Mickey Rooney The Last of the Great Song and Dance MenWritten by Dennis Munday
© Words Dennis Munday. Ronchi Dei Legionari, Gorizia, Italy
When the ‘pint’ sized Mickey Rooney died on April 6, 2014, it was truly the end of an era. Rooney was born Joe Yule Jr. on September 23, 1920, the son of vaudeville performers Joe Yule and Nell Carter. He first appeared on stage as part of the family act, at the age of 17 months, playing a mouth organ. They were divorced when Rooney was seven, and when his parents separated in 1924, his mother took
him off to Hollywood.
Rooney made his film debut at the age of five, as a dwarf pretending to be a child in a short film called Not to Be Trusted (1926). In his first feature, Orchids and Ermine (1927), he played another dwarf, who makes a pass at Colleen Moore. His screen career took off, when his mother got him a job with cartoonist Fontaine Fox, who was looking for a child to impersonate his comic strip character Mickey McGuire. Between 1926 and 1932, Rooney appeared in some 80 episodes, and was so closely identified with the part that his mother wanted him to adopt the name Mickey McGuire professionally. However, Fox refused and his Mother suggested Mickey Looney, but he subtly changed the surname to Rooney instead.
Rooney obtained bit parts in films, and was working with established film stars such as Joel McCrea, Colleen Moore, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Jean Harlow. He sold newspapers, and entered into Hollywood Professional School, where he went to school with other students such as Judy Garland and Lana Turner, and later Hollywood High School, where he eventually graduated.
In 1934, Rooney worked for MGM studios, and the producer David O Selznick (Gone With The Wind), picked Rooney to play Clark Gable’s character as a boy, in the film Manhattan Melodrama. Rooney was contracted to MGM studios, where they guaranteed him 40 weeks’ work a year, but reserved the right to loan him out to other studios. This resulted with Rooney working for Warner Brothers in Max Reinhardt’s 1935, all-star production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Rooney, although only 15 played the mischievous Puck, which was master stroke of casting, as his impish personality was perfect for the part.
Rooney’s big break came in 1937 when he first played Andy Hardy, in A Family Affair. This film was originally seen as filler, but was unexpectedly a big hit, and a follow up was demanded. In all, 16 episodes were filmed over next 10 years, as well as a return to the part in 1958, Andy Hardy Comes Home, which was not as successful. Rooney’s success in the Andy Hardy films was good for his image, but not his ego, which by now had became swollen. Whilst playing the wholesome all-American boy Andy Hardy on screen, off the screen, Rooney was chasing girls, and seen at nightclubs, which MGM studio boss Louis B Mayer objected to strenuously. On one occasion, he grabbed Rooney by the lapels and screamed at him; “I don’t care what you do off camera,” he told Rooney, “just don’t do it in public. In public, behave. Your fans expect it. You’re Andy Hardy. You’re the United States. You’re the Stars and Stripes. Behave yourself. You’re a symbol.” Rooney was the only actor on record to have come to blows with Louis B Mayer.
In 1939, it wasn’t Clark Gable, Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power that was America’s No 1 box-office star. It was the multi-talented teenaged Mickey Rooney, who was earning more than $300,000 annually. In the same year, he and Deanna Durbin were awarded a special Oscar for their spirit and personification of youth and, in keeping with their stature, the awards were ‘pint’ size.
Rooney also starred alongside, another great Hollywood child star, Judy Garland, who he became very close friends with. They starred in the Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), and the musicals; Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1942), and several of the Andy Hardy series. This was a dream team, as they could act, as well sing and dance, and were perfect foil for each other. The duo went on to become one of the most popular teams in movies. Rooney also played opposite Spencer Tracy’s priest, as a juvenile delinquent in Boys’ Town (1938), and its 1941 sequel Men of Boys’ Town. He took the lead in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939, and Rooney was the star of Pandro S. Berman’s National Velvet, which was released in December 1944, and featured, and made a star of Elizabeth Taylor at the age of 12.
During 1944, Rooney enlisted in the United States Army, until shortly after the end of WW2. During, and after the war, he helped entertain the troops in America and Europe, and was one of the many radio personalities on the American Forces Network. Rooney was awarded the Bronze Star for entertaining troops in combat zones, as well as WW2 Victory medal for his military service. Throughout his life, Rooney was an outspoken advocate for veterans and senior rights.
.With war over he continued his film career but was unable to capture his pre-war popularity. The musical Summer Holiday (1948) was a dismal failure, and the critics had nothing good to say about the biopic Words and Music (1948). This was Rooney’s last film with Judy Garland, where they perform a barnstorming version of ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again’. He played the lyricist Lorenz ‘Larry’ Hart, who partnered Richard Rodgers, though the script ignored Hart’s latent homosexuality, portraying him as a red-blooded American male, as well as taking liberties with the story.
