Mickey Rooney, the beating passionate heart of cinema… was silenced today. If you love Classic Cinema or Modern Cinema… you know Mickey Rooney. He connected the two – and boy did he love talking about the history of film.
Mom and Dad loved the Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland musicals, and growing up in their household meant that they raised me with film. To connect me to Mickey Rooney, Father Geek would tell me he was a redhead. Like me. Everytime we did a comic convention or a Rennaisance Faire or host an event, we’d always leave the house saying, “Let’s throw a show!” – that was pure Mickey Rooney. Those Depression Era films gave the country the spirit to fight back, in the exact same way that Shirley Temple did. Mickey Rooney was the United States Box Office Champion for 3 years in a row! He was cranking them out. He could do anything, sing, dance, act… His energy leapt off the screen and he knew how to milk a scene like nobody.
As a boy, Mickey was the kid from those Andy Hardy films and the musicals… but he was also showing up in all the best places… Like the “Rare Objects” episode of Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY, or as the Scarecrow in the animated JOURNEY BACK TO OZ. He was the voice of Santa in “THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS” But watching him in PETE’S DRAGON and THE BLACK STALLION… well, that made me wonder… What did he do in-between those old Black & White musicals and PETE’S DRAGON… that was a long time –
Now, I pretty much give any movie with Mickey Rooney in it – a watch. He constantly worked. He was filming a new DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE adaptation when he died and was cast in future projects, that we’ll now never see him in.
Living a cinematic adoring life – meant, by definition, that I would come to love Mickey Rooney dearly! I remember when Dad and I would raid the cheap VHS bins at Blockbuster Video – we found so many great Mickey Rooney jewels… But one I really want to highlight because… it gives you a completely different Mickey Rooney.
This movie is a great great little Noir about how one wrong step can lead to complete corruption. He ‘borrows’ some money out of the register for work, knowing he’s getting paid back the next day… but shit begins to go wrong. He’s wrapped up with a dame that’s just bad news… genetically… This is James Cagney’s sister, Jeanne Cagney – and she’s great in the film – then there’s Peter Lorre, who owns a Penny Arcade. Which, ya know, rules… cuz, PETER LORRE has an arcade! Old school Arcade! Here you get a desperate Mickey Rooney. The film starts off a bit slow, but once Garp’s Law has him, he’s spiraling in such a beautiful Noir manner.
Sorry – getting ahead of myself. I just love that film so much. But as I’ve grown up I’ve sought out his old Mickey McGuire shorts (Both Silents & Sound ones) on YouTube… and they’re awesome! I’ve also fallen in love with all the things he apparently was responsible. He claimed to have given MICKEY MOUSE his name Mickey! And a young girl named Norma Jean, her name… Marilyn Monroe. When John Dillinger died, he was walking out of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA which featured Clark Gable, William Powell & Myrna Loy! Oh – a little Mickey Rooney. He was a magnificent fucking Puck in William Dieterle & Max Reinhardt’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM! Just wondrous in that film!
Then, in 1937… a real good year for Mickey Rooney. He was cast as Andy Hardy in A FAMILY AFFAIR. This established a huge cinematic vehicle for his career… but that same year he made… possibly… my very favorite movie that has Mickey Rooney in it ever. CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS with Spencer Tracy. Now, Mickey didn’t get the most screentime, that went to Freddie Bartholomew, but it didn’t really matter cuz Spencer Tracy gives one of the greatest fucking human performances ever in the film as MANNY! If you don’t love Manny, there’s something broken in you – and you should not be allowed to own any weapons either. Then he got cast opposite George Sanders, Warner Baxter, Jane Darwell and god amongst actors… WALLACE BEERY in a film called SLAVE SHIP based upon William Faulkner’s story he wrote based upon a novel called SLAVE SHIP, but the film was based upon his story – and it is also quite a great film. In many ways, it gives AMISTAD a run for its money. Event has a young Lon Chaney Jr aboard. Rooney’s the cabin boy, and the genius of the movie is between Rooney and Wallace Beery’s first mate! By year’s end he’d released his second ANDY HARDY flick, YOU’RE ONLY YOUNG ONCE… and everything he was a part of was a success.
1938 found him teamed up with Judy Garland in the fourth Andy Hardy called LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY. She was exactly what the series needed! The chemistry between the two was unmistakable. But even that was overshadowed by BOYS TOWN – a reunion between Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney – and one of the best films. Mickey also got to team up with Wallace Beery for STABLEMATES – which was even better than SLAVE SHIP! The key to Mickey’s career was his professionalism and the chemistry he seemed to have with EVERYONE!
1939 – Mickey got cast as Huck in THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Rooney’s Huck and Rex Ingram’s Jim are really great together. You owe it to yourself to watch every film Rex Ingram ever made. It’s good for the soul. He also made 3 more ANDY HARDY films… but the doozy of the year was BABES IN ARMS. Directed by Busby Berkeley and combining the musical and dancing prowess of Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland… well… it was like Disney discovering Marvel or Pixar. License to print money began – and some of the most amazingly entertaining and fun films came to be. Mickey was so irresistible in the film, he even got nominated for Best Actor for the film.
Seriously – you want to believe in seizing victory out of the clutches of certain doom – you watch BABES IN ARMS, STRIKE UP THE BAND, BABES ON BROADWAY and GIRL CRAZY – and there’s nothing you can’t do. They also marked crazy box office for Mickey. He picked another nomination up for THE HUMAN COMEDY… But by the end of the run – Mickey had something far more on his mind, he had to go win World War II! He did make one last movie before shipping out, NATIONAL VELVET… a helluva film.
I could go on writing about Mickey Rooney for a very long time, but getting to NATIONAL VELVET takes me to where I got to meet Mickey Rooney, which was on the 2013 TCM MOVIE CRUISE, where he was a guest. I recorded the audio from the pre-screening conversation between TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and Mickey Rooney. Watching Mickey Rooney walk across that stage. Getting to see him with my father and wife… I was in tears the entire time. Mickey Rooney has been one of my heroes of film, forever!
He made making movies seem like the best most amazing thing that anyone could ever do. Sure he was a wild child, drinking, womanizing, gambling… but he licked them all. Watching him talk circles around Mr. Mankiewicz was just one of the greatest events I’ve ever seen personally. Now this nearly 24 minute audio isn’t just NATIONAL VELVET – in fact… Mickey can not be contained – and he tells a host of great stories, but also… the method to his genius. Here’s the audio conversation:
I did get to shake his hand – but I have to admit. I was completely star struck. Mickey Rooney couldn’t appear for his final talk on the cruise, before REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT. A film where Mickey is just amazing, with an equally amazing Anthony Quinn. That was a Rod Serling script – and it’s just a genius movie! The cruise had worn him plum out. He liked being able to walk out on stage and to his seat, and he was just too tuckered out. As I left the boat, he and I wound up in an elevator together going through customs. I was in awe. Nobody ever made anybody like Mickey Rooney before or after. Before I go… Here’s a few other Mickey Rooney titles you have to check out: KILLER McCOY as a boxer, THE FIREBALL – as a roller skating star, THE STRIP as a suspected murderous Drummer, THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI, THE ATOMIC KID – where Mickey Rooney survives an atomic bomb blast, but now glows in the dark. IT IS AMAZING! The film does prove that Mickey Rooney and Indiana Jones could both survive an Atomic Bomb blast! Don Siegel’s BABY FACE NELSON where Mickey is Babyface! Great flick! There are so many more… but that’s a good start on a man who just didn’t know how to quit making movies! Right up until the end.