Oscar History

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Mickey Rooney (RIP)

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).

Mickey Rooney as Baby Face Nelson (with Carolyn Jones, later Morticia Addams)Key Films
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

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Reader Comments (15)

Even though he was anti-gay and intolerant of homosexuality, i still pay my respects to him.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRebel Heart

Also, initial inspiration for Archie Andrews.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Rebel Heart: I did not know about that,
That pic of child stars with watermelons just looks too gay for me

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

shirley temple, mickey rooney; rule of three suggests margaret o'brien is getting awfully nervous right about now

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

There are some amazing stories about the Ava Gardner marriage in the bio Lee Server wrote abut her.

Holy black face in that clip though! Yikes...

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I loved Pete's Dragon when I was a kid. I remember watching it and mom telling me about him and Dorothy being child stars together. He was also great in The Last Samurai.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTy

That picture with Freddie and Jackie is certainly cute. Were Mickey and Clark Gable the only stars of the 30s who went shirtless in almost every film they made? No wonder that they were the biggest box office draws of their time.
But remembering him for Babes In Arms strikes me as not all too flattering. No matter how lovable his performance in that film is, his Oscar nomination spoiled the otherwise fantastic Best Actor lineup of 1939. I prefer to remember Mickey Rooney for The Human Comedy even though that film's sentimentality almost kills me. In any case, I doubt that he's ever actually seen 5'2'' in his life.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Par-eek! Though good point on O'Brien, though she's not the oldest living winner of the Juvenile Oscar. Claude Jarman Jr. is still alive and turns 80 in September, followed by the 77-year-old O'Brien, the 69-year-old Jon Whiteley, and finally the 67-year-old Hayley Mills. Only four left, and three have died in the past year!

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

He was almost always too "on" and overweening for me but you have to respect a ninety year career. No matter how many highs and lows he endured, and there were many, he kept plugging along.

He was also the inspiration for Mickey Mouse's name. He told the story of being on a lunch break as a youngster and meeting Walt Disney who was doing some sketches of what was being called Mortimer Mouse at the time. He asked Mickey what he thought of them and apparently when he said something along the line of "Mickey, do you like the mouse?" inspiration struck.

Everybody seems to have forgotten Jane Withers-88, who beside being Josephine the Plumber, was a successful child star in the 30's. There are also two child stars from the silent era still around-Diana Serra Cary aka Baby Peggy a huge child star in her day who's still going strong at 95. Also Jean Darling who was one of the original Our Gang who is 91.

On a separate note, Mary Anderson one of the last three survivors of the credited cast of Gone With the Wind passed away the other day at 96. That only leaves Mickey Kuhn who played Beau Wilkes and of course Olivia de Havilland.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

What can I say? I never miss a chance to watch a Judy & Mickey movie when it comes up on TV. Sure, it's mostly Judy but Mickey was delightful in all of those movies as well. Mickey should be very, very grateful that an incredible talent who happened to be only 4'11" came along just when he needed it. :-)

Ava and Mickey isn't too surprising in that if you were the biggest star in the world, wouldn't you choose a 19 year old Ava Gardner too?

I don't really like Breakfast At Tiffany's (sacrilege around here?), but I remember thinking that I had to watch it as though Mickey was a deranged white guy who thought he was Japanese. It was the only way to get through that part.

And a homophobic Republican from that era? Eh, reminds me of all my relatives.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

There are some amazing stories about the Ava Gardner marriage in the bio Lee Server wrote abut her.

I have to second this. Finished it a few weeks ago, such a great bio. The story of their courtship is fascinating.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

"I don't really like Breakfast At Tiffany's (sacrilege around here?), but I remember thinking that I had to watch it as though Mickey was a deranged white guy who thought he was Japanese. It was the only way to get through that part."

Dave In Alamitos Beach - he actively ruins the film for me, so I will definitely rewatch and adopt your suggested tactic! You may have saved Breakfast At Tiffany's for me...

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkermit_the_frog

Dave and Kermit: Yes, his scenes are AWFUL, but the entire rest of it was too good for me to stop, though it did drop my final grade QUITE A BIT. (As I imagine it drops pretty much everyone's considerations of the film at least a little these days.)

Edited out: Would be an A, flat-out wonderful and soulful otherwise.
As is: B+.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I also remember Rooney being one of the stars of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. We recently lost Sid Caesar and now, with Rooney's passing, I believe that's the last of the film's main cast of stars. .

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick T

My nearly 4-year-old niece is obsessed with Pete's Dragon. So am I. Mickey will always be immortalized in my memory as the tipsy lighthouse owner polishing the glass with his ass. Good times. The film's theme song "Candle On the Water" is a fitting elegy.

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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