Saturday, September 22, 2012

328 Credits and Counting...Happy Birthday, Mickey Rooney!

Mickey Rooney, who celebrates his 92nd birthday on September 23, has spent 90+ of those years in show business. Born into a family of vaudevillians, he came closer to actually being "born in a trunk" in the back of a theater than even his frequent MGM co-star and pal Judy Garland. His stage debut came before he was 18 months old.

Mickey's mom always thought her boy had star quality and hustled him to Hollywood in the mid-'20s in hopes that he might be selected for the "Our Gang" series. Though he auditioned, it didn't work out and he later ended up making his big screen debut in a short titled Not to be Trusted cast as a midget.

"Mickey McGuire"
Mickey has not always been Mickey. Originally Joe Yule, Jr., he took the name by which he became known for nearly nine decades from his first breakthrough movie role. In 1927 he was cast as comic strip character Mickey McGuire and starred in the part for a series of 78 comedy shorts from 1927 - 1934. He briefly changed his name to Mickey McGuire but for legal reasons was forced to drop the surname. It was then that he became Mickey Rooney.

The two 'Blackies'
One day in 1934 producer David O. Selznick happened upon young Rooney competing in a ping pong match - and putting on quite a show for the crowd. Taken with the boy's showmanship and charisma, Selznick arranged for him to be cast as "Blackie as a boy" in the MGM hit Manhattan Melodrama (1934), starring William Powell, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable (who portrayed "Blackie" as a man). Soon Mickey was signed to a long-term contract with the studio. In 1935 he was given a small part in the Jean Harlow vehicle, Reckless, appeared as "Puck" in the star-studded Warner Bros. production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and was cast in the MGM adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! as Lionel Barrymore's mischievous youngest son, Tommy.

Roles in the Jean Harlow hit Riffraff and the Freddie Bartholomew vehicle Little Lord Fauntleroy would follow in 1936, and in 1937 he would once more portray Lionel Barrymore's son - this time in A Family Affair, as Andy Hardy to Barrymore's Judge Hardy. The film was so successful that it begat 15 sequels. 

Beloved as the Hardy series was from the late '30s to mid-'40s, there was more to Mickey Rooney's filmography during this period than Andy Hardy. Among the other popular films that fueled his ascension to #1 box office star in America from 1939 - 1941 were Captains Courageous (1937), Boys Town (1938), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), Babes in Arms (1939) -  for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination, Strike Up the Band (1940) and Babes on Broadway (1941). In 1938, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences honored him with a "Juvenile" Oscar. From 1942 until he went into World War II service in early 1944, Rooney cranked out three more Andy Hardy sequels, received his second Best Actor nomination for his starring performance in the film adaptation of William Sorayan's The Human Comedy (1943) and co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet (1944). During the war he entertained troops in the U.S. as well as in combat zones and worked for American Forces Network radio. 

  The Human Comedy

Like the other top male stars who left movies for the the war, Mickey Rooney returned to a changed Hollywood.  Many of the most successful films of the post-war era were markedly dark and serious -  The Best Years of Our Lives, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, All the King's Men, Sunset Blvd., A Streetcar Named Desire. And TV was on the near horizon, portending more change to come. Rooney's first film following his war service was Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (1946), with Bonita Granville. But audiences had moved on from that particular brand of Americana and he would struggle to keep his career afloat. He would do admirable if overlooked work in early '50s noir (Quicksand, The Strip, Drive a Crooked Road), and earn a Best Supporting Actor nod for his portrayal of an American soldier serving in Italy in The Bold and the Brave (1956). He ventured into live television, appearing on various anthology series of the time, and garnered an Emmy nomination for his performance in "The Comedians," a Playhouse 90 drama, in 1957.

Jeanne Cagney and Mickey Rooney in Quicksand  (1950)
Rooney would work primarily in TV through the '60s, but would also turn in a gritty performance in the 1962 film adaptation of Rod Serling's teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight, a searing drama co-starring Jackie Gleason and Anthony Quinn. He also appeared, along with a boatload of great comedians (Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters), one Broadway diva (Ethel Merman) and a revered dramatic actor (Spencer Tracy) in the classic 1963 comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  And he had a supporting role in a premier romantic comedy of the early '60s, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Unfortunately, his over-the-top turn as Audrey Hepburn's Japanese-American neighbor, though performed exactly as director Black Edwards requested, did not age well; eventually Edwards apologized for the characterization.

Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney in Requiem for a Heavyweight  (1962)
Though the glory years at the top of the movie star pile were over, Mickey Rooney continued on as a journeyman character actor. In Carroll Ballard's stunningly beautiful The Black Stallion (1979), Rooney portrayed aging horse trainer Henry Dailey, a role for which he received his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Both the film and his character recalled National Velvet, and footage of Rooney as jockey Mi Taylor in the earlier film was used in The Black Stallion to depict the trainer's previous career as a rider.

for "50 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances"
In October 1979, Mickey Rooney took to the stage with Ann Miller in the Broadway production Sugar Babies. For his performance he earned a Tony nomination and won the 1980 Theatre World Special Award. In 1981 he was cast in the title role of Bill, a TV-movie based on the true story of a mentally handicapped man, and won a Best Actor Emmy for his performance. He was Emmy-nominated for his portrayal in the 1983 sequel, Bill: On His Own, and was awarded a 1983 Academy Award in honor of his 50 year film career. Born to entertain, he says he fell in love with the spotlight before he could walk or talk, when he first crawled from the wings to center stage. He was a natural for movies and grew up in front of a camera. A whirlwind of energy onscreen, he could dance and sing and put on a one-man show. And he proved to be a fearless dramatic actor with a gift for naturally disappearing into character.

He has never stopped working - whether TV, voice or film work  - and has enjoyed the pleasure another hit movie, famously appearing with Dick Van Dyke and Bill Cobbs as one of a trio of aged and larcenous security guards in Night at the Museum (2006). He was interviewed by Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne for an early (1997) "Private Screenings" segment and appears at TCM-sponsored events (he'll be a special guest on TCM's 2013 Classic Cruise to Grand Cayman and Cozumel). He has also been outspoken on the subject of elder abuse and in 2011 testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

What more can be said about a living legend? I'll leave the last word to Cary Grant, who described Mickey Rooney as "the most talented actor in Hollywood."

When James Montgomery Flagg finished this charcoal sketch of Mickey Rooney in October 1941, he showed it to his subject and cracked, "There's the brat!" Rooney grinned and agreed, "Yessir -- one hundred percent brat!"

Sources (click on titles for link):

The Official Mickey Rooney website
"Fate Slaps Down Andy Hardy: Mickey Rooney After MGM" by Jake Hinkson


  1. Thank you for honoring Mickey, Lady Eve. He is is so taken for granted, yet he could do it all: comedy; drama; dance; the tough, the wiseacre, the everlasting kid, and finally, the wise old man. I agree with Cary Grant, He packed more talent in his small frame than anyone else in Hollywood (and more trouble too). We'll not see his like again.

    1. Christian, You put it perfectly, "He is so taken for granted..." Unlike Judy Garland, who was revered throughout her short rollercoaster ride of a life, Mickey (whose life has been a wild ride, too) went through a few "has-been" periods (at least as he was perceived by Hollywood and the wider audience). He has achieved "legend" status, though, and thanks to being blessed with longevity, has lived to see it and enjoy it.

  2. Mickey Rooney is one of the greatest purveyors of the life force on-screen. His electric talent, along with his sometimes chaotic personal life, has inspired both worshipful accolades and small-minded ridicule. I have to admit to having been quite taken with M.R. ever since I was a child - he seemed almost a mythic character to me. Mickey's talent and personality was like some kind of Rubik's Cube that I found puzzling but, at the same time, fascinating to ponder - he's one complicated guy. Rooney is a performer with deep roots in show biz but also a very vulnerable, human side that worked beautifully in serious drama. I was really happy to see your wonderful write-up, Eve. Mickey Rooney deserves our appreciation and I think it's wonderful that he's still around to receive it.

    1. MCB, He is one of those rare film actors who projects such powerful energy onscreen - through the screen, really. That energy must've driven him mad off the screen (judging by the struggles and wives he went through for many years). He really ought to be recognized - again - by AMPAS. I can't think of another who was a superstar of the 'golden age' era that is not only still with us but has also managed to appear in a hit movie of the 21st century.

  3. What would the movies have been like without Mickey? A wonderful tribute, Lady Eve, to one of the very last great stars. His body of work is amazing.

  4. Nice profile, Eve. I'm not a big Rooney fan, but I do admire his longevity in the entertainment industry.