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Top Ten Mickey Rooney Films
Mickey Rooney entertained audiences with his infectious spunk and energy for over 80 years, making him the actor with the longest career in film history. In fact, Mickey continued to work consistently right up until his death at the age of 93. His final tally included over 300 acting credits, including feature films, TV work, and voice-overs. In short, it’s nearly impossible for a person to have never seen a Mickey Rooney performance.
Mickey, literally, lived most of his life on film, first starring in shorts as the impish “Mickey McGuire” as early as 1927. Appearing in over 50 of these shorts, it's been said that Mickey Mouse might have even been named after Rooney (Rooney even voiced Mickey's predecessor Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for a time). But, it was the part of Andy Hardy in the Hardy Family film series that really catapulted Rooney to stardom. The films quickly became better known as the Andy Hardy series, and made Mickey the nations’ top box office draw 4 years in a row.
Mickey was one of the first teenage stars in film history (along with his friend, Judy Garland), long before the term “teenager” even existed and succeeded in continuing that successful career much longer than any child star could possibly dream of. Given Mickey's extremely long and varied career, this top ten was more challenging than most, but, hopefully, both old and new fans alike will find films that they love and new films to discover on this list of some of the highlights of Mickey's amazing career.
FYI: I chose the order of my Mickey Rooney top ten by considering each film's importance in Mickey’s overall career, the size/importance of his role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like, IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Mickey Rooney film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
1. “LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY” (1938) –
Largely considered to be the best of the Andy Hardy series, Love Finds Andy Hardy solidified Mickey’s on-screen personae as the excitable and slightly immature Andy Hardy. In the film, Andy is forced to rethink his plans for the big Christmas dance when he learns that his girlfriend, Polly, is going out of town with her family. But, things start looking up for Andy when his friend, Beezy (who is also going out of town for the holidays), offers to pay good money for Andy to “keep an eye” on his girlfriend, Cynthia (Lana Turner). That arrangement not only secures Andy a date for the dance but, also, the right amount of spending money to buy the car he’s had his eye on. Andy, happily, agrees and, immediately, puts a down payment on his dream car with the assumption that he’ll be able to pay off the rest once Beezy sends him his "fee”. But, Andy’s plans get ruined yet again when Beezy goes back on their agreement and Polly decides to come home early. Now, Andy has two girls expecting him to take them to the dance and no way to pay for the car he would need to get them there. Andy’s only hope may come from his younger neighbor, Betsy Booth (Judy Garland), who tries her best to help him through his crisis as she secretly pines over him, herself. Love Finds Andy Hardy was extremely successful during its first release and resulted in Mickey securing star billing for the rest of the Hardy series and most of his studio era career. Of course, this particular Hardy film is bolstered tremendously by the introduction of the charismatic Judy Garland as Betsy and her song “In Between” is a major highlight.
2. "BOYS TOWN” (1938) –
This inspiring film is based on (and dedicated to) the life’s work of the real-life Father Flanagan. Starring Spencer Tracy as Flanagan, the movie follows the story of the priest’s unlikely establishment of a charitable organization known as Boys Town (an organization which still exists to this day). Mickey plays Whitey Marsh, a tough, street-smart kid determined to live life by his own rules. Whitey is sent to Boys Town against his will at the request of his jailbird brother, Joe, who hopes to prevent Whitey from following in his footsteps. Put simply, Boys Town is a home for homeless and delinquent boys. However, it is really much more than that. Boys Town is, actually, an entire town for young boys; a sanctuary from the outside world, complete with a mayor and judicial system set up and run by the children who live there. Impressive as it is, Whitey wants nothing to do with Boys Town, threatening Father Flanagan’s theory that “there are no bad boys”. Mickey gives a memorable and impressive performance as the arrogant and tough-talking Whitey but, its Tracy’s quietly powerful performance as Father Flanagan that provides the movie’s strong moral center. Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for the role and a duplicate was sent to the real-life Boys Town, dedicated to the real Father Flanagan. The Oscar is still on display at the organization’s Hall of History in Boys Town, Nebraska.
