Can you name another actor who appeared in silent films and who was (or is) still alive in 2014? Mickey Rooney, who began his movie career in 1926, might have been the last of the breed. His first film was the silent one-reeler Not to Be Trusted, quickly followed by a series of Mickey Maguire shorts—78 of them starring Rooney—that dominated his early years as a performer. By the late 1930s, he was the affable, can-do juvenile who breezed through MGM musicals that usually centered around a bunch of kids ignoring naysayers to put on a show and save the world. In later years, he appeared to never turn down a job, with an ever-expanding IMDB.com filmography that contained entries as recent as this year. He was full of energy, but never manic like, say, a Betty Hutton or a Jerry Lewis. He could sing, dance and do comedy. In dramas, he was heartfelt and sincere. In short, Mickey Rooney was a good actor.
Here are twelve films that prove our point.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
A 14-year-old Rooney shows he can easily handle the Bard of Avon’s stylized dialogue in this star-laden version of the Shakespeare comedy. The main challenge for the actor—and the rest of the cast and crew—was working around Rooney’s broken leg, sustained during filming. A double was brought in, and, in certain scenes, bushes concealed the fact that Rooney was being wheeled around on a bicycle.
Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)
Mickey Rooney made 19 Andy Hardy movies, and if you haven’t seen any of them, this is as good a start as any. Lana Turner, Ann Rutherford and Judy Garland (appearing with Rooney in the first of their many outings) join our leading man for a series of romantic entanglements and dead-end infatuations. Garland provides the musical element by crooning “In Between,” “It Never Rains But What It Pours” and “Meet the Beat of My Heart.”
Boys Town (1938)
Juvenile delinquent Whitey Marsh (Rooney) butts heads with Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) in MGM’s story of the famed home for trouble youth near Omaha, Nebraska. Marsh became one of the meatier roles in Rooney’s early career while costar Tracy picked up the second of his back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for this film.
Babes in Arms (1939)
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland made ten movies together. Babes in Arms was one of their best, an early entry in their “let’s-put-on-a-show” extravaganzas. An extra treat occurs early on, as we see a very tiny Rooney in a clip from Broadway to Hollywood (1933), used in Babes in Arms as a flashback to show the vaudeville past of Rooney’s character.
The Human Comedy (1943)
Rooney received his second Best Actor Oscar nomination for this acclaimed home-front drama set during World War II. He played Homer Macauley, a teenager who becomes the man of the house after his father dies and his older brother goes off to fight. Macauley helps provide for his family by taking a job as a night messenger for the local telegraph office, often having to deliver news about loved ones killed in battle. Of Rooney’s performance, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said, “There is a tenderness and restraint in his characterization, along with a genuine youthfulness, such as he has not shown for a long time.”
Girl Crazy (1943)
George and Ira Gershwin tunes elevate Busby Berkeley’s western-themed musical about a spoiled rich kid named Danny Churchill (Rooney) sent to an all-male college to learn some responsibility. The Dean’s granddaughter (Judy Garland, wearing mostly ugly costumes) adds some prickly romance to the proceedings. Berkeley was fired shortly after filming his first sequence—the rodeo finale—and replaced with Norman Taurog.
National Velvet (1944)
Elizabeth Taylor is determined to see her prize horse compete in the Grand National and enlists horse trainer Mickey Rooney to help her. The Clarence Brown-directed film, which received five Oscar nominations and won for editor Robert Kern and supporting actress Anne Revere, was one of the most acclaimed pictures in Rooney’s lengthy career.
Words and Music (1948)
Rooney costars with Tom Drake in this highly fictionalized chronicle of the songwriting duo Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Rooney plays an audience-safe version of Hart, his psychological complexities simplified and sexual orientation made Hays Office-friendly. The best Rooney moments include his solo number “Manhattan” and his reunion with Judy Garland for “I Wish I Were in Love Again.”
The Strip (1951)
Though not a great film, its pleasures include seeing the Sunset Strip in the early 1950s and a neat performance by Rooney as a drummer who wants to open his own nightclub. MGM’s refreshingly truthful ad campaign called it a “Musical Melodrama of the Dancer and the Drummer.” That pretty much sums it up.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)
James Michener’s 1953 Korean War novel came to the big screen with an A-list cast that included William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March and, as a maverick helicopter pilot, Mickey Rooney. Reviews were solid and the film earned an Oscar nod for editing and an actual Oscar for special effects.
The Bold and the Brave (1956)
Three American soldiers are stationed in Italy during World War II, and Rooney is easily the most interesting. The Academy thought so, too, and awarded him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dooley, a relentless gambler seizing every opportunity to shoot craps.
The Black Stallion (1979)
Rooney plays aging horse trainer Henry Dailey, who works with a young boy to prepare his Arabian steed for some serious horse racing. Dailey’s office includes a photo of his younger self on horseback, which is actually a still of Rooney in National Velvet.