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Monday, April 07, 2014

Andy Hardy Comes Home

None Bigger Than Mickey Rooney

I made the dumb mistake seven or so years ago of passing on a Mickey Rooney stage show in Blowing Rock (a local source says one of his children lives up there), poor excuse being we were headed for the beach the next morning and it would keep us up too late. Well, now it really is too late. Mickey Rooney had the devil's own time convincing moderns that he'd once been the Biggest Star in motion pictures. At times, the Mighty Mite was truculent, his "autograph" (at $25 and upward) a swirl of ink unrecognizable as his or anyone's signature. Mick was by then sick of stills thrust in his face, but had to go on signing because whatever else was true or false of a fabulous career, he'd stay as short on cash as stature. That last was to height only (five foot three), his star-size a tallest at apex of a Classic Era for entertainers. To compete with and win against best performing of late 30's/early 40's, that is where it really counted (boxoffice windows), was feat far greater than silly statuettes the rest got for acting. Besides, Rooney was a better thesp than most who had Academy recognition (his own AA's along "special" line). Was Number One place he stood among showmen from 1939-41 a longest run anyone had in that position? Certainly it was for that peak of studio dominance.

Clark Gable was "King" of Hollywood in 1938, then Tyrone Power took the crown a following year, and Mickey Rooney got it afterward (co-winning Bette Davis said MR refused to don the crown because it "overpowered" him). Rooney had no peer at Metro, where rubber met road, that is, cost against gain. His Andy Hardys and barnyard musicals were dimes that earned dollars, always and reliably. An exhibitor could open doors for a Hardy to assurance of deluge. MGM overworked Rooney same as Judy, but his was iron constitution, and the most trouble this adolescent star made was inveterate tom-catting and pony-playing. That, of course, would have been OK had Mick been more of age, but love found Andy Hardy behind door of Norma Shearer/others' dressing rooms and word was studio-round that he was pounding more than soundstage drums. Maybe Mick was discreet then, but he'd spill hot chili beans in a 90's memoir that was all but porn and made Kenneth Anger's Babylon look like child's croquet. Question then as now, and always, was truth ... or not. For Rooney, interviews were so much performance, veracity be hanged, and you had to wonder at times if the career had happened to him or some other guy. Serious questioners finally got to where they stopped bothering.

There were marriages (eight) and bankruptcies. Agents and producing partners got used like toilet tissue. Mick's capacity to bounce back, often to triumph, seemed almost unearthly. How many times was he counted out, then celebrated again? There was movies, radio, television, Broadway. He dated back to silents, for land's sake, and once did voice for Oswald The Rabbit. And co-starred with Tom Mix. And was apparently working (starring) in a new version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when he died. Lest I'm mistaken, this is a career that lasted eighty-eight years, which is longer than most people could hope to live, let alone work. Would I be safe to say that Mickey Rooney knew (at least met) or worked with every notable show biz personage of the 20th Century? If half of them met him at the Gate, it must have been some Heaven of a crowded entry.

More Mick at Greenbriar Archives: Dateline April 28, 1939, Words and Music, Metro's Accent On Youth, Summer Holiday, The Fireball, Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble, My True Story, All Ashore, and Andy Hardy's Double Life.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I saw Mickey Rooney in person in the neo-burlesque revue "Sugar Babies," and he was wonderful. Absolutely in total command of the show, and not in the sense that a Milton Berle would overpower the proceedings. Rooney knew where all the laughs were, and he ad-libbed to hilarious effect when something misfired.

I was anxious to see a write-up in the Boston papers the next day, and I was surprised to find that Mickey made the front page -- in a sports article, describing Mickey's fondness for horse racing and his system for picking winners at the local track.

Friends have told me that he was a total jerk, to put it mildly, at autograph shows, and at least one blooper reel shows his angry and temperamental side, but one can't fault his professionalism when the cameras are rolling. I don't think I've ever seen him give a bad performance, even in such worthies as HE'S A COCKEYED WONDER and FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE. He steals THE COMIC from right under Dick Van Dyke's nose, in my opinion.

10:30 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Scott --- I haven't seen "The Comic" since CBS (I think) ran it. I remember the show as harsh and not a little unpleasant to watch, so haven't rushed out for the Columbia On-Demand DVD.

Right you are about Mick at autograph shows. A couple of friends told me horror stories as well.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Mickey and his last wife played Statesville, N.C. with their two-person show a number of years back. I wonder if anyone went. Don't remember why I didn't but I wish I had.

I did see James Best on stage (in his now hometown Hickory, N.C.) in ON GOLDEN POND a few weeks ago. Amazing performance he gave, and he's 88 years old. His autobiography is a doozie. Best hit Universal International the same time as Hudson, Curtis, Eastwood and Chandler. Some great stories he tells.

10:46 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

I did watch an interview -in London- where Rooney denied the Norma Shearer stuff he'd put in that last memoir - a moment of pure honesty- saying, "no, none of that was true, she was a lady, that was published for money...". It was a strange moment , to watch him admit this. He sounded genuinely regretful. (In the same book, he claimed that Lana Turner had aborted his baby. Would she have told him if she had? ) One got the impression he had no control over what went into the book whatsoever, that it was simply a business deal.....but serious historians have picked up on it, including David Thomson, so history has accepted it now....

6:20 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes, I remember Rooney being on the Larry King Show and trying to deny the Shearer story, the whole thing being reminiscent of Hedy Lamarr distancing herself from content of her autobio after it was published.

7:05 PM  

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