3. “GIRL CRAZY” (1943) –
Girl Crazy is the last of the so-called “backyard musicals” that Mickey made with Judy Garland and it is, arguably, the best. Based on the popular stage musical of the same name, this movie certainly has the most substantial plot out of the series. The film retains most of the original Gershwin score and, although, the film includes Mickey and Judy putting on a show, the only piece of the show we, actually, see is the movie’s famous “I Got Rhythm” finale. What Girl Crazy, actually, focuses on is the plight of spoiled rich kid, Danny Churchill (played by Mickey). After spending one too many nights partying at New York nightclubs rather than studying at Yale, Danny’s father ships his son off to an all-boys college in the Western desert, hoping to force Danny into finally focusing on his studies. Naturally, Danny despises the rural Cody College, but his mood improves once he meets Ginger Gray (Garland). Ginger is the Dean’s granddaughter and, also, happens to be the lone girl for miles. She works as the school’s post-mistress and is (understandably) very popular with the male students, but she wants nothing to do with spoiled city boy Danny. Filmed partly on location in Palm Springs, CA (or, more accurately, the desert next to Palm Springs), Girl Crazy gives Mickey a chance to showcase a great deal of his many talents. Not only does Mickey act, sing, and dance in this film, he, also, demonstrates his proficiency at the piano by backing up Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra in a performance of the challenging “Fascinating Rhythm”. Possibly the most mature of the Mickey and Judy musicals, if this is the only one of the series you haven’t seen yet, it is time to remedy that.
4. “THE BLACK STALLION” (1979) –
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the classic children’s novel of the same name, The Black Stallion is, probably, best described as a visual poem. Set in the 1940’s, it tells the story of Alec Ramsey, a young boy who survives a massive shipwreck thanks to the appearance of a fierce black stallion. The two lone survivors wash up on a desert island and an invaluable friendship develops between Alec and this beautiful horse (whom the boy dubs “The Black”). When the two are, finally, rescued, Alec and The Black have a hard time readjusting to “normal” life. But, once Alec meets Henry Dailey (Mickey), a former jockey and horse trainer, he makes it his purpose to prove that The Black is the fastest horse alive. But, turning an undocumented stallion into a racehorse may be more difficult than Alec imagines. Considered a masterpiece by many, this inspiring film was written by Melissa Mathison, who would later pen another family classic, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, a few years later. Much of the film is told visually with little to no dialogue, resulting in some truly magnificent sequences; particularly the movie’s most famous scene, which features Alec riding The Black bareback along the island’s beach. Although Mickey doesn’t appear until almost an hour into the film, his role as Henry Dailey couldn’t be more important. He brings a warm down-to-earth element to this, otherwise, atmospheric film and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal. The film even ended up spawning a television series (The Adventures of the Black Stallion) that allowed Mickey to reprise the role of Henry Dailey for 3 complete seasons.
5. “BABES ON BROADWAY” (1941) –
This joyful musical stars Mickey as Tommy Williams, a struggling actor whose been doing the best he can to earn a living by performing in small cafes and knocking on producers’ doors. Finally fed up with auditioning, Tommy gets the idea to produce a show of his own. But, he’ll need a viable “cause” to secure the required backing. That’s where Penny Morris (Judy Garland) comes in. Penny volunteers at a local orphanage and the children have just been cheated out of their only vacation due to budget cuts. Tommy jumps at this opportunity and offers to put on a show to raise money for the trip (while simultaneously getting good publicity for himself). Penny believes Tommy is only selflessly thinking of the children, so when she discovers his more self-serving reasons, their budding romance might be over before it’s even started. Mickey and Judy’s undeniable chemistry is showcased very well in this film, never more so than in the charming number “How About You?”. Mickey, also, displays his range by performing a banjo number, a scene from Cyrano De Bergerac and even a hilarious Carmen Miranda drag number. Most notably, Mickey brings a maturity to the role of Tommy Williams that is often absent from his other films with Garland. But, without a doubt, the film’s biggest highlight is the extended “Ghost Theatre Sequence” which plays as a who’s who tribute to the greatest theatrical stars of the early 1900s. Every theatre student should consider it required viewing.
