A career full of "first-rate performances": Mickey Rooney, RIP
There's something unsettling about successful child actors, even the best ones -- especially the best ones. Watching them perform, I can't help thinking about the fact that they are performing. And I am not convinced that it can be good for any child to be good at acting.
Mickey Rooney was certainly one of the best, a professional even before he could read a contract (or anything else). I've long been fascinated by the films of the 1930s and '40s, and the way they reflect Depression-era and wartime America, and I have always had a soft spot for Mickey Rooney. And I have always been impressed less by his talent than by his obvious hard work. Rooney was a performer who held nothing back; a vaudevillian who wanted made sure the people in the very back row got their money's worth. Or, perhaps, a child who just wanted to please. He was, after all, born in a trunk, and put on the stage by his parents as part of their act when he was not yet two. They got him a part anchoring a series of shorts when he was only six, and had his name legally changed to match the character so that he could profit even when he wasn't shooting.
All the studio stars worked harder, or at least faster, in those days, and the kids may have worked the hardest of all. I noted in a post here just after Shirley Temple's death that she made a staggering number of movies from 1934 to 1939. Rooney had a similiarly incredible output. I had thought it might be fun -- and quick -- to honor him with a quick look back at what Commonweal's film reviewers had said of his work. Little did I know how many reviews I'd have to read through -- back then the magazine was a weekly, and every issue included several movie reviews. Just searching our archives gives vivid evidence of how busy Rooney was in his heyday.
His first mention in our pages was inauspicious. Grenville Vernon, reviewing the Max Reinhardt film of A Midsummer Night's Dream (November 1, 1935), was not impressed with the boy's delivery of Shakespeare's couplets:
There are moments when the spirit of Shakespeare is present, notably in the performance of Ian Hunter as Theseus, Anita Louise as Titania, Olivia de Haviland as Hermia, and Joe E. Brown as Flute, but more often, and particularly in the cases of Dick Powell's Lysander, Ross Alexander's Demetrius, and Mickey Rooney's Puck, that spirit was very far away indeed.
He got a better plug from James P. Cunningham in his review of The Devil Is a Sissy the following year (September 25, 1936):
The idea developed is that the devil is a sissy because he is not tough enough to be good. Freddie Bartholomew, Jackie Cooper, and Mickey Rooney, from the ranks of Hollywood's finest juvenile players, are the subjects of the experimentation.... The play is by no means strictly a juvenile performance.
And Rooney made a lifelong fan of Philip T. Hartung, beginning with Love Finds Andy Hardy (July 29, 1938):
Love Finds Andy Hardy is a touching and unpretentious little comedy that carries on in the films that series of stories about the Hardy family. If Mickey Rooney continues to improve with each picture as he has lately, there's no telling to what heights he'll rise. His understanding and sincere portrayal of the adolescent Andy make this picture good entertainment. The plot is slight and has to do with Andy's difficulties when he has two girls on his hands and he must take one to the Christmas dance. A subdued Judy Garland, as the little girl next door who helps Andy through his troubles, is at her best when she sings several new songs, "In-Between" and "Meet the Beat of My Heart."
Hartung was being kind when he said the plot was "slight." The Hardy movies (and their ilk) are slapdash affairs. The screenplay for Love Finds Andy Hardy tries on a few conflicts of various sizes, but few of them are enough to sustain a feature film, and most of them get dropped without any satisfying resolution. The young Judy Garland is both a major attraction ("I sing, you know," she says coyly) and, plotwise, an afterthought; though the DVD release features the tagline "Mickey's's in love and Judy's his girl!" the movie does not actually make good on that promise. And I've always had trouble understanding why I'm supposed to be rooting for Andy Hardy, who despite all of Rooney's brash charm is a narcissistic manipulator who deserves more of a comeuppance than he ever gets. But I digress.
A few months later (September 23, 1938), Hartung loved Spencer Tracy's performance in Boys Town but was less enthusiastic about the subplot that featured Rooney:
It is unfortunate that the plain facts of Father Flanagan's history had to be interspersed with an overly sentimental drama of one of the boys' regeneration. Mickey Rooney runs the gamut of emotions from the tough, poker-playing gangster kid, through the tear-choked, made-over youngster, to the final noble youth who becomes mayor of Boys Town. But don't let this little sob story prevent your seeing Boys Town.
Just a month after that (October 28, 1938) Hartung was damning yet another Rooney picture with faint praise:
If you're a race-track addict, if you like the Rooney brand of histrionics, if you can take view after view of sloppy Mr. [Wallace] Beery squashing his nose all over his face with his dirtier hand, then you'll enjoy Stablemates.
