A Smile for Mickey Rooney

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Mickey Rooney

“And if you stamp on Mickey Rooney
He would still turn around and smile…”
— from “Celluloid Heroes” by Ray Davies

Mickey Rooney was a genuine Hollywood legend, but before hearing of his death yesterday, I can’t remember the last time I thought of him. He wasn’t exactly a box office draw in my lifetime. My introduction to him came while I was in college, in the days before cable TV, some stations would run movies overnight on Saturdays, between, say 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. They might be mystery, horror, or science fiction marathons, or they might be some other genre.

Often these stations ran Hollywood musicals. One night might be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers night; another might belong to Gene Kelly.

One Saturday night I got drawn into MGM backyard musicals and stayed up until dawn. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland owned that subgenre. “Let’s put on a show!” was the tagline for every last one of them. Mickey would be the mover and shaker, while Judy Garland was the girl next door who carried a torch for him. Mickey was easily distracted, and would break poor Judy’s heart multiple times before finally realizing she was the only girl for him. This usually happened right before (or after) the fabulous success of their DIY show, which they never expected would come off properly.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: The Blues Brothers owed a lot to those MGM backyard musicals. Other than the musical style, the main difference for me was that the women were not treated as kindly in The Blues Brothers.

But to return to Mickey Rooney: if they personified the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, he would have been a shoe-in to play the part. He went through money, drugs, alcohol, and wives (eight!) like few other people, even in Hollywood. He had an amazingly varied career. People didn’t often take him seriously, but he had serious chops. Both Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn, when asked who the best actor in Hollywood was, named Mickey Rooney. Tennessee Williams is reported to have said Mickey Rooney was “the only great actor in the United States. He can do anything.”  It’s a compelling argument: Rooney had a varied career, playing roles as diverse as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Army in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)  and Bill Sackter in Bill (1981).

He did his job, making MGM piles of money in the 30s, but he showed himself capable of much more. He continued to act after WWII, but his youthful, unsubtle energy had gone out of style. People didn’t remember (or didn’t care about) some of his excellent dramatic work. There was a long period of his life when he would do almost anything to keep body and soul together. Supposedly for $500 you could get him to go to private parties and pretend he was best friends with the host.

Finally, with the help of his last wife Jan, he reinvented himself in 1979 by appearing on Broadway in Sugar Babies and reminding people that there was a reason he was considered legendary. His life wasn’t always easy, even after this late vindication. But no one deserved a comeback more than he did.

Today’s my day to “turn around and smile” for Mickey Rooney.

Public domain photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
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