Mickey Rooney: A Little Song, A Little Dance, A Little Noir
What is there to say about Mickey Rooney that hasn’t already been said? The world’s biggest movie star at 19, he was a has-been at 30. He’s 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. And during a career that spans an almost unimaginable 10 decades, he has earned five Emmy nominations, four Academy Award nominations, and received two honorary Oscars – one for lifetime achievement.
When one speaks of Mickey Rooney, however, the shadowy realm of film noir is not exactly the first image that springs to mind. He is far more likely to be envisioned as the wholesome Andy Hardy, dancing in a spur-of-the-moment musical number with Judy Garland at his side, than he is with a gat in his hand and his fedora cocked to one side. His most familiar screen persona notwithstanding, Rooney earned a solid place in the era of film noir with starring roles in four features from the period: Quicksand (1950), The Strip (1951), Drive a Crooked Road (1954), and Baby Face Nelson (1957).
The five-foot, three-inch actor once crowned “The King of the Movies” was born Joe Yule, Jr., on September 23, 1920, to vaudeville performers Joe Yule and his wife, Nell Carter. Young Joe was first seen on the stage at an early age; during the actor’s career, more than one colorful anecdote surfaced to describe this debut. According to one account, the lad first appeared in his parents’ act at the age of 15 months, portraying a midget and equipped with a tuxedo and a big rubber cigar. Another version states that Joe crawled into the orchestra pit during his parents’ onstage 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,” the actor said in a 1957 McCall’s magazine article, “and I loved it out there with all those lights. It was so pretty.”
Before long, the youngster was a regular part of his parents’ act, but they separated when Joe was four years old and he wound up in Hollywood with his mother. It didn’t take long for Joe to pick up his budding career where he’d left off, performing in a local musical revue at the Orange Grove Theater, and making his screen debut as a midget in the 1926 silent feature, Not to be Trusted. Two years after his first film, Joe landed the role of Mickey “Himself” McGuire in a series of comedies released by the Standard Film Corporation, appearing in nearly 80 episodes between 1928 and 1932. During the run of the series, Joe’s name was legally changed to Mickey McGuire, but it was later altered again, and Mickey Rooney was introduced to the world.
Rooney’s career really took off in 1934 when he was placed under contract by MGM, beginning an association that would last for the next 14 years. During that time, Rooney appeared in a number of Hollywood gems, including Manhattan Melodrama (1934), where he played Clark Gable’s character, Blackie, at age 12; a Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), in which he turned in a memorable performance of the mischievous Puck; Captains Courageous (1937), starring Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew; Boys Town (1938), where Rooney demonstrated his dramatic range as delinquent teen Whitey Marsh; and National Velvet (1944), co-starring Elizabeth Taylor. In addition to these features, Rooney appeared in 1937 in A Family Affair, a comedy focusing on a small-town family named Hardy. The film was an unexpected hit and led to a popular eight-year, 15-episode series starring Rooney as Andy Hardy. One of Rooney’s co-stars in the series was actress Judy Garland, who portrayed Betsy Booth in three of the Andy Hardy features; following their first screen appearance in the 1937 film Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, Rooney and Garland would become one of Hollywood’s most popular duos and appear in a total of 10 features together.
By the late 1930s, Rooney had become one of the most successful and celebrated actors in the country and in 1938 was honored, along with Deanna Durbin, with a special Academy Award for “bringing the spirit and personification of youth to the screen.” The following year, the actor received his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his role opposite Garland in Babes in Arms (1939), and earned a second nomination in 1943 for his touching performance in The Human Comedy. Although he lost both times (the first to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and later to Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine), Rooney was at the height of his success, and reigned from 1939 to 1941 as the top box-office actor in Hollywood. As a testament to Rooney’s fame – as well as his versatility – the actor performed with the National Symphony Orchestra at the 1941 inaugural ceremonies for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, playing one his own compositions, entitled “Melodante.” In addition to this work, Rooney composed hundreds of songs throughout his career, and in the late 1950s, he recorded an album, “Mickey Rooney Sings George M. Cohan.”
Meanwhile, Rooney had by now embarked on what he once referred to as “a lifetime of marriage.” In 1942, at the age of 21, he married actress Ava Gardner, but the union lasted only 18 months. Wife number two was a 17-year-old blonde named Betty Jane Rase, a former Miss Alabama.
“I knew her two weeks, and then we got married,” Rooney later recalled. The actor’s first child, Mickey Rooney, Jr., was born in 1946, but the marriage ended shortly after the birth of his second son, Timothy, in 1947. Rooney wasn’t unattached for long, however; shortly after his divorce, he began seeing actress Martha Vickers.