Two months later (December 23, 1938), Out West with the Hardys appeared in time for Christmas. Yes, if you're keeping score at home, that's two Andy Hardy movies in one year. No wonder the writing was raggedy. "The cast is the same as in the other Hardy pictures," Hartung says, "which are popular not so much for their formula plots as for their intimate scenes of family life and relationships, with the addition of little Virginia Weidler whose delightful tomboyishness puts swaggering Mickey Rooney in his place."
Let's take note: that's four starring roles in 1938 -- a pace of work that makes MGM seem like glorified summer stock. And that's only counting the ones that got reviewed in Commonweal (Hartung was nearly as indefatigable as Rooney). According to IMDB, Rooney made nine films that year.
Continuing on, Hartung had sincere praise for Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever's "fresh entertainment values and the genuinely wholesome, realistic family touches" (July 28, 1939). And that fall he was won over by the quintessential let's-put-on-a-show picture: "You'll forget yourself and your woes as you watch the peppy youngsters in Babes in Arms swing into action in this smartly-paced, big-hearted picture made from the Rodgers and Hart musical comedy" (Oct 27, 1939). His enjoyment of that film colored even his experience of Gone With the Wind, about which he wrote, "Clark Gable's Rhett Butler is a natural. (Although I was reminded too often of Mickey Rooney's impersonation of Gable.)"
Rooney and Hartung kept chugging through 1940, with Young Tom Edison and Andy Hardy Meets Debutante ("occasionally a little overacted by Mickey") -- oh, but watch for the scenes shot near Commonweal's current offices, before the Interchurch Center was built -- and Strike Up the Band ("Repeating a past success is a difficult thing.... Even expert-showman Mickey keeps repeating himself in his enthusiasm.") Hartung's admiration only grew over the years. Reviewing A Yank at Eton (October 2, 1942), he wrote, "Even with a flimsy script, that frequently degenerates into silly slapstick, Rooney manages to show that he is still a good actor."
One hopes that some press agent was clipping these reviews for Rooney, who may not have been a Commonweal reader (he was not, in fact, Irish, let alone Catholic), but who certainly would have appreciated the praise. Watching him perform at the peak of his stardom, I always have the impression that he could never get enough applause -- could never be satisfied that he had worked hard enough.
If you're looking to rent a movie in tribute this week, especially if you're going to watch with the kids, National Velvet might be the one. Hartung made a strong pitch for it in December 1944:
Mickey Rooney, without many of his mannerisms, turns in a performance that is outstanding for its restraint and simplicity.... Moviegoers looking for entertainment during this holiday season will have a hard time to find a more glowing account of humanity than is offered in National Velvet.
The flurry slows down after that, and eventually Rooney falls out of the Commonweal archives entirely (in large part because our reviewers stopped covering so many films). There are still glowing mentions from Hartung. In Drive a Crooked Road (May 14, 1954), "Mickey Rooney turns in another of those first-rate performances that have made him one of Hollywood's leading actors." In The Bold and the Brave (May 11, 1956), "Surrounded by a cast that is practically perfect, Mickey Rooney outdoes himself in another of his first-rate performances."
Hartung even granted Rooney absolution for his embarrassing turn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (October 20, 1961):
The film's only jarring note is turned in by Mickey Rooney as a Japanese photographer; the fault is not his, however, the role is a poorly-conceived caricature -- which the film's makers must have thought fit into this nest of screwball characters.
"Poorly conceived" is putting it very mildly.
Rooney never did slow down, in part because his expenses added up with every ill-considered purchase, hasty marriage, or divorce. The Times obituary, by Aljean Harmetz, put it this way:
Mr. Rooney’s personal life was as dynamic as his screen presence. He married eight times. He earned $12 million before he was 40 and spent more. Impulsive, recklessly extravagant, mercurial and addicted to playing the ponies and shooting craps, he attacked life as though it were a six-course dinner.
Maybe his nonstop work -- throwing everything he had into every role that came his way -- was his attempt to keep up with his expensive lifestyle. Or maybe it was the other way around: He lived for the next job, because working was all he really knew how to do.
That's how it seems to me, anyway. And with that in mind, this line from Hartung's review of a mostly forgotten film from 1950 has a poignant ring to it:
In Quicksand, Mickey Rooney plays a young man who sinks deeper and deeper into thievery. Mickey seldom gives a bad performance, and this film stands up with his best.... You even feel sorry for Mickey when he breathlessly asks, "Am I going to have to keep running all my life?"
Rest in peace, Mickey.
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.