Roll out the red carpet, folks, and stand by. That boy is here again, the Pied Piper of the box office, the eighth or ninth wonder of the world, the kid himself — in short, Mickey Rooney.
— The New York Times reviews Strike Up the Band (1940)
Few terms are crueler than has-been. A has-been is Norma Desmond rattling around an empty mansion. Avoiding strong light like a vampire, bitterly dishing old enemies to skeptical interviewers. So focused on looking back that you never move forward.
Mickey Rooney was never a true has-been in his life, not with 90 years of work. Shorts and features, A pictures and B pictures, star turns and character parts. Social dramas, musicals, an impressive run of noirs, comedies, Emmy awards, sitcoms, a hit Broadway show. The Siren spotted him in The Muppets in 2011 and heard a college-age woman whisper to her companion, “Mickey Rooney.” If that’s has-been-dom, sign up the Siren.
Good script or bad, Rooney simply did not know how to approach his work any way other than full-out. You can find him in roles that sank into self-parody, things he probably took because he needed the money (let’s hope that’s how he wound up narrating Hollywood Blue). But phoning it in? Never happened.
Yes, Mickey Rooney was known for reminding people that he was once the biggest star in the world. That’s because he was once the biggest star in the world. It’s not like he spent decades dining out on how he scored the winning touchdown for Dead Skunk State College. That's why Dana Carvey’s exasperated tale of working with Rooney winds up adorable. Rooney was at once easy fodder for a dead-on impression, and inimitable.
He was one of the last remaining stars who started in silent movies; the Siren admits to being too depressed to look up who’s left. Rooney made his first indelible mark as Puck in Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both on stage and on screen. In the movie he was about 15 years old, and so good as to be almost freakish. This is not a normal kid. That laugh is positively sinister. It originates somewhere under the loincloth, rolls up past the collarbone and sprays out like a firehose. It’s not his eyes that sparkle, it’s those teeth. Any minute you feel this Puck may attach himself to someone’s ankle, terrier-style. Rooney is all the amoral mischief of childhood rolled up into one half-naked package.
"Don't let the little guy fool you. He knows every trick in the book."You can see the prototype of a certain Rooney character in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), where he plays the young Clark Gable (!!), caught up in the 1904 tragedy of the General Slocum. It’s all there: the swagger, the loyalty, the tough cookie determined not to crumble, though he’s just a kid. Once the template was struck, Rooney could ring any number of changes on it, such as in Boys Town, where he’s an obnoxious delinquent, and a sobbing mixed-up kid, and stitches it together with moments of real heart.
— First wife Ava Gardner
“You’re Andy Hardy! You’re the United States! You’re a symbol! Behave yourself!”
— Billy Wilder, working at MGM on the script for Ninotchka, hears a commotion, rolls down his office window and spies Louis B. Mayer having a little man-to-man chat with his biggest star. Said chat, according to Wilder, involved Mayer seizing Rooney by the shoulders and shouting in his face.
There’s a TCM interview clip with the late Ann Rutherford where she discusses the Andy Hardy movies. There were 16 total, and Rutherford made 12 of those as Polly Benedict, the wholesome girlfriend Andy was supposed to make up with by the last reel, even if Lana Turner had been the alternative. Rutherford says the movies hold up pretty well, save the dread moment when Rooney would turn to Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy and say “Pop, can I talk to you, man-to-man?” The Andy Hardy films have a sweetness and funniness to them that still plays. But even at the time, they were like newsreels shot live on the scene of America’s fantasy life. Rooney's last Hardy movie was a 1958 revival that flopped; now, TV was in charge of idealizing the American home.
Rooney made some excellent movies during his years at the top of MGM. One of the best, The Human Comedy, had Rooney tender and gentle in his wartime role as a boy who delivers the last thing any soldier’s mother wants: telegrams.
Another movie from when Mickey Rooney was the biggest star in the world is Babes in Arms, from 1939. Anyone who’s seen Babes in Arms knows that in the annals of barking-mad Hollywood musicals, it’s way up there. Rooney is the son of vaudeville troupers. His parents can’t accept that the old circuit is gone for good, and when they decide to stage a comeback, the authorities threaten to send Mickey and costar Judy Garland to a work farm. In the title song — the first big musical number — Busby Berkeley’s camera tracks all the kids as they march through the town and sing. Except these cuties are waving crates and the occasional bit of furniture, and they’re carrying torches to build a bonfire. Douglas MacPhail sings to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries” while torches wave in the foreground. The kids play on the swingset and the seesaw while the other kids are putting the torch to the bonfire. And Douglas and Mickey and Judy climb a playground slide for the finale, while everybody plays ring-around-the-campfire. It’s a vaudeville Walpurgisnacht.
