With a career that dates back to the waning days of the silent era, actor Mickey Rooney has had one of the longest running careers in cinema history. Rooney was the child of divorced stage performers who began his career in vaudeville before successfully transitioning to the screen as the mischievous Mickey McGuire.
But it was playing the wholesome Andy Hardy in 16 films mostly made in the 1930s and ‘40s that skyrocketed Rooney into superstardom. From 1939-1941, he was Hollywood’s top moneymaking star while earning respect with two Best Actor nominations.
After a stint entertaining the troops during World War II, however, Rooney returned to Hollywood and spent the next several decades struggling to regain his popularity. He suffered tragedy and generated controversy, while seeing only periodic glimmers of his former success. Still working well into his senior years, Rooney finally regained respect as an elder statesman of the classic era. Here are seven great films starring Mickey Rooney.
In 1937, Rooney made his first of 16 career appearances as Andy Hardy in the comedy A Family Affair
, though his character was secondary in the first three films. But in this fourth go-round, Andy Hardy had proven to be a hugely popular character with audiences and Rooney received top billing for the first time. Here the film featured Rooney starring alongside close friend Judy Garland and finds Hardy falling for not one, not two, but three young women. The first is his steady girlfriend, Polly (Ann Rutherford), the second is his best friend’s girl, Cynthia (Lana Turner), whom he’s supposed to escort around town while his pal is away, and the third is Betsy (Garland), who tries to fix Andy’s many romantic entanglements. An ironic film, in that Rooney was a notorious womanizer in real life, Love Finds Andy Hardy
was a smash box office hit that helped propel Rooney into the list of top ten money making stars for the first time in his career.
MGM Home Entertainment
Turning to more dramatic roles, Rooney made his bid as a serious actor when he co-starred opposite Best Actor
winner Spencer Tracy
in the feel-good biopic Boys Town
. Spencer portrayed real-life Catholic priest, Father Edward Flanagan, who fervently believes that no boy is truly bad and only needs a chance in life. That philosophy prompts Flanagan to find unconventional means to raise money to run a home for derelict boys. Meanwhile, Flanagan tries to turn a rough-and-tumble boy named Whitey Marsh (Rooney), who starts off as a wayward punk, but soon rises to a position of respect and responsibility inside Boys Town. Though much of the critical attention went to Tracy for his exemplary performance, Rooney did establish himself as a fine dramatic actor worthy of his own respect.
Having already made it into the top ten list of bankable stars, Rooney climbed to the top of the perch in 1939 and would spend the next three years as Hollywood’s biggest box office performer. That successful string was due in part to this classic musical
that co-starred Judy Garland and also put Rooney in Oscar contention for the first time. In this freshly fun take on the Rodgers & Hart Broadway smash, Rooney and Garland play Mickey and Patsay, the offspring of vaudevillian parents who are musically talented, but kept off the stage by their respective fathers and mothers. But not to be deterred, they try to put on a show, but run afoul of a judge who wants to throw them into trade school unless they can come up with a successful show. The film was a big hit and launched Rooney into superstar status alongside Garland, who saw her own popularity skyrocket thanks to The Wizard of Oz
MGM Home Entertainment
A wonderful adaptation
of the William Saroyan novel of the same name, The Human Comedy
was an endearing, albeit overly sentimental drama that delivered the second and ultimately last Best Actor nomination in Rooney’s career. Rooney played Homer Macauley, a high school student working part time as a telegram delivery boy who comes face to face the affects of World War II on his hometown as he goes in and out of just about everyone’s lives. While a little cornball in parts for this day and age, The Human Comedy
was nonetheless a funny and moving film that allowed Rooney to use his aw-shucks charm in a more poignant fashion.
Presaging the role he would play in The Black Stallion
over 30 years later, Rooney delivered a quality turn opposite a young Elizabeth Taylor
in this classic family drama. Though the star was undoubtedly Taylor playing the titular Velvet Brown, Rooney stole the show as Mike Taylor, a bullheaded drifter who was once a successful jockey in England, but lost everything after crashing into another horse and accidentally killing the other jockey. Taken in by Velvet’s family, Mike plans on stealing from them, but finds his resolve diminish as he grows close to Velvet while helping to train her to win a big race. As one of the most cherished children’s movies of all time, National Velvet
was a heartwarming affair that marked the apex of Rooney’s career before it went into a decades-long slide.
Having long fallen out of the top ten of Hollywood moneymakers, Rooney was briefly resurgent in this musical biopic based on the lives and careers of the famed songwriting duo, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. As Hart to Tom Drake’s Rodgers, Rooney delivered the showier performance in playing the self-destructive songsmith. As can be expected for the times, however, MGM completely sanitized Hart’s struggles with his bisexuality, but that didn’t stop Rooney from delivering another top-notch performance. Words and Music
was a box office hit and marked the last time Rooney and Judy Garland appeared on screen together. Meanwhile, Rooney struggled with his own personal travails in the following decade that carried over well into his senior years.
MGM Home Entertainment
Following what can only be described as one of the longest career declines known to Hollywood, Rooney rebounded for a brief moment in this beautiful adaptation of Walter Farley’s 1941 children’s novel. The film focused on Alec (Kelly Reno), a young boy traveling the world with his salesman father (Hoyt Axton). On the sea voyage home, Alec discovers an unruly black stallion who soon becomes his lone companion on a deserted island after the ship sinks during an ocean disaster. On the island, both boy and horse form an indestructible bond that continues once Alec returns to his small town home. While his mother hasn’t a clue what to do with the stubborn horse, elderly neighbor Henry Dailey (Rooney), a former jockey, sees great potential and begins training them to be racing champions. A triumphant film, The Black Stallion
delivered Rooney an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and a glimmer of hope for redemption. But it would mark the last great performance of the actor’s career, which once again faded in the 1980s.