Monday, April 07, 2014

In Memoriam: Mickey Rooney, 1920-2014

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."
— First wife Ava Gardner
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.

“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.
Cordially yours,
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 lovely Martha Vickers, whom Rooney also 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. 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. The last marriage, to Jan Chamberlin, turned out to be a chamber of horrors. He deserved a better end.

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.)
(Updated 7/13/15; according to film historian Mark Alan Vieira, the only source for Rooney's affair with Norma Shearer was Rooney himself; Vieira says it never happened. So the Siren has redacted that conquest.)
(Updated 10/21/15, to account for the information in the ghastly Hollywood Reporter story, about the abuse and financial embezzlement that Rooney suffered in his last two decades. This is the link if you can bear it.


Aubyn said...

Glad to see your Rooney tribute is up. Lovely and heartfelt, utterly worthy of him.

Even with a bad Rooney performance (and I tend to think of him as a very girl-with-the-curl type of performer, sometimes very good and sometimes horrid), there's just no doubting his overwhelming love for his audience. Nothing could deter that propulsive energy and need and there's something very endearing about that. Even if the man had been six feet tall, there's no way he would ever have attained even a drop of Mitchum-style cool. He just loves this crazy show business too much.

Steve Shilstone said...

I have a hunch Bill Shakespeare on seeing Rooney as Puck would have said the Elizabethan equivalent of, 'By George, he's got it!'

DavidEhrenstein said...

Great work, Siren.

Mickey was a force of nature.

Claude Chabrol cited Mickey in Men of Boy's Town as his favorite film performance "because I love hysterical actors."

JUAN. said...

My first memory of the Academy Awards is from 1983. I was 7 years old and didn't understand all the fuss about the show. My mother was glued to the T.V. screen and at one point she had tears in her eyes. On the screen, a teenager was crying over a dead child's body. He sobbed and my mother sobbed along with him. Then the same guy, much older but still recognizable, appeared on a stage and said that he used to be the number one star of the world for two years and then nobody wanted him. I'm sure there was a standing ovation in the theater, but all I can remember is my mother clapping through her tears. I looked at her surprised and a little bit scared and all she said to me was "Mickey Rooney!. Mickey Rooney!"

Dan Leo said...

Great job, Siren, and I gotta see The Strip!

Love, the Chabrol quote, Mr. Ehrenstein. French directors always have the most intriguing taste in actors. I remember reading an interview with Jean-Pierre Melville in which the interviewer asked him who his favorite movie actor was. Of course his answer was: "Fred MacMurray."

By the way, Siren, have you ever seen that live-TV broadcast of The Comedian? Rooney is amazing in it.

joel65913 said...

Nice tribute. I've never been much of a fan of his, always too nakedly "on" and begging for attention. Judy Garland of course was a similar type of performer but where she was vulnerable and open he was brash and overweening. The years after his major stardom started to fade but before he settled into secondary roles are the ones where I find him hardest to take. "Words and Music" is torture, his duet with Judy is a perfect illustration. Where she has grown up and away from the over eager youngster and become more womanly in her behavior and gestures he's hopping around like the energizer bunny basically getting in the way of the number.

Still a career that spanned a ninety year period is an admirable journey and worthy of respect.

CarolMR said...

JUAN, I remember that Academy Awards show. I think I had tears in my eyes, too, as Mickey basically described his life as an actor. He was famous and then nobody wanted him. I remember the camera panned to Dustin Hoffman who looked like he was crying. Then Mickey mentioned all the famous Hollywood stars he had worked with. If I remember correctly, he got choked up when he mentioned Spencer Tracy.
I saw QUICKSAND about two years ago and couldn't believe all the trouble Mickey's character, Dan, got into. In a way it was nonsense but you really feel for the character of Dan and Rooney made it work.

Richard Cobeen said...

Lovely tribute. I will always remember him in Operation Mad Ball, where his "on" performance style worked perfectly.

Richard Cobeen said...
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Richard Cobeen said...
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Vanwall said...

"The Human Comedy" really showed his abilities to do understated, fine work, and it remains a fave, just for his performance. Thankfully he didn't end up like 'Cockeye', or even worse, Billy Bright....

The Siren said...

Thank you so much, everyone. Do you realize Rooney had more than 300 complete IMDB credits? It's awestriking. I very much doubt anyone could rack up a career like that nowadays. It's why I spent all day trying to pay him adequate and still left out so much. And why I still have so much left to see, although that's not a bad thing. I like having good stuff still out there.

I love that Claude Chabrol appreciated Rooney, it's as great as hearing that Luis Bunuel was mad about Portrait of Jennie.

Monique D said...

My all time favorite Mickey Rooney scene is the "Hoedown" number from Babes on Broadway. His dancing is all at once ferociously athletic and hysterically funny, a complete joy to watch. For my money he's actually upstaging Judy Garland! Pure magic.

gmoke said...

Esquire published "What I've Learned" with Mickey Rooney today:

"There's no such thing as an acting school. You're acting now. You're being yourself. That's what acting is."

Happy Miser said...

