Like most Turner Classic Movies junkies, I am a Mickey Rooney fan. While admittedly slow in coming, I arrived in this happy place a few years back after sitting through a TCM marathon of Andy Hardy flicks. About Rooney: I am awed by the length of his career (1927 to 2011!), his prominence (No. 1 box-office draw in the late ’30s and early ’40s), his highs (Oscars) and lows (bankruptcy), and his acting abilities (from excellent to thickly sliced ham). And his importance to America.
Not because he married half of its available women. But if movies are America’s great cultural voice and product — if movies are the way generations of people from Bangor to Bozeman, from Sydney to Timbuktu, have learned, for better or worse, what America is — then Mickey Rooney’s iconic, ten-decade-spanning career has had a very broad impact on many, many millions.
Surely he represents to most a time when America had, or wished it had, Hardy-esque families that were marinated in goofiness, innocence, aw-shucks, jalopies, dances, old-maid aunts, and girl-crazy teens thrilled to steal a kiss from Polly or Betsy. Was it really like that? I hope so, because in those Hardy movies Rooney and the great Lewis Stone (with some help from Judy Garland) captured or created, or a little of both, the sense that America was a place where folks were honest, responsible, hard-working, hopeful, happy, and respectful. And fun and wise-acrey.
It’s an understatement to say Rooney, who pratfalled with the best, could be “overboard” in his acting, a view compounded by his now-notorious role as the “clazy” buck-toothed Japanese neighbor Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But he was a fine actor. The Hardy movies, in which he shined, are wholesome and instructive stories, still to be seen and enjoyed if only to escape from a culture of erection pills and rap rape tunes and twerking. Even when Rooney played a street tough with a bad attitude — as in 1938’s Boys Town, alongside Best Actor Oscar winner Spencer Tracy — you knew one good cry would reveal him as a delinquent with a heart of gold.
But Rooney’s best performances came as a conscientious trainer in Requiem for a Heavyweight, an excellent film (co-starring Anthony Quinn and Jackie Gleason) about the seamy side of boxing, and the at-times exquisite 1943 drama The Human Comedy, in which Rooney plays a “home front” teen trying to keep his family together while the men are off to war. He received one of his four acting Oscar nominations for that role. He’s also pretty darned good in the Korean War movie The Bridges at Toko-Ri. And come to think of it, as Ding Bell in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Babes in Arms has aged (a lot!), and can make Leave It to Beaver seem like Mad Max, but its watchability is overshadowed by its being the quintessential Rooney-Garland team-up. When her movie career gave way in the Sixties to the standard TV revue show, she reunited with her pal for a down-memory-lane performance that shows the showman in both. It’s hokey but worth watching.
To some, Rooney will be remembered as the guy who bested the Man from St. Ives by one wife. But he should be remembered as a hard-working and talented man who played a central and enduring role in America’s most prominent cultural product. Rest in Peace, Mickey, and thanks for all the fun.
— Jack Fowler is the publisher of National Review.