“I’d admired her so much on the screen that I tracked down her telephone number and we made a date,” Rooney later recalled. “I guess we were both lonely at the time. We married fast, and stayed married for two and a half years.” During that time, Rooney welcomed a third son, Theodore, born in 1950.
In 1952, a year after his divorce from Vickers, Rooney married former model Elaine Mahnken, telling one reporter, “I wish Elaine had been the first girl in my life. Things would have been a lot different.” But six years later, after the actor’s affair with local beauty queen Barbara Ann Thomason, this union, too, ended in divorce. A few weeks after his May 1959 divorce, Rooney and Barbara were married – and three months later, his fourth child, daughter Kelly Ann, was born. The couple would go on to have three more children, Kerry Yule, Michael Kyle, and Kimmy Sue, but this union, Rooney’s longest to date, would end in tragedy.
In the mid-1960s, reportedly as payback for Rooney’s infidelity, Barbara became involved with an aspiring actor named Milos Milosevic and Rooney filed for divorce, seeking custody of their children. Rooney and Barbara later reconciled, but on February 1, 1966, Milosevic shot Barbara to death in the couple’s Brentwood home, then killed himself.
“I died, too,” Rooney wrote in his 1991 autobiography, Life is Too Short. “Something like a steel band seemed to encircle my chest. And I didn’t take a full breath for three years.” (In later years, Rooney sued for custody of his four children with Barbara, but the court ultimately ruled that they should remain with the woman’s parents.)
A year after Barbara’s murder, Rooney married her closest friend, Marge Lane, but this ill-advised union ended after only 100 days, and Rooney wed wife number seven, secretary Carolyn Hockett, two years later. Rooney and Carolyn welcomed the actor’s youngest child, Jonell, in January 1970, but by 1974, the marriage was over. Finally, in July 1978, Rooney took his eighth trip down the aisle – “This time for keeps,” the actor once said – to Jan Chamberlin, a country-and-western singer who was nearly 20 years his junior. Although this marriage would, indeed, turn out to be his longest, he and Jan separated permanently in 2012, a year after Rooney filed elder abuse and fraud charges against Jan’s son, Christopher Aber and Aber’s wife, and testified before a U.S. Senate committee about his experience. “I felt trapped, scared, used, frustrated,” Rooney testified, “and overall, when a man feels helpless, it’s terrible.”
Between marriages, Rooney had seen his screen career fall as swiftly and as surely as it has risen. After serving from 1944 to 1946 in U.S. Army, during which he entertained thousands of troops overseas, Rooney returned to Hollywood to discover that he had been dethroned as “The King of the Movies.” In the late 1940s, he severed his ties with MGM and started his own production company, a move he later called “one of the dumbest things I ever did.” With few offers coming his way, Rooney was seen in a series of low-budget features, including his entry into the world of film noir, Quicksand (1950).
Here, Rooney starred as Don Brady, a womanizing auto mechanic who finds himself mired in a series of misdeeds after a sexy blonde cashier catches his eye. Although Quicksand is tension-filled and well-acted for most of its 79 minutes, it takes a wildly implausible turn near the end and peters out to an unsatisfying conclusion. Rooney himself wrote in Life is Too Short, “The less said about Quicksand, the better, except to note that it was aptly titled. We sank in it.” Despite the actor’s opinion, for my money, it’s a great ride, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
The actor fared only slightly better the following year when he returned to MGM for his second film noir, The Strip (1951), playing jazz drummer Stanley Maxton. The Strip managed to turn a slight profit, but the “B” level picture was dismissed by critics, including the reviewer for Variety, who wrote that the “performances are generally ineffective, as characters are not real enough to be believable.” The same critic acknowledged, however, that film’s best moments were its musical numbers, and noted: “Rooney beats his drums solidly.”
After a handful of mediocre features, Rooney rebounded with a starring role in his third film noir, Drive a Crooked Road (1954). In this well-done feature, Rooney portrayed a lonely garage mechanic, Eddie Shannon, who signs on as the wheel man for an intricate heist at the urging of a beautiful brunette. The film was a disappointment at the box office, but it was named “Picture of the Month” by famed columnist Louella Parsons and Rooney earned raves for his performance. Margaret Harford of the Hollywood Citizen-News praised the actor’s “earnest, sympathetic” portrayal; Philip K. Scheuer wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “Rooney and every one else in the cast deliver performances that scarcely could be bettered”; and in the Los Angeles Daily News, Roy Ringer opined: “[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.”
