From 1937 to 1946, Mickey Rooney played clean-cut, wide-eyed Midwestern teenager Andy Hardy 15 times in a series of films that proved instrumental (along with his Judy Garland musicals) in making him one of the most popular movie stars of his era. They also surely came to feel like a gilded prison around the actor. By the time the series ended, the Hardy character had been to WWII and back (as had Rooney), yet still seemed incapable of getting past first base with a girl (whereas Rooney was already on the second of his eight marriages).
The Mickster’s thirst for more adult roles was palpable, and Hollywood took a few different stabs at figuring out what to do with him. There was a series of sports films designed to show off the five-foot-two actor’s virile, athletic side: the boxing drama “Killer McCoy” (1947), in which he is a highly improbable light heavyweight; the car-racing programmer “The Big Wheel” (1949); and “The Fireball” (1950), about a champion roller skater. But Rooney would prove a far better fit for the seedy, downtrodden world of film noir: He gave two of his best performances in a pair of unjustly overlooked classics of the genre.
Rooney had come to noir via the 1950 “Quicksand,” a taut, independently made thriller (which he partly financed along with his co-star, Peter Lorre) in which he stars as a naive auto mechanic whose seemingly innocuous theft of $20 from the store cash register snowballs into a series of increasingly violent and dangerous criminal acts. Several degrees greater, however, is 1954’s “Drive a Crooked Road,” where Rooney is once again a mechanic, this time seduced by a gangster’s sultry moll (Dianne Foster) into serving as the getaway driver for a Palm Springs bank heist. The movie’s ad copy — “Why Would a Dame Like Her Go for a Guy Like Me?”— effectively summed it up. Expertly directed by Richard Quine (a frequent Rooney collaborator) from a crackling script by the young Blake Edwards, “Drive” turns on Rooney’s diminutive stature and equally deflated sense of self, casting him as a decent but self-loathing loner who allows himself to be duped by Foster’s transparent charms — and it reveals a darkness in the actor that no movie quite had before.
Darker still is “Baby Face Nelson” (1957), directed by the great Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”) and featuring Rooney as the eponymous John Dillinger associate, known for his trigger-happy ways and massive Napoleon complex. It is an unsparing, startlingly violent film that in many ways anticipates “Bonnie and Clyde” by a decade (unsurprisingly, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther panned it, too), and Rooney is absolutely terrifying in it: shifty, seething with rage against the world, primed to explode. Siegel’s film is rarely screened today and has never been released on any homevideo format; Rooney’s death makes its revival seem all the more urgent.
After “Baby Face Nelson,” Rooney veered back to more likable movie roles, but on TV he had one more unqualified triumph in the pit of despair. In “The Comedian” (1957), directed live by John Frankenheimer for the anthology series “Playhouse 90,” he is Sammy Hogarth, a vituperative TV comic who spews invective at all who surround him, not least his long-suffering brother/assistant (Mel Torme). “Don’t make me the heavy all the time!” Hogarth bellows in one of his rants. Rooney only occasionally got to play the heavy, but when he did, he was rarely more brilliant.
Photo: Post-WWII, the actor stretched in 1954’s “Drive a Crooked Road.”