6. “BABES IN ARMS” (1939) –
Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, Babes in Arms was Mickey’s very first musical role and the first of what would become his "backyard musical" series with Judy Garland. Directed by Busby Berkeley, the film serves as a virtual tribute to the glory days of vaudeville in the 1910s. Mickey stars as Mickey Moran, the son of successful vaudevillians who longs to follow in his parents’ footsteps. But, with the popularity of movies pushing vaudeville out of the mainstream, Mickey’s family has fallen on hard times. So Mickey decides to round up the 2nd generation of vaudeville (i.e. kids like himself) to put on a show of their own. If the show goes well, the kids will not only be able to support their families, they’ll also prove to their parents that they’re ready for “the big time” themselves. But to get financial backing, Mickey is going to need a star and he finds one in former child star “Baby Rosalie”. But in his efforts to make their show successful he, also, risks alienating his loyal (and talented) girlfriend, Patsy (Garland). Honestly, the plot for this light musical is pretty thin and really serves as a bridging mechanism between numbers. However, this film has some really great numbers. Mickey and Judy’s duet of “Good Morning” is one of the best, though I'm sure most people are more familiar with the version that was used in the movie Singin’ in the Rain years later. Mickey gets plenty of chances to shine in this film and shows off his talent at impersonation through parodies of Clark Gable, FDR, Lionel Barrymore and even vaudevillian Eddy Cantor. Some attention should, also, be paid to the little known June Preisser, who is terrific as the slightly spoiled Baby Rosalie. Her solo acrobatic/contortionist showcase is a short piece of brilliance that isn't to be missed.
7. “QUICKSAND” (1950) –
Mickey gives one of the best performances of his career in this gritty film noir. Quicksand tells the cautionary tale of auto mechanic, Dan Brady. Although usually a law-abiding citizen, Danny takes 20 dollars from the cash register at work in order to pay for a lavish date with the beautiful Vera (Jeanne Cagney). He fully intends to replace the money later, but this little indiscretion has an unexpected domino effect on his life. In fact, it soon seems like this one choice could ruin Danny’s life forever, or possibly even end it. The plot of this movie moves at breakneck speed as Danny’s situation snowballs to a point from which he may never be able to return. Clearly one of Mickey’s darkest roles, this noir morality tale was shot mostly on location in Santa Monica and the Santa Monica Pier, with Mickey performing all of his own stunts (that’s right, he actually has stunts in this one!). The film features some really nice camera-work, as well, with a few very interesting compositions. Another odd bit of trivia is that Quicksand is, also, notable as one of the earliest examples of product placement on film, with the popular brand names Bit-O-Honey and Coca-Cola both making cameo appearances.
8. “WORDS AND MUSIC” (1948) –
A highly fictionalized account of the lives and careers of famed songwriters, Rodgers and Hart, Words and Music stars Mickey as the troubled and lonely Lorenz Hart. Narrated by Tom Drake as Richard Rodgers, the film is kind of unusual in that it, actually, somewhat recognizes that it is a movie (allowing for an oddly meta finale that may hurt your head if you think about it too much). At its heart, Words and Music acts as a showcase for the timeless Rodgers and Hart catalog, featuring performances by Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, June Allyson, Lena Horne, and Judy Garland. Major highlights include Lena Horne’s definitive version of “The Lady Is A Tramp” and Gene Kelly’s performance of “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” with Vera-Ellen. This would end up being the last film that Mickey and Judy Garland would appear in together and even though Judy’s appearance is merely an extended cameo, the two friends do get the chance to perform one last song together: the tongue-in-cheek “I Wish I Were In Love Again” (a song, appropriately, taken from the original Broadway version of Babes in Arms). Mickey really gives a tour-de-force performance as the complex Lorenz Hart in this film. Words and Music characterizes Larry Hart as self-loathing, desperately lonely, and suffering from a slight inferiority complex due to his small stature (the real Lorenz Hart was under 5 feet tall). None of which is too terribly far from the truth. However, the real-life Larry Hart’s love problems were very different from the ones portrayed in the film (in fact, he was a closeted homosexual). But, there's no question that the spirit of the self-destructive lyricist remains, particularly in Mickey’s moving performance.