After starring in his own television series (which aired against the popular Jackie Gleason Show and only lasted a year) and earning an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Bold and the Brave (1956) – losing to Anthony Quinn in Lust for Life – Rooney starred in his final film noir, Baby Face Nelson (1957). This feature – described in the prologue as a “re-creation of an era of jazz, jalopies, prohibition, and trigger-happy punks!” – depicted the transformation of ex-convict Lester M. Gillis into the violent gangster known as Baby Face Nelson. Although one critic wrote that Rooney’s portrayal of the infamous gangster “lacks . . . understanding of the lust that drove Nelson to kill,” other reviewers were more favorable. John L. Scott of the Los Angeles Times described the film as “a hard-hitting story in which a snarling Rooney in the title role blazes a trail of murder with his machine gun,” adding that “the energetic star never goes halfway in any characterization,” and the critic for the Hollywood Citizen-News wrote, “Rooney delivers a most convincing performance as the gun-happy gangster, Baby Face.”
Rooney continued to regain a measure of his former prominence during the next several years with Emmy-nominated roles in three television shows, and exhibited a flair for character acting in such films as Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). Rooney also appeared in record-breaking performances during a nightclub circuit tour with Bobby Van in 1964, and in a three-week revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in Los Angeles, earning praise from one critic who termed his performance a “personal triumph.” But Rooney was by now facing more pressing concerns than his acting career.
In 1962, Rooney filed for bankruptcy, claiming that, while he had made more than $12 million during his career, his income had been chipped away through alimony and child support payments to his various ex-wives, his penchant for gambling, and bad business deals.
“I spent, lent, married, and I don’t know how, I went through twelve million dollars,” Rooney wrote in his first autobiography, i.e., released in 1965. “It isn’t as if my bankruptcy can be traced to any single cause, placed in any single period of years, explained with a single flip phrase. If I knew how I did it, I wouldn’t have done it in the first place. Ask a drunk where the booze has gone. That’s like asking me about my money.” (Although Rooney eventually recovered from this financial blow, the actor filed for bankruptcy a second time in 1996, revealing that he owed the IRS approximately $1.75 million dating back to 1974.)
The 1960s also saw an escalation in Rooney’s use of barbiturates, which had started during the previous decade and escalated following the 1966 murder of his fifth wife, Barbara. In his 1991 autobiography, the actor wrote that he was so “drugged out” during his subsequent marriage to Marge Lane that “I hardly remember her now.”
After managing to kick his addiction to pills in the early 1970s (“It wasn’t easy . . . [but] I looked to a Power higher than myself,” Rooney recalled), the actor continued his varied professional appearances, and although the vehicles he chose were not always first-rate, the energetic actor was seldom idle. And his luck took yet another upswing late in the decade, when he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a former horse trainer in The Black Stallion (1979) (he lost to Melvyn Douglas for Being There); earned raves for his performance opposite Ann Miller in the three-year stage tour of Sugar Babies (1979); won an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of a retarded man in Bill (1982); and received an honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement (1983). In presenting the latter award to Rooney, veteran comedian Bob Hope called the actor “the kid who illuminated all our yesterdays and the man who brightens all our todays.”
Now in his 90s, Mickey Rooney is still going strong. After earning a fifth Emmy nomination for Bill: On His Own (1983), the actor continued to accept roles in a variety of films, television shows, and stage productions, and also took time to pen his first published novel, The Search for Sonny Skies, in 1994. In the decades that have followed, he appeared in such feature films as Babe: Pig in the City (1998), the sequel to the hit 1995 film, Babe, and The First of May (2000), starring Julie Harris; guested on television series including The Simpsons (1995) and ER (1998); served as television spokesperson for the Garden State Life Insurance Company; played the title role in a long-running, well-received tour of The Wizard of Oz; and performed in a stage show with wife Jan Chamberlin entitled One Man–One Wife (in the midst of a tour for the latter production, Rooney underwent heart bypass surgery, but was back on stage a few months later). His best-known films in recent years were Night at the Museum (2006), starring Ben Stiller, and The Muppets (2011), with Amy Adams and Jason Segel.
Mickey Rooney – from whom, according to the actor, famed rodent Mickey Mouse received his name – is truly a national treasure. Essaying more comebacks than he might care to remember, and triumphing over an often rocky and sometimes tragic life off-screen, Rooney demonstrated during his phenomenal career that he possessed a versatility, determination, and longevity that nearly defies description. A few years ago, the nonagenarian shared his outlook that “age is experience – and some of us are more experienced than others.”
“Inspire, don’t retire,” Rooney advised. “Life is too short to be in pain all the time or wish you could change who you are. It’s being a participant in the game called life that’s important.”