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So long, Mickey Rooney

For we classic movie fans, it is impossible not to know and appreciate Mickey Rooney, who we lost yesterday at age 93. I sometimes lament that none of the big stars from Hollywood’s golden age that I like are still alive –only the ones I tend to very much dislike. But Rooney did not fall on the list of disliked stars.

Mickey Rooney 1920-2014

Mickey Rooney 1920-2014

I cannot say I have ever been a big Rooney fan, but it is impossible not to respect him. I’ve been exposed to a good number of his work –though a comparatively small portion of the list of 200+ flicks he made–because of the other people he starred with. I think I’ve seen all of the Andy Hardy and other movies he made with Judy Garland, and those films are a good representation of the lighthearted work he did. Then there’s Boys Town and Captains Courageous, which were among those that proved Rooney’s talent for serious performances. Even before he became a box office draw, Rooney made small appearances in comedic and dramatic spots in movies such as Riffraff and Manhattan Melodramarespectively.

His acting preparation backs up his talent. He was not just some cute kid who was cast in movies because he seemed to have a knack for it. Although his family had a vaudeville background and put him on stage reportedly before he could talk, Rooney also attended the Hollywood Professional School, which was also responsible for training Judy Garland and other future stars.

Even as he aged and stopped playing the lovable teenager trying to catch a girl, Rooney made us laugh. Everyone remembers his unrecognizable role as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’sHis career in the later years went up and down but he kept on working in films and on stage.

History will never forget Mickey Rooney, though it will probably remember him best for those films of his youth. But I think in some ways those movies have a universal appeal and can continue to entertain future generations of children, just ask I enjoyed National Velvet as a kid.

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Riffraff

Gasser

Riffraff (1936)

     I would not necessarily think of Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy as a logical couple. Although he played notable lower-class parts, I generally think of Tracy as a gentleman, something Harlow’s characters do not often find themselves with. In Riffraff, however, Tracy creates a character just low enough for a slightly more conservative Harlow to love.

     Harlow as Hattie lives in a cramped shack of a home with her father, brother, sister, brother-in-law and their kids. She still manages to keep her hair curled and her face fresh despite working in a tuna cannery, where most women in this sea-side town are employed. The same cannot be said of sister, Lil (Una Merkel), who has let her looks go as she endeavors to keep up with her children.

     Tracy as Dutch, meanwhile, is one of many men in the fishermen’s union working under Nick Lewis (Joseph Calleia), who has gotten rich from his tuna business. Dutch starts the film brushing off affections from Hattie, who has been in a love-hate state with the man for some time.

     Dutch’s affections warm toward Hattie when she starts going around with and accepting furs from Nick. Dutch and Hattie, therefore, get married, and the groom buys a house full of fine furnishings purchased on the installment plan. Dutch soon becomes the union president and calls for a strike, which is eventually resolved to the union’s detriment and Dutch is replaced at the helm. Penniless, debt collectors come calling and take all of the couple’s furniture. Ashamed, the man leaves for another city and says he will send for Hattie when he has made his fortune.

     Months later, Hattie discovers her husband is living in a homeless camp and steals money from Nick to help him. The crime lands her in jail, however, and to make matters worse, she’s pregnant. The baby is taken away from her in prison and no one in the family tells Dutch as Lil looks after him. The disgraced fisherman returns to town and discovers the union will not take him back, but he manages to land a security job on the docks. In that role he saves the whole town from being blown up and is thrown a hero’s party.

     Hattie has meanwhile escaped for prison and is waiting for Dutch to rescue her and take her to Mexico. The couple, celebrating the revelation of Dutch’s child, opt not to run.

     There is not much to be said about Riffraff. It is a moderately amusing movie with a plot that seems to make things continually worse as the story goes on. There are few moments of happiness between the couple –when they move into their house and the ending– but their passion for one another is evident. The fact that they stand on the precipice of again being separated at the film’s conclusion and yet are their most happy is what embodies their relationship. Unfortunately, the love and passion between the two lovers is not portrayed in such a way that we ache for their reunion. This is no Wuthering Heights or Splendor in the Grass in terms of gut-wrenching performances. Nevertheless it’s an enjoyable picture. I should mention a young Mickey Rooney also adds some humor as Hattie’s brother. His performance is fun, but one wouldn’t watch Riffraff just for him.

Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry

Gasser

Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937)

     Some movies are more important for their meaning in cinema history than for their actual stories or performances. I would say Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry falls into that category as it was the first pairing of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, a couple who would do 10 pictures total together. MGM spotted as soon as filming started the great appeal of the two together, and all of their follow-up roles together would be for that studio.

     The Garland-Rooney headliner films include most of the Andy Hardy movies in which, much as in real life, Judy would play the girl next door who cannot seem to draw the romantic attention of Mickey who was the real focus of those movies. Rooney and Garland knew each other before doing Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, however. They attended the same acting school for kids in Hollywood. Garland was 15 in this film, Rooney 17, and she was still in an awkward phase of adolescence that presented problems for Louis B. Mayer who had hired her to an MGM contract. She was stuck in between cute kid and sexy young adult, which resulted in her sitting on the shelf for a while before the studio could figure out how to use her. Mayer also had the MGM commissary on strict rules to only feed her chicken broth because her favor for sweets had her figure anything but curvy, as one can see in this film. Mayer would also put Garland on diet pills, which combined with her mother’s regiment of uppers to make her shine in auditions (started at age 9, I believe) and downers to get her to sleep, could be blamed as the groundwork for her lifelong pill addiction.

     Returning to the movie, Rooney plays jockey Timmy Donovan who can win any race on any horse. Garland is Cricket West, daughter of the owner of the boardinghouse where Donovan and a slew of other jockeys live. Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry does not start out about them, however. We first follow Roger (Ronald Sinclair) and Sir Peter Calverton (C. Aubrey Smith) as they voyage from England with their horse Pookah that they plan to run in a big race in America. Early on they spy Donovan as the jockey they want, but the boy is so arrogant it takes some trickery to get him in the saddle. Donovan becomes pretty loyal to the foreigners and teaches Roger to ride as a jockey.

     When Donovan’s estranged father calls for him claiming to be sick and asking his boy to throw a race riding Pookah so he can win the money for an iron lung, the jockey follows through. The shock of the loss, however, kills Sir Peter with a heart attack leaving Roger and his stable-hand sort of stranded in the U.S. with no money. Roger plans to sell Poohah because he does not have the entrance fee for the big race. Figuring out his father’s scam, Donovan demands some of the winnings to put Pookah in that race, but further interference by the low-down father reveals the jockey’s dishonest loss in the last race and he is barred from riding. Luckily, Roger learned enough about jockeying to make a go of it.

     Garland’s role in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry is pretty negligible. She sings one song, “Got a Pair of New Shoes”, and just acts as a side character to the drama between the boys. Rooney is his usual, great self, but Sinclair, in a role intended for Freddie Bartholomew, is kind of dreadful. I found him very annoying and easily saw how Bartholomew would have been a better fit.

     There are also a couple scenes with Rooney and Sinclair that if taken out of context would suggest a sexual relationship between the characters. I’m sure audiences thought nothing of it at the time, but images of the two of them riding a horse together combined with a follow-up scene when Rooney continually pulls Sinclair’s pants down so he can rub his thighs is suggestive by today’s standards. Just a funny note.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Dullsville

It’s a Mad, Mad,
Mad, Mad World (1963)

     I find that unfortunately, I am a person who can be easily duped into watching a movie based on an impressive cast. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is loaded full of star leads and cameo appearances, but the comedic potential for the film must have been too great a burden because the attempt falls flat.

     Although arriving two years prior to The Great Race, I felt as though I was watching a remake of that brilliant piece of comedy. Even the animated opening titles screamed of Blake Edwards. Like the Edwards’ film, Mad World involves teams of individuals racing toward an end point where riches are promised. Alliances change throughout the story, etc. Unlike The Great Race, however, this picture lacks all the charm, romance, and endearing characters that make the other movie work.
 
     The film starts with a car flying off a windy, cliff-side road and five male motorists running to the accident victim’s aid. There, they hear a delirious Jimmy Durante spout off about $350,000 in stolen money buried beneath a W in a park at the southern end of the state. The original parties total eight people in four vehicles, who try to negotiate how they will split the money before giving up and fighting each other to the finish. Some drive, some fly, but all end up at the park at the same time, at which point 12 people are now involved. Meanwhile, Spencer Tracy, as a detective who has been tracking this case for many years, has been tracking the idiots during their entire plight. He knows generally where the “treasure” is buried, but not precisely.
 