9. “REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT” (1962) –
Written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, Requiem for a Heavyweight is based on a live teleplay that Serling wrote for the TV anthology series Playhouse 90 back in 1956. The story revolves around prizefighter Mountain Rivera (Anthony Quinn) whose life changes dramatically after a doctor informs him that it is no longer safe for him to fight. The devastated Mountain must now find a place for himself in the world outside of the boxing ring. But, it turns out the one having the hardest time adjusting may, actually, be Mountain’s long-time and trusted manager, Maish (Jackie Geason). Mickey plays the role of Mountain’s world-weary trainer, Army, who cares deeply for Mountain's future, but doesn’t always have the strength to stand up to the more outspoken Maish (who has his own plans for Mountain’s career). All of the actors in this very human drama give it their all and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch. Anthony Quinn, in particular, is heartbreaking as the washed-up (and beaten-up) Mountain Rivera. Jackie Gleason, also, shows his underutilized talent for dramatic roles as the controlling Maish. Boxing fans, in particular, will enjoy this movie if for no other reason than to catch a memorable cameo by Cassius Clay (who would later rise to even greater fame under the name Muhammed Ali). Clay appears as himself at the beginning of the film in what would become Mountain’s very last boxing match.
10. “THE FIRST OF MAY” (1999) –
This loveable family film focuses on the adventures of Cory, a foster kid who is always being shuffled from one foster home to another. Things start looking up for Cory when he starts to really bond with his newest foster parents. He even makes friends with an old woman named Carlotta (Julie Harris), who lives in a nearby nursing home. But, when Cory overhears a conversation that indicates he’s about to be sent to yet another home, he decides to run away. When he tells Carlotta of his plan, she convinces him to let her come along. Carlotta is thrilled to escape the nursing home she despises and begins to lead Cory to what used to be her second home: the circus. As they journey on, the two nomads just may end up finding the family they both need so badly. Mickey appears in the small, but memorable, role of Boss Ed, the circus' gruff, but well meaning, manager. Although newcomer Dan Byrd gives an impressive performance as Cory (in his first film role), The First of May really serves as a wonderful showcase for film veteran, Julie Harris, who is brilliant as Carlotta (Julie had, also, appeared with Mickey in Requiem for a Heavyweight many years earlier). But this movie is, probably, most notable for featuring a rare cameo by the notoriously camera-shy baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio (in his very last film appearance). DiMaggio’s short cameo is so enjoyable, it’s really a shame that he wasn’t included in more scenes. All in all, The First of May’s multiple themes and side stories can make it appear a little disjointed at times, however this is still an enjoyable family film and one you should keep in mind for your family’s next movie night.
HONORABLE MENTION: “NATIONAL VELVET” (1944)
Now, of course, I couldn’t let a Mickey Rooney Top Ten finish without mentioning this beautiful family film. But, naturally, this film really belongs to 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, who appears in her star-making role as Velvet Brown. Set in 1920’s England and based on the novel of the same name, National Velvet follows the titular Velvet as she wins a spirited young horse in a raffle and decides to train it for the Grand National steeplechase. Mickey plays Mi Taylor, a young drifter and former jockey who finds his way to Velvet’s home after, mysteriously, finding the address among his deceased father’s things. After hearing Velvet’s aspirations for her horse (known as “The Pie”), he, reluctantly, agrees to help her train him, but it turns out Mi has his own issues with horses. Although the movie is set in England, most of National Velvet was filmed in Pebble Beach, CA. However, the filmmakers managed to get many of the details correct: the racecourse map shown in the film is an accurate portrait of the real Grand National course in Aintree, England and the track really does contain what is known as a Becher’s Brook jump, as well as, a Canal Turn jump much like the ones portrayed in the film. Mickey would, eventually, appear in many equestrian films throughout his career, (including The Black Stallion and Thoroughbreds Don't Cry) but, National Velvet is the movie that really solidified his ongoing association with horse racing. If you know a little girl who loves horses, this is, definitely, the movie she needs to see.
If you would like to learn more about the multi-talented Mickey Rooney, I recommend the book, The Nine Lives of Mickey Rooney by Arthur Marx and Mickey's own autobiography, Life Is Too Short. They both can be hard to find sometimes but, I stumbled across them at a used bookstore, so they’re certainly around if you’re just willing to look.
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© 2012 Luna B.