MICKEY ROONEY, 1920-2014

by Max Sparber in

There have been a few moments when the 20th century crashed to an end, always with a death. Frank Sinatra passed away in 1998, and with him, America’s first great era of popular standards lost one of its most defining voices.

Johnny Carson died in 2005. The time when a single evening talk show host could dominate the American airwaves, and the American dialogue, had already passed with the first late night wars in 1992, but Carson’s death put stamp of finality on it.

And, lest it seem like only old white men might make this list, Katherine Hepburn died in 2003, although it doesn’t feel like an era ended with her, but instead that she inspired a new one. Her strange mix of sophistication, toughness, and occasional lunacy still feels very contemporary, while Sinatra’s music feels vintage and Carson’s interstitial comedy routines feel dated.

The likes of Mickey Rooney, however, will never be seen again. Let’s face it – even in his own time, he was an odd duck. Although he was one of the last living performers who started in the silent era, he was a child at that time period, and his real rise to stardom came in the late 30s and early 40s with the Andy Hardy films, in which he played an American everyteen.

Nowadays, the idea of having Rooney play an ordinary kid seems like a wild piece of miscasting. Despite the fact that Rooney actually was a teen when he started making the films, and had a sort of fresh-scrubbed boyishness that he never really lost, Rooney’s origins were in vaudeville. Rooney didn’t act so much as he gloriously overacted, belting everything to the back row, and it’s no wonder that the series paired him with a fellow child vaudevillian as a romantic interest: Judy Garland, with whom he developed an intense friendship.

If people remember these films, they remember a sort of generalized storyline in which there is some sort of a crisis and then Mickey and Judy decide the best way to solve it is to put on a show. This actually is the plot of “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” and it’s no wonder it became iconic – Rooney and Garland always seemed primed to put on a show; in fact, they seemed like they were already rehearsing it. There’s a reason the two performers were so frequently used in musicals – it’s because they just sort of seemed like they were ready to burst out with a song and dance number at every waking moment.

Rooney played his share of tough kids, and that seemed a better match for his talents, as street urchins were already treated as exaggerated characters by Hollywood. (Just look at the transformation of the Dead End Kids, who starred in a series of naturalistic crime melodramas, into the Bowery Boys, who starred in broad comedies.) Just prior to doing the Andy Hardy films, Rooney had a supporting role in the first sound adaptation of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” playing a Brooklyn bootblack, which he does with a newsboy accent, a boxer’s swagger, and a penchant for crying out things like “Cheese it!” The same year, he played a proto-juvenile delinquent named Shockey Carter in “Hoosier Schoolboy," who spends the entire film with his hands balled up into fists, ready to punch the next person who looks at him cockeyed.

And so we end up with “Boys Town,” made the same year as “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” in which Rooney plays the toughest kid ever to bedevil Father Edward J. Flanagan at his Omaha home for wayward boys. The film does a perfectly adequate version of retelling the story of Flanagan, although the Irish priest is played by Irish-American actor Spencer Tracy without a whiff of an accent. Flanagan had worked for years with the chronically indigent in Omaha, and had come to the conclusion that if you reach out to a man when he is already broken by circumstance, you are already late. And so Flanagan set out to find at-risk boys, who he refused to believe were bad. The film sends him Mickey Rooney to test his theory.

It’s interesting to parallel the performances of Tracy and Rooney in this film. Tracy was an ex-military man, a trained public speaker, and his first acting experiences were in stock theater and then Broadway, where he started to develop a wry, laconic, understated persona that he would mine throughout his Hollywood career. Rooney, in the meanwhile, was a dervish, with a genuine mastery for broad comedy and a taste for burbling sentiment. Tracy plays Flanagan as subdued, even-tempered, and thoughtful. Rooney plays his character, Whitey Marsh, as a sort of burlesque of juvenile misbehavior, including a scene in which he marches around the Boys Town grounds followed by a literal brass band, and when things go bad for him, he explodes into terrifying hysterics.

As a result, Tracy and Rooney not only seem to be in a different movie; they seem to be in a different universe. It shouldn’t work, but, given the setup of the film, it does. Rooney isn’t just some bad boy that challenges Tracy’s long-suffering priest. He’s like some space alien, or some occult force; he's a human dynamo of roiling emotions and theatrical misbehavior. If Andy Hardy can fix anything by putting on a show, Whitey Marsh is equally capable of creating a show, and his bring chaos.

It’s this tension between Tracy and Rooney that elevates the film beyond the melodramatic morality tale it might have been. With Rooney’s presence, it becomes almost cosmic. Without Tracy to ground him, there’s no telling how big Rooney’s performance might have gotten. It’s not just that Whitey Marsh needs Boys Town – the world needs Boys Town. Rooney is already devouring the scenery. Without  Boys Town, he genuinely seems capable of eating the world.

By contemporary standards, Rooney’s performance style seems unfathomably showy, mostly because the conventions of silent film and vaudeville are so far in the past. As a result, it’s sometimes cringe-inducing to see him in films, with the most notorious example being the lecherous, buck-toothed Japanese caricature he played in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which, even when the film was released, was the subject of protest. (Rooney admitted that he, too, eventually cringed at the performance.) Rooney was genuinely a terrific performer – one need merely look at his unshowy later roles in “Bill” and “The Black Stallion” for examples of this. But, left to his own devices, he was going to go big, and for someone as diminutive as Mickey Rooney (he was 5’2”), nobody went bigger.

And that’s just who he was. I have a friend who essentially babysat Mickey Rooney and Donald O’Connor – another former child actor capable of massive performances. This was about 15 years ago, and both men were quite aged at the time. I asked my friend how it was to spend a day with these two performers.

“Exhausting,” he said.

And so here we are. Mickey Rooney has died, and it is like hearing that a nuclear power plant that ran a continent has been decommissioned. Rooney represented the spectacle of Hollywood’s golden age – heck, he didn’t just represent it, he internalized it. Left alone in a room, Mickey Rooney was a Technicolor musical with a cast of thousands.

That’s gone now. I expect to look over the horizon at Hollywood and see its lights blinking out, and discover it was lit for a century by sticking a plug into Mickey Rooney.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.