When his name comes up, my favorite bit of Mickey Rooney trivia to toss out is that he was on film in ten different decades. From a few dozen Mickey McGuire shorts beginning in 1926 through a handful of 2010s releases, none of which I’ve ever seen, but all of which I’d assume are quickie cameos, Rooney didn’t just eke out this ten decade thing. In fact, he was working vaudeville with his parents even before he showed up on screen.
Rooney died this past Sunday at the age of 93, capping a growing list of co-stars and contemporaries who we’ve lost this decade, including Shirley Temple (who died in February), Deanna Durbin, Esther Williams (both 2013), Ann Rutherford (2012), Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Cooper (both 2011). While Mickey Rooney seemingly worked forever, you likely won’t be surprised to learn that my favorite Mick films came in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Just checking in to say RIP Mickey Rooney. If you know me, you know I love the Andy Hardy films & almost all pre-War Rooney. Amazing talent.
— Cliff Aliperti (@IEphemera) April 7, 2014
Despite those dozens of earlier shorts and the occasional feature appearance, my favorite Mickey Rooney period begins with 11-year-old Mickey in MGM’s violent cop drama The Beast of the City (1932). No, the Mick plays no part in the insane shoot 'em up that caps this film, instead he spends his time terrorizing screen dad Walter Huston around the family dinner table, somehow stealing scenes from one of the most talented actors and forceful presences on the screen just by being that ball of energy that is Mickey Rooney.There is no one of Huston’s caliber to contend with in baseball murder mystery Death on the Diamond (1934), but Rooney does it again, stealing his scenes despite playing the throw-away role of batboy. Perhaps the most energetic role he ever played was one which saw him singled out for critical praise, as Puck in Warner Bros. all-star adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not my cup of tea, but Rooney’s Puck offers a view of the talent underneath all that mugging and does so at a million miles an hour. After a misguided but gutsy attempt at a Brooklyn accent as Dick the bootblack in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), Rooney earned strong notice for his work in The Devil Is a Sissy (1936) once again alongside Fauntleroy-star Freddie Bartholomew, then the top male child star, in a trio completed by former claimant to that same crown, Jackie Cooper.
1937 began the true ascent. He’d back up Bartholomew once more as deckhand in mega-hit Captains Courageous (1937), but Mickey Rooney’s most important movie that year was another supporting role in the low budget title A Family Affair, which saw much of the cast from MGM's earlier adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! (1935) reunited. While many of those cast members would be swapped out by the time of that December’s sequel to A Family Affair, You’re Only Young Once, Rooney’s Andy Hardy remained in place throughout the entire Hardy family series. The series ran a total of 15 entries between 1937-1944 plus, much later, a reunion movie, Andy Hardy Comes Home (1958), that saw Rooney return with surviving Hardy family cast members Fay Holden, Cecilia Parker and Sara Haden. While the earliest Hardy movies did not focus on Andy, his part quickly expanded to equal that of screen dad Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) with Mickey’s Andy soon becoming the main attraction to the point of being named in nine of the movie titles, plus that later film.
While no one calls these Hardy movies masterpieces and they are in fact open to fair share of scorn for their idealized view of the era they represent, I’ve always felt that they were the feature-length precursor to many of the beloved sitcoms of the 1950s. We're not supposed to take the Hardys any more serious than we do Father Knows Best or Leave It to Beaver, but those shows remain popular and adored despite sharing many of the traits criticized in the Carvel of the Hardys. The Hardy movies are fun, fast, goofy entertainment and no one is funner, faster or goofier than Mickey’s Andy Hardy.
But Mickey Rooney is no legend if his legacy begins and ends with Andy Hardy. There was a lot more going on in this same period including Rooney’s pairings with sometimes Hardy co-star Judy Garland in the youth musicals Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940) and Babes on Broadway (1941), but more importantly in dramatic roles beginning with Boys Town (1938), opposite Captains Courageous co-star Spencer Tracy, and perhaps peaking in William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy (1943). It's not my favorite Rooney title but is admittedly one of his all-time best performances and one which saw Rooney deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, his second such nomination (Rooney also received two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor, but his only Oscars came with the 1939 Juvenile Award that he shared with Deanna Durbin and his Honorary Award in 1983).
MGM gave Mickey one more run as Andy Hardy after World War II, misguided I’m sure, but I’m glad the wacky Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (1946) exists today if for no more reason than the statuesque Dorothy Ford as beautiful outcast Coffy Smith—you don’t want to miss Andy and Coffy swingin’ it! Rooney then began the adult phase of his career with 1947 boxing drama Killer McCoy, and while I enjoy that along with Rooney film noir titles Quicksand (1950) and The Strip (1951), it’s a totally different brand of Mickey Rooney.
I suppose when it comes to Mickey Rooney, my own modern viewing habits illustrate the problems he encountered throughout the rest of his career. I want Andy Hardy stealing kisses from pre-fame starlets or Mickey Moran to get the kids together to save the day with a big show. I want Whitey Marsh to kick his feet up and wise off to Father Flanagan or Young Tom Edison to wreak havoc with his darned fool inventions or, most impressively, have Homer Macauley deliver a telegram that everybody, especially Homer, knows contains the very worst possible news. I’ll even take Mickey in a mug-fest with Stablemates (1938) co-star Wallace Beery or playing in any of his other early titles around the track like Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937) with Judy Garland, pre-Betsy Booth, or Down the Stretch (1936), an early starring role for Mickey.
