Poised to turn 91 on Sept. 23, MICKEY ROONEY, the former Joe Yule Jr. (Brooklyn born in 1920) is still with us, still working. Here he is pictured putting on a show way back when with pal-costar Judy what’s-er-name.)
Because his parents were vaudevillians, Rooney made his stage debut at 15 months as part of the family act.
That means that he has worked in show business for 90 continuous years.
We believe that HAS to be a record. And, since Rooney began making two-reel comedies in 1927, playing a comic strip character known as Mickey McGuire, the nonagenarian also has the distinction of being among the last silent movie stars still around. (Can you name any others?) He certainly has had one of the Longest careers in Movies.
Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movie guys, reflecting on the long-running phenomenon that is Mickey Rooney.
Say what you will about Rooney’s life and career, the pint sized dynamo (he’s all of 5 feet 2 inches) is a trooper. He is perhaps bext remembered for the 13 Andy Hardy movies that made him an international star from 1938 to 1944.
We began our series on child stars with Shirley Temple. Although Rooney preceded her in films, he didn’t become a star until after she had. But he became an even bigger star and made an easy transition from child roles to teenage roles to adult roles.
The Classic Movie guys part company to a large degree on Rooney as an actor. Joe likes much of his work. Frank finds much of his output unwatchable today, his manic bounce and energy grating and — given the insanity of his personal life — even hypocritical.
However much Mickey made the part of Andy Hardy in his own, there was a huge gap between reel life and reality. Esther Williams recalls the Mickey Rooney she encountered when cutting her teeth as an MGM starlet in 1942’s “Andy Hardy’s Double Life.”
Wrote Esther, “Now in his early twenties…he was still a self absorbed kid. I didn’t find him very likable…Mickey took advantage of his stardom. Everyone in the studio gave him free rein. He had a bookie waiting for his calls every day, always playing the horses. We all knew that ‘Mickey’s on the phone’ meant that filming could not resume until he’d concluded his ‘business’.”
We wonder if Andy Hardy ever imagined playing the horses, although, as British-born author-critic David Thomson observed, “Andy became Rooney: cheeky, naughty, improvisational, immensely talented as a mime, dancer, comic, singer and ham.”
No question that gambling, the eight marriages and nine children, and other “business” gave Rooney powerful incentives to keep on working.
Two of Mickey’s wives were certified world class knockouts — No. 1, Ava Gardner and No. 3, Martha Vickers, who plays the gorgeously slutty daughter in director Howard Hawks 1946 film noir, “The Big Sleep.”
Then there were the multiple affairs including one with Lana Turner. And who know what went on between Rooney and Judy Garland.
That Ava Gardner actually had married Rooney dumbfounded Esther Williams. It was “something I found absolutely unimaginable, at least from a physical viewpoint. Ava told me years later that he was a difficult and arrogant fellow.”
Cineastes today most often point to three Rooney titles as his best: 1935’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle; 1938’s “Boys Town” directed by Norman Taurog; and director Don Siegel’s 1957 drama, “Baby Face Nelson.”
Although diminutive, Mickey could certainly turn it on as a tough guy. Frank’s favorite Roooney outing is 1950’s low-budget noir, “Quicksand,” with Rooney playing a grease monkey who beats up Peter Lorre. (Can’t go wrong there.) In 1951, Rooney also made another crime picture, “The Strip.”
Also well worth checking into as is British director Michael Hodges’ 1971 title, “Pulp.” The picture, shot in Malta, has Rooney playing an expatriate Hollywood actor who hires a paperback writer (Michael Caine) to pen his autobiography. A great cast (including Lizabeth Scott, Lionel Stander and Al Lettieri) supports a refreshingly controlled and convincing Rooney performance.
Tomorrow Joe will expound on his favorite and least favorite Rooney pix.