A Book Review by Louis J. Wasser.
If the glimpses we catch on screen of an actor’s body of work ultimately amount to autobiography, the late Mickey Rooney (1920-2014) told us his life story through a distinguished, albeit frequently checkered, career in film and entertainment. In his recent biography, Mickey Rooney, a Show Business Life (McFarland, 2016), James A. MacEachern has succeeded brilliantly in revealing how the events and circumstances of the actor’s personal life at once informed and debased his career. The author, who died in 2016, the same year as the book’s publication, has pulled off a masterful balancing act between Rooney’s career and personal life without lapsing into tabloid reportage. To do so must have been an almost impossible challenge for MacEachern, who’s forced to deal with his subject’s eight stormy marriages, drinking, philandering, drug addiction, and gambling losses. Despite Rooney’s dazzling artistic accomplishments, his personal life steadily turned into a tragic tale of unrestrained Hollywood hedonism and scandal.
Starting as a kid con artist in the silent film Not to Be Trusted (1926), he went on to a Tom Mix western, My Pal, the King (1932), in which he played a child king who forsakes royal responsibility for sheer show-business fun. Following this role came his portrayal of the legendary mischievous but lovable teenager in the 1937-1946 Andy Hardy films. Rooney’s private life was exposed to film audiences throughout his career: he’d evolved from “little Mickey Rooney,” as tagged by The New York Times, to an actor at the top of his game in such soulful performances as “Army” in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) and Henry Dailey in The Black Stallion (1979).
In 2014, the same year he died, he capped off a prodigious ninety-one years of acting with the role of Gus in the third and final installment of the Night at the Museum trilogy. The film grossed over $300 million and was dedicated to him and the late Robin Williams.
Although he was ridiculed his entire life about his short stature, Rooney’s peers nevertheless accorded him the accolades claimed by giants. Jackie Gleason, with whom he’d worked in Requiem for a Heavyweight, once remarked, “If Mickey were six feet tall he’d be Laurence Olivier” (151). Olivier himself dubbed Rooney “the best there ever was” (1).
Rooney often voiced publicly both his regrets and delights about his own lifestyle. Film enthusiasts can observe these on screen in his emotional reactions, and detect them in the dialogue of the characters he created. In the 1940 film Strike Up the Band, a corny MGM musical to be sure, twenty-year-old Rooney reveals unbridled joy as he hops back and forth from the drums to the vibraphone in a display of musicianship in the tune Drummer Boy that rivaled the finest percussion solos of the forties swing era. He was no less talented a singer, pianist, and dancer. MacEachern notes author Foster Hirsch’s observation that he was “Someone who will explode unless he performs. (During breaks while filming, Rooney often performed for the crew)” (42).
Yet, even allowing for a stretch of over forty years, we’re hard put to believe the irrepressible song-and-dance man we encounter in Strike up the Band is the same actor in the 1981 movie Bill, in which Rooney delivers a compassionate portrayal of a mentally challenged senior. This performance is especially remarkable considering it anticipates by seven years Dustin Hoffman’s Academy-Award-winning performance in the title role of Rain Man (1988). Clearly, Rooney’s range of emotion on screen represents an astonishing collision of talent, enthusiasm, and Stanislavsky-like affective memory.
He was born in 1920 to Joe Yule, Sr. (Mickey’s original name was Joe Yule, Jr.), an immigrant from Edinburgh, Scotland, and Nell Carter, an orphan and “restless spirit” (6) from Arkansas. Yule and Carter met, married, and eked out hardscrabble, low-paid existences as Vaudeville performers. They continued to do so after Joe, Jr. (whom they nicknamed Sonny) was born and, as a toddler, entered the family business.
According to MacEachern,
Rooney loved growing up around vaudevillians. (He loved) the sights, sounds, and smells that surrounded him in the theatres in which his parents played. The blinding spotlights, the colored mood lights, and the brightly lit marquee mesmerized him. The sounds of the instruments in the orchestra made every day have a kind of magic to it. He even recalled the rancid smell of greasepaint, the smoke pots, and the sweet makeup and powder that the chorus girls used. (10)
Joe Yule, Sr., an alcoholic and compulsive skirt chaser, eventually abandoned his wife and son. At five, Sonny was now a “vaudeville veteran” (17), so his mother decided to take him to California, where she made the rounds of Hollywood studios and attempted to get him work as a child performer, so as to support both of them while she took jobs as a resident manager at a bungalow court and as a Bell Telephone operator.
Early on, Sonny was booked as Mickey McGuire for a series of comic short films which lasted from 1927-1934. The series subsidized Sonny and his mother, and effectively launched the career of the kid who would become the cinema and entertainment wizard the world would know as Mickey Rooney (the stage name he took during the release of the Mickey McGuire films).
In his work in the Andy Hardy films, his exquisite gifts became manifest to the world. MacEachern notes that, on Quigley’s Annual List of Box Office Champions, Rooney was listed as number #1 during the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” and managed to outshine stars like Tyrone Power in 1939, Spencer Tracy in 1940, and Clark Gable in 1941 (43-44). His co-star in the Andy Hardy Series, Judy Garland, remarked, “He was my favorite person to work with. The genius who taught me everything” (42). Somehow, despite his inadequate formal education and impaired ability to read, he could glance at a script and instantaneously memorize the lines.
In 1979, long after Rooney’s star power faded, Carroll Ballard, the director of The Black Stallion, confessed to its producer Francis Ford Coppola his apprehension about working with Rooney. Coppola assured him not to worry. “He’s an old pro. It’ll work out” (139). Indeed, it all did – and gloriously. Ballard later remarked that Mickey Rooney ad-libbed “every bit” of the dialogue – and to wide critical acclaim (139).
Rooney worked with big guns like writer Rod Serling, and actors like Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Quinn. MacEachern ends this comprehensive biography by reminding us that “Rooney’s life spanned seventeen U.S. presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama; his career ranged from vaudeville to Broadway to television, silent movies to CGI [computer generated imagery]” (181).
He lived for ninety-four years, and worked continuously for ninety-one of them. And for ninety-one years, he maintained a vital emotional connection to the small child who first appeared on stage to charm audiences at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Louis J. Wasser is a freelance essayist and critic specializing in film, and classical music. He’s written extensively for The Washington Post, Washington Jewish Week, Identity Theory, and other publications. He’s also a financial copywriter.