For the rest of his career there were many other films that were equally as bad, but there were the occasional high points. Baby Face Nelson (1957), in which he was cast against type as a Tommy-gun wielding gangster. Rooney received an Oscar nomination in 1957 for his performance as a soldier in The Bold And The Brave, which gave his career a slight lift.
Rooney continued to work hard, the mark of a professional, and appeared in a number of films in the 60’s. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), he was the caricatured Japanese neighbour, and a boxing trainer in Requiem For A Heavyweight (1962), with Anthony Quinn. He played another gangster, opposite Michael Caine in Pulp (1972), and appeared in The Black Stallion (1979), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, for his supporting role as a horse trainer, which he did not win. He also became a recognised character actor on TV, appearing in many shows like Wagon Train, Burkes Law, Kung-Fu, The Fugitive, The Investigators and The Twilight Zone.
In 1979, Rooney enjoyed a big stage hit opposite the dancer Ann Miller, with a nostalgic tribute to vaudeville, called Sugar Babies. It ran for five years on and off Broadway but failed to translate successfully to London. Rooney won a Golden Globe award for his portrayal of a man with learning disabilities coping with life outside an institution in Bill (1981), opposite Dennis Quaid. After appearing in several hundred films, in 1983 he was awarded his second Oscar, for his lifetime achievements in the film industry.
Rooney published two volumes of (unreliable) autobiographies, where in the second, Life Is Too Short (1992), he wrote very unfavourably about former movie queens, Norma Shearer, Betty Grable and others. He also claimed that Walt Disney named his mouse after him, and that Al Capone cried every time he heard him singing Pal o’ My Cradle Days at a club in Chicago.
During the autumn of his career Rooney commenced an association with Rainbow Puppet Productions, with his eighth wife Jan Chamberlin (a C&W singer), providing voices for some of the company’s films. Rooney made his debut in British pantomime in 2007, as Baron Hardup in Cinderella at the Sunderland Empire, a role he reprised over the next two years at Bristol and Milton Keynes. In 2011, Rooney appeared in an episode of Celebrity Ghost Stories, as well as a role in The Muppets.
He co-starred in Night At The Museum in 2006 with Dick Van Dyke, and Ben Stiller, as well as a cameo with Van Dyke for the 2009 sequel, Night At The Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. In 2014, Rooney returned to reprise his role as Gus in Night At The Museum 3, and it is not known whether he completed his scenes before his death, or how it will affect the film's production.
Rooney is probably as well remembered for his eight marriages, the first was to Ava Gardner, who when they broke up, famously stated. “You know, Mick, I’m goddamned tired of living with a midget.” Gardner was 5ft 6in, while Rooney was said to be 5ft 2in. His other seven marriages all ended in divorce, or separation.
There is no doubt that becoming a star at such an early age, and earning $300 000 dollars went to his head. After all, there can’t be that many teenagers, earning that kind of money in the 21st century, never mind in 1939. At the height of his popularity, he was worth around $12 million, which he unfortunately lost, mostly on divorce settlements, alimony payments, bankruptcy, un-paid taxes and get-rich schemes. These are the reasons he made so many (bad) films during the latter part of his career. However, for all of the ups and downs Rooney suffered, like the great performer he was, he always picked himself up, and started over again
When his star waned, he turned to drink and drugs, and was for some time an alcoholic. His redemption evidently came whilst dining in a Los Angeles restaurant, and a heavenly messenger with bright golden hair appeared, saying; “God loves you.” From that moment on, Mickey Rooney became a born-again Christian and mended his ways, though no other diner saw the angel.
Mickey Rooney was living proof that if you had real talent, being ‘pint’ sized wasn’t a handicap, as it wasn’t for Alan Ladd, or Danny DeVito. In a career that spanned nearly nine decades, Rooney made a huge mark on the motion picture industry, and unlike most modern ‘stars’, Rooney had character and could act. The so called ‘stars’ of today earn big ‘bucks’ for playing themselves in the films they make, and their idea of character, is to grow a beard, or change their hairstyle. When Mickey Rooney commenced his long career, it didn’t matter how good looking you were; if you didn’t have talent, you ended in ‘B’ movies.
Mickey Rooney was an immensely talented actor, singer, dancer and comic, who not only helped to shape Hollywood, but American society as well.
Mickey Rooney (Joseph Yule Jr.) Brooklyn, New York, 23 September 1920 - North Hollywood, LA, 6 April 2014