      Besides not being very funny, the greatest flaw Mad World boasts is thoroughly unlikable characters. Buddy Hackett was the best one for me because I generally like the goofy-voiced actor. Ethel Merman also makes quite an impression as an obnoxious mother/mother-in-law who gets the abuse she deserves. This is the first I’ve seen Merman on film, and I must say I prefer her acting to her singing. Mickey Rooney is in there also, but gives a greater impression by his rundown, aging look than by his performance.
     The Great Race had heroes and villains, but Mad World has neither. You loved Professor Fate for his failure as an evil force and were overjoyed by the time The Great Leslie and Maggie get around to kissing. There is no such blossoming romance in this feature; in fact, relationships crumble more than develop. Add to that the more than 3-hour run time, and I’ll advise everyone take a pass on this flick.

Boys Town

Wowza!

Boys Town (1938)

     By virtue of the performances alone, Boys Town earns a Wowza! rating. The film won Spencer Tracy a Best Actor Oscar and set Mickey Rooney on a path that for many years involved only primary roles and Grade-A pictures. It is based on a true story (and also won Best Original Screenplay) that conveys one of the most heart-warming tales I’ve ever heard.

     Tracy as Father Flanagan commences the film by rescuing five homeless boys from jail after they vandalize, steal and cause general disruption in Omaha. He rents a home and sets it up as a shelter for them based on the notion that if boys are given a proper upbringing and the right people to turn to when in need, they will not grow up to be hoodlums. Flanagan’s tenant list grows to 50 before he sets his sights higher and opts to build a “town” on a 200-acre parcel of land. Financially, he makes all this happen on donations and the good graces of a shopkeeper willing to loan him funding.

     Boys Town with its gymnasium, post office, dormitory, sports fields and own bus into town becomes a wild success, and the facility designed to serve 500 boys is beyond capacity. The boys literally run their own town, in a way. They elect a mayor every six months and select commissioners. The fence-less facility requires the kids to act on the honor system and tattle on themselves if they have misbehaved.

     Enter: Rooney as Whitey Marsh. His older brother asks Flanagan to visit him in jail where he requests Whitey be taken to Boys Town so he can cease aspiring to follow in his gangster brother’s footsteps. Flanagan finds Whitey in the midst of a poker game, smoking and being otherwise disrespectful. The Father essentially manhandles the boy into coming to Boys Town where the rough boy decides to stay once the lunch bell rings. Whitey persists in making trouble, getting into fights and generally earning the ire of the mayor and most other boys. He does, however, have the affection of Pee Wee (Bobs Watson) who is “sort of the mascot” of the town and generally adorable. Whitey aspires to be mayor only once he learns that high officials have access to a billiards room and other perks. A kerfuffle during the election sends Whitey packing in anger but a near-tragedy brings him back.

     Tracy is quite impressive as Father Flanagan with his hint of an Irish brogue hanging under his words and his overwhelmingly calm and confident demeanor with all that goes on. What most caught be off guard, however, was Rooney. Within 30 seconds of him on screen, I was blown away by this boy who was nothing like the Rooney I had seen in half a dozen other flicks. The 18-year-old affects the most nasty facial expressions and smoker’s voice one can imagine. His attitude and the way he throws his head –and other people– around conveys through body language alone the “trouble” this boy faces if he is not straightened out. I have never considered myself much of a Rooney fan, but this certainly changes my stance.

     Boys Town was directed by Norman Taurog, who was known for his talent directing kids and was responsible for other Rooney works, such as Young Tom Edison. Both Tracy and Rooney, who were generally considered difficult to work with, were on best behavior for this filming because they believed in the story. When Rooney, however, argued over an emotional scene with Watson (the climactic one to which I alluded), Taurog told Rooney he could do the scene as he wanted but that Watson was generally stealing the show (which is almost true). From then on the teenager did not question a bit of direction.

     The movie spawned a sequel, which I also have recorded, so it will likely pop up on here shortly, but I am not sure how it can top Boys Town. Any story about kindness to the homeless always chokes me up a bit, but this movie is overflowing with the goodness of mankind. Seemingly Father Flanagan is right in that no boy is bad if he is given a chance. Even the original five chaps in trouble with the law at the film’s start were on their best behavior as soon as Flanagan had them in custody. Apparently, all children just long to be looked after and cared for. The Boys Town organization persists today and has grown to occupy 13 areas nationwide with its headquarters remaining in Boys Town, Nebraska.

Source: Robert Osborne

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