Mickey Rooney: A good thing in a small package

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 8, 2014

SALISBURY — Explosives often are contained in small packages.
Such was certainly the case when Brooklyn’s Ninian Joseph Yule Jr. was born way back in 1920. That name may not ring a bell, but his other name probably will: Mickey Rooney.
He was a 5-foot, 3-inch package of TNT which could explode into acting, singing and dancing on the simple command of “action.”
The world lost the man Mickey Rooney this week. He lived 93 years. What he crammed into those years completely boggles my mind. He worked more years than most people live. At the time of his passing, he was involved in a new film version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” working with his long-time friend Margaret O’Brien.
But his career in show business began nine decades ago as a part of his parents’ vaudeville routine. He was not yet 2 years old.
His first appearance on film was in 1926 — that’s right, 1926. It was a short comedy titled, “Not To Be Trusted.”
The following year, he had his own comedy film series, a knock-off of the popular “Our Gang” comedies, playing a mischievous youngster named Mickey McGuire. The movies had not yet begun to talk.
It was a successful series, not as big as Our Gang, but big enough that Rooney as Mickey McGuire appeared in over 60 short comedies, making the transition from silent-to-talking films. During this same period, the former Joe Yule Jr. also provided the voice as theatrical cartoon character Oswald Rabbit.
Rooney landed a small, uncredited role in the 1932 MGM crime drama “The Beast of the City,” featuring blonde bombshell Jean Harlow. Such irony that a few years later, he would return to the same studio, sign a long-term contract and eventually become the biggest movie studio’s biggest star.
The Mick played Clark Gable’s character as a child in 1934’s “Manhattan Melodrama.” John Dillinger was gunned down immediately after seeing the gangster film in a Chicago theater. Mick and Gable would cross paths quite a lot very soon.
The seasoned 15-year-old veteran inked a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1935. Only military service would interrupt his career there for nearly 15 years.
Stellar juvenile performances in such jewels as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Ah, Wilderness!” were quickly followed by a 1937 smaller budget film called “A Family Affair,” in which Rooney played a teenager named Andy Hardy. Intended as a one-shot-and-done little movie, this rose blossomed into the Andy Hardy series of 15 huge money-making attractions.
Theatergoers didn’t care what the title was, just as long as it was an Andy Hardy picture.
“Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry” was the first movie in which MGM paired Mickey with another of their juvenile contract players, Frances Gumm. The world remembers her as Judy Garland.
“We weren’t just a team, we were magic,” Rooney once said.
Perhaps a bit immodest, but 100 percent correct. Mickey and Judy’s series of “backyard” musicals (“Babes in Arms,” “Strike Up the Band,” “Babes on Broadway” and “Girl Crazy”) jammed movie theaters all over the world.
In addition to making the films, the couple ere often sent on the road by the studio to accompany the movies in the larger city theaters. With five live shows a day in between the film showings. MGM worked them like mules. It took its toll on Judy, but Mickey loved it.
“I never tired of hearing applause,” he said.
There were, however, times later on for Mick in which there was little applause. The movie industry went through big changes. The disappearance of the long-term studio contract found Rooney (and many others) outside the gate by the late 1940s.
What movie roles he was able to acquire for a time were nothing like those at MGM, but he continued working as much as he could. Just like everyone else, there were bills to pay.
Rooney embraced the new concept of television, taking jobs for the small screen whenever possible. He even landed his own series, “The Mickey Rooney Show,” in 1954, but it lasted only a season. He persevered, and between television, movies and live appearances, kept his career on the move.
Just when folks wrote off the name Mickey Rooney as finished, he caught fire in projects. One-shot appearances on TV’s “Playhouse 90,” “Alcoa Theatre” and “Producers’ Showcase” brought him acclaim as well as paychecks.
The 1960s were kinder to Mickey with lots of guest appearances in such shows as “Wagon Train,” “Twilight Zone,” “Combat,” “Naked City” and “Burke’s Law.” Toss in movies such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” and his career was again steady.
His impressive performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 feature “The Black Stallion” earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Rooney finally made his Broadway debut that same year in the musical “Sugar Babies,” co-starring his longtime friend, singer and dancer Ann Miller. The play was a gold mine. It ran for three years. Rooney and Miller also toured with the show across North America.
In 1984-1985, Rooney and Miller did a second road tour. Time magazine wrote of Rooney’s performance: “Rarely has so much energy been packed into so small a package. He dances, he sings, he mugs, he dresses in drag. What a performer.”
Keep in mind that in 1984, the Mick was 64.
Rooney’s personal life has, through the years, garnered almost as much press as his stellar career. Not all of it good. There were seven divorces (his first wife being North Carolina’s own Ava Gardner). He was separated from his eighth wife at the time of his passing.
Three years ago, Rooney filed abuse and fraud charges against his stepson, obtaining a restraining order. The aged and ailing actor also appeared before the U.S. Senate and told his story of elder abuse in an effort to live out a peaceful life.
Mickey Rooney’s life was a long road, with its share of bumps along the way. But what a ride he had. Never losing his sense of humor, he often quipped that his marriage license read “To whom it may concern.”
The late movie director Billy Wilder often told the story illustrating how important Rooney was to MGM (and the movie industry). Wilder witnessed Rooney’s boss, studio chief Louis B. Mayer — who was unhappy with Mickey’s off-screen antics — grab the teen by the lapels and yell, “You’re Andy Hardy! You’re America!”
During an interview with author Gore Vidal, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne stated that when Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn were each asked who was the best actor in Hollywood during the vintage years, both immediately named Mickey Rooney. Vidal answered that he couldn’t disagree.
TCM will, no doubt very soon, devote a full day of its programming to the career of Mickey Rooney. Try to catch some of it. I promise that when you turn off the television, you’ll say you wished you had that kid’s energy.
Rooney was nominated four times for an Oscar but never won. The Motion Picture Academy made up for it when it presented him a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1983.
When learning of Rooney’s death, comic Billy Crystal said of Mickey Rooney, “Five feet tall, and everybody looked up to him.”
The actor Mickey Rooney was the movie box office champion in the United States for about five consecutive years, and in Hollywood’s eye, that’s where it counts the most — the number of tickets one sells.
It’s interesting that one of Rooney’s box office champ predecessors was fellow moppet Shirley Temple, who died Feb. 10. Losing both of these “giants” within two months hurts.
For an old movie guy like I am, it hurts a lot.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents every movie played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1989.