I came to the news of Mickey Rooney's passing late due to my offline vacation but it wouldn't be right to not mention it here at the musicals-loving The Film Experience. My first exposure to Mickey Rooney, as far as I remember, was Babes in Arms (1939) for which he was Oscar nominated at 19. I think my parents took us to see it at an awesome revival house in Detroit. Tweens and teenagers, who always fear being uncool, aren't supposed to love old black and white movies made many decades before they were born but cinephiles and/or musical-fanatics are a different breed and I had no shame whatsoever about seeking them out. [More...]
I did not realize at the time that, though, that it was the crucial movie in establishing the boundlessly enthusiastic tone and budget-ignoring fantasies of the 'let's put on a show!' subgenre. Influential it was, and not just for the genre but for me. At that point in my life I'd only ever seen Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz so this movie screening was crucial in transforming me from a regular Friend of Dorothy into a Super-Fan of Garland.
But we're here to talk about Mickey Rooney, her frequent co-star. Around the same time in my life I also saw a couple of Andy Hardy pictures and they did have great chemistry together. My only distinct memories of Babes in Arms, though, which I have not seen as an adult, are two: Judy singing "Where or When" and that blackface number (yikes). That number, combined with Rooney's unfortunate Asian caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) did a lot to mark him as "of the past" in my mind. All Old Hollywood stars are of the past, of course, but some read that way whereas others transcend and become timeless. Fair or not, racial insensitivity being fairly easy to come by in Old Hollywood, that's how it shook out. At least for me.
child stars were big in the 30s here's Rooney with Freddie Bartholomey & Jackie Cooper
Mickey & Judy in '36 - their first film together Thoroughbreds Don't Cry was released in '37
I always forget that he was once married to Ava Gardner. An odd couple, yes?
Still, you have to admire his accomplishments. In addition to being the biggest box office draw at his peak in the late 30s and early 40s, his Oscar record is also unthinkable today. Though he was not the youngest actor ever nominated for a leading Oscar (that'd be Jackie Cooper, the only child actor ever nominated in the category for Skippy), he was the youngest to two lead nominations, accomplishing that incredible feat by the age of 23. How rare is that exactly? Well it basically just does not happen for men before their 30s. The two who came closest to Rooney's early-bird Oscar love were none other than James Dean (who would have been 26 on his second nomination) and Marlon Brando (who was 28 by the time of his second nomination).
So here's to longevity and endurance and I'm not talking about living until you're 93. I'm talking about a life devoted to entertaining. The best thing that can be said about Mickey Rooney, despite that 'of the past' feel, is surely that he did not belong to only one era. For such a short star (5'2") his career had the longest of legs stretching from vaudeville and the silents all the way until the now. He even made movies in the 21st century -- you may remember he did a cameo in The Muppets (2011) and according to IMDb at least (though they're not always accurate with movies in production), he's got one posthumous role coming in the millionth adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (2014).
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Babes in Arms (1939, Oscar nomination), The Human Comedy (1943, Oscar nomination), National Velvet (1944), Quicksand (1950, the first of Mickey's noir films), The Bold and the Brave (1956, Oscar nomination), Baby Faced Nelson (1957), The Black Stallion (1979, Oscar nomination)
Recommended Related Reading
Alt Film Guide: Oldest Surviving Best Actor Nominees
New York Times Obituary by Aljean Harmetz
Mickey Rooney: Girl Crazy by Dan Callahan
Mickey Rooney's Will & Family Trouble