Mickey Rooney: a dynamo for decades

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Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips discusses the life and career of Mickey Rooney.

Mickey Rooney was more cyclone than man, and like most weather-related phenomena, even at his most fearsome he was more easily experienced than described. Words such as "tireless" or "fearless" don't really get at it with Rooney. In a world of triple threats he was a quadruple or, in the spirit of his many, often brief marriages, an octuple. He sang, he danced, he broke hearts, he did pratfalls, he mugged, he mugged some more, he yearned for the girl next door. And he embodied the proud if counter-intuitive showbiz tradition of never leaving the audience wanting more.

Rooney was nominated for a regular, straight-up Academy Award four times, in both supporting and leading actor categories. In 1939 he and his fellow teenager and MGM star Deanna Durbin shared an honorary Oscar for his "significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth." Rooney died Sunday at the age of 93, more than 90 years after he first performed professionally. The dynamo born Joseph Yule Jr. to a pair of vaudevillians was singing "Sweet Rosie O'Grady" on stage by the age of 2.

If Rooney personified youth, even decades after he was no longer young, it was raw youth, nearly out of its mind with ambition, determined to slay the audience and thereby ensure an opportunity to work again. Many of our greatest 20th century popular entertainers shared a compulsion very close to desperation — a yearning, born of the desire to eat and, for a lucky few, to make millions and become famous around the world. Many such forces of nature have a chemical aversion to subtlety. Yet by the time he made "National Velvet" (1944), as his initial star was waning and everybody was swooning over Van Johnson, Rooney had already found new colors as an actor.

At his peak in 1939, 1940 and 1941, subtlety wasn't necessary. In those years Rooney was American film's top box office draw, his career boosted by "Boys Town" opposite Spencer Tracy in 1938. In any one of his Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland MGM musical pairings, such as "Babes in Arms" or "Babes on Broadway" — the put-on-a-show movies — the energy is both fiercely concentrated and fantastically destabilizing. In the 1974 compilation film "That's Entertainment!" Rooney, introducing a Busby Berkeley number from "Babes on Broadway," says in a bit of scripted narration: "Where we got all that energy I'll never know." Of course Rooney did know: According to Garland and many others, the MGM brass kept their young, profitable stars hopped up on "pep pills" and cigarettes and then plied them with downers.

Years later Garland recalled: "They'd give us pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they'd take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills — Mickey sprawled out on one bed and me on another. Then after four hours they'd wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row."

At one point Garland made $500 a week as a popular MGM contract player; Rooney was already making 10 times that. In 15 "Andy Hardy" films made between 1937 and 1946, plus a 1958 attempt at bringing Hardy into the Organization Man era, The Mick made wholesomely smitten eyes at a variety of female co-stars, Ann Rutherford chief among them. And then his stardom sputtered, a casualty, perhaps, of World War II and postwar interests in something new, something a little more serious, something that didn't remind America so aggressively of its recent, maniacally silly past.

Rooney worked constantly, or nearly, in the movies and on television in the '50s, '60s and '70s but he was as retro as he was recognizable. And then a funny thing happened: In 1979 he became a first-time Broadway sensation in the popular burlesque tribute (ancient jokes, endless cleavage) "Sugar Babies" opposite another MGM stalwart, Ann Miller.

That same year Rooney was Oscar-nominated for the fourth and final time for his work — later extended into a spinoff TV series — in director Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion." It's a gorgeous picture, and Rooney performs like an actor reborn, free of his lifelong need to slay an audience. He'd done enough strong dramatic work up to that point, in such projects as the 1962 "Requiem for a Heavyweight," which took him beyond vanity or pleasing the crowd. So by the time he met up with Ballard for "The Black Stallion," The Mick was ready to relax in front of the camera and slip into the role of retired trainer Henry Dailey.

"The Black Stallion," "Sugar Babies" and his lauded turn in the TV drama "Bill" led to many years of theatrical touring, including plenty of visits to Chicago. His favored venues were the Drury Lane Oakbrook and the late, lamented Drury Lane Theatre in Evergreen Park. Whatever the vehicle's title Rooney found himself starring in "The Mickey Rooney Show." A 1980s touring revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" barely made room for the original material; a co-star, at one point, had to sit on Rooney — literally, sit on him — to get him to quit running around during his song. Rooney reportedly loved the bit, and they kept it in.

I once shared a stretch limo with Rooney; his wife, Jan; and Leslie Nielsen on the way to an autograph convention in Rosemont. Sitting in the rear of the limo, which was very dark, Rooney resembled a mobbed-up combination of Yoda and Jabba Jr., as spherical as he was tall. Even in that shoe box of a setting he still had it. Or rather, It: the glow of a genuine industry legend.

He worked in 10 different decades, up and down, down and up again. That face, that smile, that improbable, unstoppable confidence, fueled an astonishing variety of diversions. "We're here because we want our names in neon!" he sang in "Babes on Broadway." When Rooney sang it, you believed it.

mjphillips@tribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

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