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Mickey Rooney: Unsung Genius?

by Leonard Maltin
April 7, 2014 4:54 PM
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Still Puck-ish in the little-seen 1967 Italian movie "The Devil in Love."
Still Puck-ish in the little-seen 1967 Italian movie "The Devil in Love."

People who only know Mickey Rooney from recent public appearances understandably sized him up as a bombastic, living relic of Hollywood’s past. Colleagues and critics were often guilty of taking him for granted. But MGM director Clarence Brown, who worked with the best and the brightest, and made such classics as National Velvet, once told Scott Eyman, “Mickey Rooney is the closest thing to a genius that I ever worked with. There was Chaplin, then there was Rooney. The little bastard could do no wrong in my book. I don’t know how he did it because he never really paid any attention. Between takes he’d be off somewhere calling his bookmaker, then come back and go into a scene as if he’d been rehearsing it for three days.”

Mickey as Andy Hardy with his screen father, Lewis Stone.
Mickey as Andy Hardy with his screen father, Lewis Stone.

Watch him with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, in scenes that call for real emotion, or with that most honest of actors, Spencer Tracy, in Boys Town, and you’ll see what Brown is talking about. He expressed real depth of feeling, and could bring you to the brink of tears when the occasion demanded. Decades later, in The Black Stallion, which earned him his fourth Oscar nomination, and Bill, the TV movie that won him an Emmy, it was clear that he hadn’t lost a thing since those golden days at MGM.

A few years ago, at the annual Noir City Film Festival at the American Cinematheque, we saw a minor Columbia programmer from 1954 called Drive a Crooked Road, co-written by Rooney’s old friend Blake Edwards. In it, he plays an auto mechanic whom life has beaten down. He is terrific because you believe him, not just in the story’s big dramatic moments but in the mundane expository scenes: he’s completely convincing as a mousy mechanic and works under the hood of a European sports car as if it’s all he ever did.

Mickey as Andy Hardy with his real-life father, Joe Yule, in "Judge Hardy and Son."
Mickey as Andy Hardy with his real-life father, Joe Yule, in "Judge Hardy and Son."

Mickey Rooney had a gift that I suppose was inborn, and like many people who possess such a gift he never gave it much thought. It all came easily to him, and he had little patience for costars who had to expend great effort to attain the same results. (In his first autobiography, i.e., he mocked Audrey Hepburn for having to build up to a scene in which she had to cry in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.)

Perhaps because he was so casual about his work, he was a frustrating man to interview. I was fortunate because he took a liking to me and knew that I appreciated his career. (Others who weren’t so lucky got a long-winded lecture about his years as America’s number one box-office star.) He had a good memory, but when I asked for specifics—about his brief directing career in the 1950s, or his impressions of the great actor Rex Ingram, who played Jim to his Huck in the 1939 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—all I got were generalities and platitudes.

Mickey with his real-life son Teddy in a 1961 episode of General Electric Theatre.
Mickey with his real-life son Teddy in a 1961 episode of General Electric Theatre.

He could be reflective, as he proved when he published his first memoir in 1965. “This isn’t a once-upon-a-time story,” he wrote on the first page, “although it might have been. Lord knows but it might have been. Had I been brighter, had the dice been better, had the gods been kinder, this could have been a one-sentence story.” It wasn’t, of course. There were all those women, all those marriages and failed business schemes.

He also wrote, “My story is a love song to show business, sung at times off-key… It’s the paradox of a child who was a man and a man who was, or tried to remain, a child. At the age of fifteen months I was working in burlesque and by the time I was two, I was ad-libbing scenes. But at thirty I was still shockingly immature, a con man’s delight, a con woman’s pot of gold. The honey pot of Hollywood.”

A paradox indeed, but one of entertainment’s brightest lights. He could be endearing at one moment, infuriating the next—but he never let an audience down in his 90 years of performing. His career was unique, dotted with extreme highs and lows. At some other time we can discuss the missed opportunities and “what if” moments. For now, let’s remember the talent, and the gift, that made Mickey Rooney one-of-a-kind.   

More Mickey Rooney on the Silver Screen

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    Mickey Rooney

    In 1958 Rooney returned to his most famous character in "Andy Hardy Comes Home;" here he sighs over former girlfriends with his screen mother, Fay Holdaen.
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    Mickey Rooney

    A scene from one of the popular “Mickey McGuire” shorts, based on Fontaine Fox’s “Toonerville Trolley” comic strip, which ran for eight years. That’s Philip Hurlic and young Billy Barty over Mickey’s shoulder; in front, Shirley Jean Rickert, an unknown boy, and Jimmie Robinson. The series star legally changed his name to Mickey McGuire; in recent years he fabricated a story that Walt Disney solicited his advice on what to call his new mouse character, and Mickey suggested his own first name.
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    Mickey Rooney

    Andy Hardy with two of his leading ladies, Ann Rutherford and Esther Williams, in "Andy Hardy’s Double Life."
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    Mickey Rooney

    How popular was Mickey Rooney in 1939? Whitman Publishing issued a Better Little Book (not a Big Little Book) all about the youthful star.

Here'a another piece on Mickey Rooney, with another perspective by my friend and colleague Pete Hammond.

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More: Mickey Rooney, Journal

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  • Carl LaFong | April 11, 2014 7:25 PMReply

    A giant, all 5-foot-2 of him.

  • Dennis | April 8, 2014 9:57 PMReply

    Mickey was an inspiration to anyone. His positive energy makes you believe you can do anything. In or out of the movies. He must have believed it because he always seems busy and active and smiling at every age. Leonard has done a wonderful job, as always, in reminding us of this wonderful talent. Thanks Leonard!

  • Norm | April 8, 2014 2:34 AMReply

    Some people sing, some dance, some act, he did all three with amazing energy...What is it like to spring across the stage with effervescent ease...just watch the "Mick"...he never kept anything back. If there is a "superstar", the label goes to him..God Bless Him and Family...

  • Lee | April 8, 2014 2:28 AMReply

    As I've noted elsewhere, Mickey Rooney co-starred in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", my favorite movie. The most notable thing about him was his record for the longest career: having debuted in 1926, he was still acting in the 2010s, making him the only person to have acted in the silent era AND the 21st century.

    I have actually seen "Drive a Crooked Road". Very different kind of role for Rooney. Norman Lear offered him the role of Archie Bunker but Rooney turned it down, worried that it would fail. I understand that Rooney won an Emmy for another serious role, "Bill", about a man in a retirement home.

    What a guy.

  • mike schlesinger | April 9, 2014 8:16 PM

    For the record, Carla Laemmle (104 and counting) acted in both silent and recent films, but she at best merits an asterisk, as she never really had a sustained career.

  • William Dobbs | April 7, 2014 4:08 PMReply

    Mickey Rooney always had an energy that exploded off the silver screen. He was great as an individual performer. When combined with an actress like Judy Garland, the pair was unstopable! His grin and enthusiasm for the roles he played will always be memorable. Mickey Rooney will be missed, but never forgotten--thanks to his work in motion pictures.

  • Matias A. Bombal | April 7, 2014 4:07 PMReply

    Well said, Leonard! Right on the mark.

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