So when you decide to joke with your pals, “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!” just remember that Mickey and Judy did that and then they staged a near-riot. This movie is many things. Wholesome isn’t necessarily one of them.
Check out this scene of Mickey and Judy auditioning for a big producer. There’s the way Rooney puts over a big number, and then there’s the way he’s doing “Good Morning” here. A little too bright, overcompensating, to cover up the nerves; it’s the way a newcomer would audition.
Then (sigh) there’s a blackface number, which is grisly, although at least it’s broken up by a thunderstorm. The final number, “God’s Country,” is a sort of MGM Manifesto: “We’ve got no Duce / We’ve got no Fuhrer / But we’ve got Gable / And Norma Shearer.”
The Siren doesn’t know that Rooney ever bothered to analyze exactly what the hell this movie was supposed to be saying, any more than he ever understood why everybody kept bugging him about Mr. Yunioshi. But it’s some kind of crackpot genius, all right, and here’s the thing about Rooney. In the midst of a vaudeville version of May ‘68, and (god help us) a minstrel show, and a closing number about God’s Country, “where every man / is his own dictator,” (what?) five-foot-two-or-three-inch Rooney is seizing that screen every single minute. If that seems no big deal, ponder Ruby Keeler for a minute or two. Nor is Rooney upstaging Garland. They worked together, not in opposition. They were still doing it in Words and Music nine years later.
“Mickey Rooney can act the legs off a centipede.”
— The Sunday Times of London, from a 1939 review of Babes in Arms
Some of Rooney’s best classic-era performances came after World War II, when hard living had given him a face even Mayer couldn’t sell as boyish anymore: Noir Comes to Andy Hardy. There’s Quicksand, with its uncomfortable echoes of Rooney’s real-life character. He’s an auto mechanic, but he’s also a skirt-chaser, and his pursuit of a pretty cashier leads him to one dumb decision after another. (He produced the film with Peter Lorre; they play well together.) Drive a Crooked Road finds Rooney a mechanic again, only this time he’s shy around the ladies and picked on by his coworkers. His yearning for a girlfriend gets him mixed up with a bad dame; those who think of Mickey as a flashy ham will be surprised at how naturally he plays shy and lonely. He’s a convincing psychopath in Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson — though, as James MacEachern pointed out earlier this year in a lovely tribute at Bright Lights Film Journal, at the time the movie did badly and Rooney’s reviews were poor. As the loyal pal of Anthony Quinn in the extremely depressing Requiem for a Heavyweight, Rooney was more touching than the ostensible lead. And the Siren adores The Strip, in which Rooney plays a musician sucked into a world of graft by a corrupt bookie. Here’s part of why: Rooney playing drums with Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines. He’s in character, but Rooney’s projecting a character who knows he’s jamming with the best.
Dear Mr. Mayer:
We have read the “God’s Country” Finale (pages 1 through 4) dated July 3, 1939, for your proposed production titled Babes in Arms, and are happy to report that this material comes under the requirements of the Production Code.
However, on Page 3, Mickey used the word “shag.” This should be changed since in England and the British colonies this word has a very objectionable sexual meaning which would cause its deletion by numerous political censor boards.
You understand, of course, that our final judgment will be based upon the finished picture.
Joseph I. Breen
— quoted in The World of Entertainment! by Hugh Fordin
“He was the same off-screen as on, which meant that he made enemies,” wrote David Shipman. Some of them were undoubtedly exes. Rooney was a ravenous womanizer. Envy percolates through the writings of many male film critics when they get to the part where Rooney married 19-year-old Ava Gardner. There was also Norma Shearer, 18 years his senior and the affair that allegedly prompted Mayer’s outburst; lovely Martha Vickers, whom Rooney married; and six other wives and Lana Turner and...the Siren is getting tired, let’s just say it’s a cast list longer than It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. At least the last marriage, to Jan Chamberlin, stuck. He had nine children (eight survive him). By 1962, when he wound up in bankruptcy court for the first time (he’d be back), he’d earned $12 million over the course of his career. That’s about $93 million today.
Rooney, a compulsive gambler, always had big plans. Shipman notes, “When MGM were in difficulty in 1970, according to Variety, he offered to take over the reins, promising to make 20 films for $20 million. The offer was refused.” Kirk Kerkorian had already bought a big stake, attached the MGM name to a casino operation, and the Culver City assets were about to be sold off piece by piece. Rooney was no businessman, he approached things like a movie —an entertaining one, where auctioning everything down to Judy's ruby slippers was no way to end. How much better if in the last reel, the old studio says, “OK Mickey, you crazy kid. Let’s put on a show...”
(Review quotes from David Shipman's The Great Movie Stars; Billy Wilder story from Gavin Lambert's Norma Shearer biography; Ava Gardner quote from Lee Server's bio.)