Happy Birthday, Mr. Rooney!
Quick – think of your favorite film noir actor.
Who comes to mind?
What about Mickey Rooney?
Perhaps you only picture Mickey Rooney as the singing, dancing, hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show fella from numerous MGM musicals. Or the aw-shucks son in the popular Andy Hardy films. Or the lad who could jerk your tears right off your face in movies like Boys Town (1938) and The Human Comedy (1943).
But Rooney, who turns 92 on September 23, 2012, also made his mark on the dark side of the silver screen – in four features from the film noir era, he demonstrated that he was more than just a good-natured warbler with boundless energy and a talent for tugging on heartstrings. In celebration of Rooney’s birthday, it’s my privilege to take a look at the actor’s contributions to the film noir era in Quicksand (1950), The Strip (1951), Drive a Crooked Road (1954), and Baby Face Nelson (1957).
In Rooney’s noir debut, he starred as Don Brady, a womanizing auto mechanic whose outlook toward the female sex is revealed in an early scene when he tells his pals (one of whom is Jimmy Dodd, of The Mickey Mouse Club fame) that he has dumped his girlfriend: “I spent four years in the Navy fighting for freedom,” he says. “Why get anchored down now?” Before long, Don is putting the moves on a sexy blonde cashier, Vera Novak (played by Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney’s little sister), and finds himself mired in a series of misdeeds that nearly lead to his complete destruction, beginning with his relatively harmless “borrowing” of $20 from the cash register at work. Most of the 79-minute film is pure noir, filled with tension and a pervading sense of dread – but, unfortunately, it takes a wildly implausible turn near the end and peters out to an unsatisfying conclusion. Rooney himself wrote in his autobiography, Life is Too Short, “The less said about Quicksand the better, except to note that it was aptly titled. It sank.” Rooney earned praise from critics, however, with one applauding his “straightforward, mug-less performance” and another writing that he “portrays the hard-luck mechanic in convincingly somber tones without one having the chance for any comic capers.”
The following year, Rooney returned to the realm of noir, this time portraying jazz drummer Stanley Maxton. At his new nightclub job, Stanley falls for aspiring actress Jane Tafford (Sally Forrest), not knowing that she is only encouraging his affections because one of his associates, Sonny Johnson (James Craig), has “connections” to the film industry. But Sonny turns out to be a cold-blooded racketeer, and Stanley gets more than he bargained for when he tries to protect Jane from his clutches. The Strip was only a minor success at the box-office, and critics weren’t very impressed, but Rooney did receive mention in a number of reviews for his prowess on the drums; Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times said the actor “really knocks himself out at the traps . . . holding his own even among such fast company.” (Incidentally, Rooney’s “company” included singer Louis Armstrong, who introduced me to a song that I fell in love with – “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” I was so touched by the tune, in fact, that I played my videotape over and over until I learned every word!)
Drive a Crooked Road
The best of Rooney’s four noirs is, in my opinion, Drive a Crooked Road, where he again plays a mechanic – this time, as Eddie Shannon, he portrays a lonely man characterized by his talent behind the wheel as a race car driver and his reticence toward the opposite sex. He manages to break out of his shell when – to his surprise – he attracts the attentions of a gorgeous woman, Barbara Mathews (Dianne Foster), who takes her car to him for repair. Eddie is soon head-over-heels for Babs, and when he shares with her his dreams of racing in Europe, she introduces him to a friend, Steven Norris (Kevin McCarthy), who offers to help Eddie raise the money needed to enter the race. Eddie soon learns, however, that the offer comes with strings attached – in exchange for $15,000, Kevin wants Eddie to serve as the wheel man for a carefully planned heist. Although the film was a disappointment at the box office, it was named “Picture of the Month” by columnist Louella Parsons and Rooney earned raves for his performance. In a typical review, the critic for the Los Angeles Daily News wrote, “[The film] will come as a surprise to those who can imagine Mickey Rooney only in comedy or song and dance roles. In Drive a Crooked Road, he switches to tragic drama and turns in a skillful and sympathetic performance.”
Baby Face Nelson
My least favorite of Rooney’s noirs is Baby Face Nelson, but believe me, it’s still worth a watch. The film – described in the prologue as a “re-creation of an era of jazz, jalopies, prohibition, and trigger-happy punks!” – depicts the transformation of ex-convict Lester M. Gillis into the violent gangster of the film’s title, played by Rooney. Although one critic wrote that Rooney’s portrayal of the infamous gangster “lacks . . . understanding of the lust that drove Nelson to kill,” others were more impressed. The reviewer for the Hollywood Citizen News said Rooney delivered a “most convincing performance,” and John L. Scott wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Rooney “never goes halfway in any characterization.”
Born Joe Yule, Jr., Mickey Rooney enjoyed a career that started at an early age – numerous colorful anecdotes have surfaced throughout the years to describe his debut. According to one account, he was 15 months old when he first appeared in his parents’ vaudeville act, portraying a midget and equipped with a tuxedo and a big rubber cigar. Another version states that young Joe crawled into the orchestra pit during his parents’ on-stage routine and started pounding on the drums, while a third claims that he escaped from the dressing room in a Rochester, New York theater, toddled out to the center of the stage and stood on his head. According to Rooney himself, however, his foray into show business occurred by happenstance while he was watching his father perform at a Chicago theater. After he let out a sneeze, the spotlight focused on the two-year-old, who immediately shifted into performing mode.
“I had a harmonica I kept playing like mad,” Rooney said in a 1957 McCall’s magazine article, “and I loved it out there with all those lights. It was so pretty.”
Rooney went on to enjoy a career that has spanned a whopping 10 decades – he was a star at 19, a has-been at 30, and is still going strong today. He has had eight wives, fathered eight children, battled drug addiction, and been forced into bankruptcy on more than one occasion. In his best-selling autobiography, he maintained that he had affairs with such Hollywood luminaries as Lana Turner and Norma Shearer; he later claimed responsibility for discovering Sammy Davis, Jr., and Red Skelton; and he once asserted that it was his idea to change the name of Norma Jean Baker to Marilyn Monroe. Conquering nearly every performing medium, he has manifested his multifaceted talent as an actor, dancer, singer, songwriter, musician, and author, racking up, along the way, five Emmy nominations (and one win), four Academy Award nominations, two Golden Globes, and two honorary Oscars – one for lifetime achievement. (In other words – Mickey Rooney is all that.)
I hope you’ll join me in wishing a happy birthday and many happy returns to this true giant of the silver screen – I intend to celebrate by raising a glass of champagne (or two) in his honor and giving a few of his film noir features a re-watch. Care to join me? You only owe it to yourself!