd think he'd find work there. So I was surprised looking through his lengthy filmography to find that actually he had done very few musicals, for Metro or anyone else. It was as if no one thought he could sing and dance along side anyone but Judy Garland. But Garland was now the bigger star, and moved on to the likes of that hot newcomer Gene Kelly and the still bankable Fred Astaire. Finally, Rooney off-screen activities--drinking, gambling,
skirt-chasing (he was eventually married 8 times)--had landed him in the gossip columns, doing grievous harm to his clean-cut, boy-next-door image. MGM dropped him.
While it's true he never gave more established noir stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, or Robert Mitchum a run for their box office dollars, Rooney was surprisingly good in these films, and had a rather long run, making one crime flick after another right into the 1960s. Among the titles: Killer McCoy, Quicksand, My Outlaw Brother, The Strip, Drive a Crooked Road, Baby Face Nelson (a role the puffy-cheek actor was born to play), The Big Operator, The Last Mile, and Platinum High School. Most of these rather modestly-budgeted films weren't hits, and Rooney was regarded as something of a has-been when he made them. Views change, however. Increasingly, film historians have come come to look more favorably upon these movies, finding that Rooney did some of his best work in them.
My own favorite Rooney noir is Quicksand, made in 1950. He's a young man not too far removed from high school who needs some money for a big date. OK, we've seen that before. What we haven't seen is his solution to the problem. Instead of asking his father, the young auto mechanic steals $20.00 from his boss' cash register, thinking he can replace it before anyone notices it's missing. Fate, in the form of an unexpected auditor, intervenes, Rooney'c character has to commit crime after crime, so as not to be accused of a crime, egged on by his new girlfriend (Jeanne Cagney, a femme fatale in bobby socks), while being blackmailed by just about everyone he meets! If the name of Rooney's character hadn't been Dan Brady, I'd say an apt alternative title for this film would be Andy Hardy Goes to Hell.
In case you're wondering, Jeanne Cagney is indeed the sister of James, another song-and-dance man who often found himself on the wrong side of the law on celluloid. You may have also noticed Peter Lorre, no stranger to these types of films. Here the bug-eyed actor plays a sinister pinball arcade owner. No wonder pinball was replaced by video games. You can stay home and not meet such people.
Despite its boxers-and-gangsters setting, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) was more social drama than film noir. It also may have been a more disturbing movie for that reason. In a supporting role, Rooney scores as punch-drunk Anthony Quinn's trainer and loyal friend, albeit one with limited usefullness.
It wasn't all cops-and-robbers for Mickey Rooney in the late '40s and '50s. As a supporting player, he dodged bullets of a different kind in several war films that were well-received (The Bridges at Toki-Ri, The Bold and the Brave.) More keeping in line with the genres for which he was best known, there were several comedies and several (Judy-less) musicals that flopped at the box office. Some way to be best known. Finally, in 1961, he appeared in a movie that many today regard as a classic:
Ah, yes, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Much to like about this picture. Much to recommend it as a classic. There's the Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer song "Moon River", some great exterior shots of Manhattan, a very funny party segment, and, of course, the lady above, Audrey Hepburn, in what's now considered her signature role as Holly Golightly. Look closely at the computer screen and into her sunglasses, you can see her eyes! (Hope you didn't damage your own in the process.)
Rooney, in between Buddy Hackett and Jim Backus, is one of many characters looking for "the big W" in 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Judy and Mickey, together again on TV in 1963. Neither Rooney nor Garland were primarily known as dancers, and my eyes are too uneducated to tell you how their footwork stacked against Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse or Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, but, jeez, they're sure fun to watch:
Not bad for a couple of kids in their 40s.
Rooney voiced St. Nick both young and old in Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970) and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974).
Rooney turned the lead in this series down, thus possibly delaying his comeback by almost a decade.
The comeback DID eventually come, in 1979, when he appeared along side leggy Ann Miller on the Broadway stage in Sugar Babies, a revue/tribute to burlesque.
Tilt in the kilt, indeed! Amazingly, though they were both at MGM in the 1940s, Rooney and Miller met for the first time while doing this show.
That same year Rooney returned to the racetrack in The Black Stallion. I take it the horse won. Probably more than any horse he bet on off-screen.
Rooney won an Emmy for his portrayal of an aging retarded man in Bill (1981)
There was apparently a turnaround in Rooney's personal life as well. As he told it, sometime in the 1960s an angel in the guise of a bus boy with “blond curls, a white-rose complexion, and shining teeth,” visited him in a Lake Tahoe coffee shop and convinced him to open himself up to Christ. Which he says he did. No word on whether he left the busboy a tip.
As can happen when a person has a religious experience under unusual circumstances, intemperate remarks began spewing forth from Rooney's mouth, some of which were homophobic:
"If it's immorally wrong, it's not normal. Jesus Christ said, "The effeminate are an abomination to me". Are you aware of that? I don't watch the [Ellen DeGeneres] show. I wish her all kinds of luck. Except that I'm not a fan. But there are a lot of people who aren't fans of Mickey Rooney and you can't please everyone."
If it's "immorally wrong", it's also redundant. And does Rooney and Jesus consider DeGeneres "effeminate"? Too bad he wasn't a fan of her show. Maybe he could have gone on, and found himself another dance partner.
Rooney was an old man. Should we give him a pass? What about appearing in blackface, or as a bucktoothed Japanese? Well, those were just the times. No one back then (other than blacks or Asians) found such things objectionable. The Ellen remark, of course, was more recent. Norman Lear once described Archie Bunker as someone resistant to change. Maybe Rooney shouldn't have turned that role down.
Meanwhile, on February, 16, 2011, Rooney was granted a temporary restraining order against his stepson Christopher Aber. According to Rooney's attorneys, and switching to present tense, Aber "threatens, intimidates, bullies and harasses Mickey" and refused to reveal the actor's finances to him. The two eventually settled out of court.
One upshot to all of this is that about a month later, Rooney testified before a special U.S. Senate committee on elder abuse:
Live long enough, and we all face abuse of some kind. Even skirt-chasers.