Mickey Rooney appeared on film in ten different decades, but the period 1937-1944 offers the very best of that big bunch. Turner Classic Movies sticks close in its 24-hour tribute to Mickey Rooney this coming Sunday, April 13, 2014, ranging from a brief 1933 curio where Mickey still manages to show most of what he’s got, to that darker post-War entry, 1947’s Killer McCoy. The other dozen movies, while not always the ideal selections, are ideal in highlighting Mickey Rooney at his peak, 1935-1944.
The complete schedule follows along with some brief comments, links to other extended coverage and reviews that I’ve written, a couple of links to work by friends of mine for more reading and even the occasional quote from Mickey Rooney himself, cited from his 1991 Villard Books autobiography, Life Is Too Short.
TCM Tribute to Mickey Rooney
Sunday, April 13, 2014. U.S. schedule, all times Eastern.
6:00 AM - Broadway to Hollywood (1933) - It’s about an hour before we see 12-year-old Mickey and while it’s only a few moments until he grows up to become Eddie Quillan, he does get to perform a quick dance act (that can also be seen as a flashback in 1939's Babes in Arms). In commenting about how far this particular movie stretched reality, Rooney writes that boss Louis B. Mayer used MGM product to "establish values for the whole nation ... by telling stories, not about the way the world was but about the way it could be" (49). Yup, I'm thinking of the Hardys again.
7:30 AM - The Devil is a Sissy (1936) - Make every effort to catch this fast-paced movie starring the Rooney-Cooper-Bartholomew triumvirate in a mix of most every genre. Seriously, DVR this one. Here's my post about it.
9:15 AM - A Family Affair (1937) - While it's not his movie this is the first of the Hardy family movies and thus a must. Rooney: "I knew A Family Affair was a B picture, but that didn't stop me from putting my all into it" (83). Read my post about it here.
10:30 AM - You're Only Young Once (1937) - Lots of young Andy Hardy in this second series entry set around the family's vacation at Catalina Island. Make sure to catch both Hardy movies to see how small plot points carry over from one entry to the next. My post.12:00 PM - Captains Courageous (1937) - This movie belongs to fellow child star, Freddie Bartholomew, but Mickey plays an important part as Captain Disko’s (Lionel Barrymore) deckhand. An essential classic that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and won Spencer Tracy the first of his two back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor. Rooney wrote that he thought "Victor Fleming and Freddie Bartholomew and Harold Rosson should have gotten Oscars, too" (95). Tracy won the Award the following year for Boys Town, co-starring you-know-who and on TCM a little later in this schedule.
2:00 PM - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939) - I never cared for this one, but according to Rooney in '91, "the public still likes it; your kids and grandkids are probably watching it on videocassette, and the 35 millimeter film libraries still rent it out to schools" (138).3:45 PM - The Human Comedy (1943) - There's every chance you'll love this movie a lot more than I did, but even if you don't I think you'll find Rooney's performance impressive. My post about it here.
6:00 PM - Killer McCoy (1947) - A new path for Rooney. "It was precisely the kind of part I needed to reestablish myself in Hollywood as a serious actor," (227) Rooney wrote. It's better appreciated today than it was then. Read all about it at The Hollywood Revue.
8:00 PM - Boys Town (1938) - You want some attitude? Meet Mickey's Whitey Marsh, described by Rooney as "a combination of Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and King Kong" (122). Father Flanagan meets Whitey at a card table and quickly knocks a cigarette out of his mouth and his feet off of the table before delivering his first dose of attitude adjustment. While Rooney was cranking out Andy Hardy performances during this time, Boys Town was the A-level film that made him a star attraction.
10:00 PM - Men of Boys Town (1941) - A worthwhile sequel, but we've got a fully formed Whitey from the start this time. But if you want more, it will give you more!
12:00 AM - National Velvet (1944) - I'm overdue to watch this family classic again, so I'll leave the comments to Rooney, who saw the premiere in Birmingham, Alabama, while stationed in nearby Camp Sibert for army training: "It was the first time I'd seen National Velvet, I must confess I was thoroughly charmed" (211). That's kind of my recollection as well. For more on Rooney's young co-star in this one, check out Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet at The Skeins.
2:15 AM - Babes on Broadway (1941) - Mickey and Judy with lots of singing and dancing and Busby Berkeley production numbers. I suspect TCM scheduled it so late at night because of the performance in blackface towards the end, but Rooney is especially good in this one if you can overlook how inappropriate that one scene plays today. Rooney: "On that set, I had more fun than I ever had on a movie, before or since. With Busby Berkeley in the director's chair ... making a movie was always a frenetic thing, but I thrived on it. This is what I was born for" (178).
4:30 AM - A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) - Shakespeare might not be your thing. I'll admit the dialogue causes me to listen a lot more intently than usual, but Mickey Rooney has to be seen to be believed here. This feels like what you get when you give a 15-year-old a ton of sugar and wait to see what happens. Rooney is no average 15-year-old, so he does Shakespeare and beyond some of the unusual casting of Warner Bros. contract players (Cagney!) his Puck is the absolute main attraction. "So now I was a real actor," Rooney wrote in reflection of Andre Sennwald's positive notice in 1935. "It was official. The New York Times said so" (69).
More on Mickey Rooney at TCM.
He may tell a little too much for the tastes of some, but Mickey Rooney's 1991 autobiography Life Is Too Short is a must-read for fans of this era or these movies.