Wednesday, September 23, 2020

This Day in Film History (Mickey Rooney, Energetic, Enduring Entertainer, Born)

Sept. 23, 1920—Mickey Rooney, who, with an infectious smile and boundless energy, entertained millions of Americans—not to mention eight wives— in nine decades, was born Joseph Yule Jr. in Brooklyn, NY, to vaudevillian parents.

Rooney first came to the attention of film fans in a series of two-reel silent shorts playing “Mickey McGuire.” At age 14, at his mother’s suggestion, he changed it to Mickey Rooney—at just the moment when his career was about to skyrocket.

He may have been short (some contested even his listed height of five feet three inches), but Rooney made sure you never overlooked him. He could sing, dance, joke, and, audiences would discover, act in serious drama.

A strong hint of his magnetism could be seen in Warner Brother’s 1935 adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where, amid an impressive cast (James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown, Frank McHugh), the 15-year-old stole the show as the impish sprite Puck.

But he really made his mark at MGM, where, from 1939 through 1941, he was the nation’s number-one box-office draw—even replacing the studio’s “King,” Clark Gable, in that slot. His most prominent role, the prototypical all-American boy, Andy Hardy, earned him a special Juvenile Oscar in 1939, and kept him firmly in the public eye in 15 films from 1937 to 1946.

In a blog post from 2009, I related how Rooney appeared with Judy Garland in eight films, and how, in a special promotional blitz for The Wizard of Oz, she simply couldn’t keep up with him. Amazingly, there was still a superabundance of all that energy left over for offscreen pursuits.

In his later years, Rooney joked about his penchant for going to divorce court (six times, to go with eight marriages). But most often, his rampant infidelity caused these trips.

The template for what would follow was his marriage to Ava Gardner. In the late 1980s, a few years before she died, she told would-be ghostwriter Peter Evans, in an interview later collected in Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations (2013), about her initial impressions of him:

“He wasn’t what I’d call a handsome may-an, and his shortness surprised me, but there was definitely something appealing about him. He had thick, red-blond wavy hair, crinkly Irish green eyes, and a grin that was … well, it definitely wasn’t innocent, honey, I can tell you that!” 

Despite her strong suspicions that he had bedded numerous MGM starlets (including her good friend, Lana Turner), the 19-year-old beauty succumbed to his irresistible charm.

Within a month of their honeymoon and Gardner’s hospitalization for a misplaced appendix, she came home to find “evidence that Mick had been screwing somebody in our bed.” The relationship soon entered a cycle—accusations, denials, reconciliation attempts, then open arguments.  

“Mickey was never going to change his ways,” Gardner explained. “I knew that if I had sued Mick for adultery, and named some of the girls he’d been f-----g, it would have blown his whole Andy Hardy image right out of the water. It could have destroyed his career stone dead. I knew that citing ‘incompatibility’ was the cleanest and fastest route of the marriage.”

The marriage only lasted a year and a half. By this time, Rooney was less concerned with marital conflict than an international one: World War II. He ended up serving 22 months (five of them with Gen. George Patton's famous Third Army), entertaining two million troops on stage and radio, becoming a sergeant and earning a Bronze Star. 

He returned to find his place diminished in postwar Hollywood: with savings depleted by a manager, aging out of his teenage roles.

At a career crossroads, Rooney cast about for other, more adult roles. He made only a couple of films in this new set of circumstances when he was informed his contract was being terminated. 

With his education having been confined to studio tutors, he was ill-prepared for what now greeted him. He gambled, drank, popped pills, and fooled around; his impatience and (according to biographer Richard A. Lertzman) bipolar disorder made him difficult to live with; and his ego prevented him from landing better roles (as I discussed in this post about how he blew the chance to play Archie Bunker in All in the Family).

Still, he kept working, even if it was usually not in a leading role, or even in vehicles not worthy of his talents (How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, appearances on game shows like Hollywood Squares). Occasionally, he could rise to the occasion with a vivid reminder of the greatness still ready to be tapped, as with his blistering portrayal of a beloved TV star who tyrannizes staff and even his own brother in a classic episode of the anthology series Playhouse 90, in the Rod Serling teleplay “The Comedian.”

By 1979, he enjoyed a comeback with his fourth Oscar nomination, for Black Stallion (reminding older moviegoers of a similar role in National Velvet, with Elizabeth Taylor) and a Tony nomination for the burlesque revue Sugar Babies.   

By this time, Rooney was doing his best to settle down, becoming a devout Christian and determined that his eighth marriage would last. But there remained signs of trouble, including a declaration of bankruptcy in 1996.

In 2011, Rooney shocked fans, in a Congressional hearing on elder abuse, when he testified that a stepson had misused his money. Three years later—remarkably, still working, on a movie of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—he died, at age 94.  

Another year and a half would pass before The Hollywood Reporter published allegations of beatings at the hands of his wife Jan (who had often used him to grasp at her own elusive dreams of stardom) and misuse of his earnings by his stepson Chris. (Rooney’s widow sued the publication in 2017.) 

While the exact circumstances of these relationships remain disputed, it is not that the actor died, after a lifetime of nonstop working and the unqualified praise of admirers like Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Tennessee Williams, and Gore Vidal, leaving an estate of only $18,000.

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