I'd love to see The Strip!

mas82730 said...

As everyone knows, Olivier referred to Rooney as the greatest actor America ever produced, so I'll defer to the master and plant myself in front of TCM's all-day tribute to Rooney this Sunday.
I've been reading a lot of obits and tributes in the papers, but yours is tops.

Lemora said...

Siren, thank you for this tribute. I met Mickey Rooney and his wife, Jan, in 2004, at a Pioneer Broadcasters Luncheon in his honor. (My dad was a member.) It was held at the now-vanished but not forgotten Sportsman's Lodge in Studio City, CA. Ann Rutherford and others who worked with him were there. In the green room, Mr. Rooney was quiet, mute, and withdrawn. He didn't seem to quite understand where he was. He was 83 years old, and that may have been an act to keep a privacy shield around himself. His wife, Jan, was delightful, skilled at running interference, and invited me to have my picture taken with him. There were many tributes during the luncheon. I sat next to Fayard Nicholas and his extremely young wife, and they were both fun to talk to. I've got to go watch Andy Hardy again. In his memoir, Life's Too Short, Mr. Rooney tells about losing his virginity in a Santa Monica whorehouse, with Milton Burl in charge. I loved his personal memories of Judy Garland. Specifically, they used to meet --in the early fifties-- for sodas, burgers, and fries at Herbert's (long-gone) Drive-In on the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura Blvds. in Studio City. I remember because this was a favorite destination of my family at about that time. Again, thank you!

barrylane said...

What you have described as upstaging is something that I hope was not. Upstaging is an actor's term and it is pejorative. As in cheating at the expense of your cast mate.

CarolMR said...

I just read that the bulk of Rooney's estate will go to his stepson. His wife was left out of the will but will receive his pension checks per an earlier agreement. I didn't know he and his wife Jan had separated last year. His other children are not in the will.

Keira said...

Let me delurk for a sec...
I went over to youtube and caught a screening of 'The Comedian' and was just knocked on my bum. Really, really quality stuff.
Rooney is, by turns, loathsome and mesmerizing and vulnerable--live!
He's not an actor I've really ever gone out of my way to watch and I see now that I should mend my ways.

The Siren said...

Keira, welcome. I have yet to see The Comedian but Dan Callahan (terrific writer and a friend who wrote a great piece about Rooney at the Dissolve) thinks he's great in it too.

Birgit said...

It's funny that I read your earlier article about Mickey Rooney still one of the few alive from the silent and now he is gone. A dear friend of mine worked in a hotel in Toronto when Mickey Rooney was there for Sugar Babies. Aside from wanting his papers at 5am before the hotel even got them, my friend said he was very nice. He felt bad for Mickey Rooney because his 2 sons were there and the one son was very nasty to him and disregarded what his dad would say. Many years later, when Mickey spoke of elder abuse I thought of what my friend said. Any elderly person, who has overall been a good person, should not be treated so horribly. Mickey Rooney was an excellent actor and is now getting noticed for his later work from the 50's and 60's. He will be missed. I showed clips from That's Entertainment to my friend so he could see who Mickey Rooney was when he was with Judy Garland

mas82730 said...

Amazed at the literary pedigree of some of Mickey's films shown Sunday on TCM: Shakespeare, Kipling, Twain, Saroyan. Some of the films were weakfish, but never Rooney's performances. He was almost 20 in 'Huck Finn,' but he effortlessly passed for 12 at the picture's beginning.
I can now see where Olivier and Cary Grant were coming from.

Neamento said...

A fitting tribute. While I could only talk of my relation to films in the latter stages of his career, reading this has sparked fresh curiosity to delve into his past.

Wisewebwoman said...

I may be one of the few commenting who actually saw Mickey live in a performance in Stage West in Mississauga, Ont. I remember thinking (and I'd seen many of his films) that he still had that awful neediness I'd been aware of over the years and it had now descended into mugging at the audience. One did not forget he was Mickey Rooney acting in the boonies. This would have been in the 90s.
Now I think he was probably broke and stitching together his paycheques from such ventures.
He sure was a mixed bag. The Human Comedy was one of his best.

The Siren said...

Wisewebwoman, I know what you mean. That neediness clings to what I call the Pizazz People, the film performers who have show-business dazzle that can reach to the back of the house. I love big, flashy performers, always have, but I understand why some people recoil. I'd cite National Velvet as a relatively dialed-down performance for Rooney, too.

Since we're on the topic, I am posting the link to my friend Raymond De Felitta's post about encountering Rooney a few years back. It combines Ray's genuine regard for the man's work, with a pungent acknowledge of what you call his mixed bag.

Anonymous said...

The last thing I saw Mickey Rooney in was the 2006 movie, "NIGHT IN THE MUSEUM". But if I had to pick my favorite Rooney role, it would have to be Master Sergeant Yancy Skibo in the 1957 comedy, "OPERATION MADBALL". I know it's not a great movie, but I really loved his performance in it.

By the way, did anyone know that his two last movies are still in production? They are "NIGHT IN THE MUSEUM 3" and "DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE".