×

Mickey Rooney Appreciation: Noir Films Showed He Was More Than a Teen Star

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.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • San-Sebastian

    San Sebastian, Zurich to Take Up SXSW, Tribeca Titles at Newly Created Film Markets

    The San Sebastian and Zurich film festivals have teamed to launch new film markets that will cater to the gaps created by the cancellation of SXSW and the postponement of Tribeca due to the coronavirus pandemic. The programming of both fall festivals will feature titles originally scheduled for spring fests SXSW and Tribeca. The markets [...]

  • Coronavirus Placeholder COVID19 Variety

    Japan's Toei Closes Tokyo Studio After Coronavirus Infection

    Toei closed its Tokyo studio Tuesday after actor Reo Komiya was diagnosed with the coronavirus. The star of the “Mashin Sentai Kiramager,” a sci-fi/action show broadcast on the TV Asahi network, seventeen-year-old Komiya tested positive for the virus while shooting new episodes at the studio. His condition is not known at the present time. A [...]

  • Aqute Media Takes North America on

    Aqute Media Takes North America on Helen Reddy Biopic 'I Am Woman'

    London-based sales agent WestEnd Films has closed a North American deal with Jeff Sackman and Berry Meyerowitz’s company Aqute Media for “I Am Woman,” the biopic about Australian singer Helen Reddy. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival as the opening film of the Special Presentations section. The film also recently [...]

  • Sundance Film Festival Placeholder

    Sheffield Doc/Fest Rejigs With Fall Programming, Virtual Forums in Lieu of Festival

    The Sheffield Doc/Fest pitching forums, MeetMarket and Alternate Realities Talent Market are to take place virtually in June, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The rest of the June festival is being replaced by a series of programs that will take place on weekends through the fall. The planned programming will include film screenings, talks, panels, [...]

  • Southland Tales

    Streamer Mubi Partners With Prada Foundation on 'Perfect Failures' Film Series

    Specialist streaming service Mubi has teamed up with fashion label Prada’s Fondazione Prada foundation on “Perfect Failures,” a curated selection of movies deemed to have been “widely misunderstood” upon their release. The joint project will launch on both the Mubi platform and the Fondazione Prada’s website on April 5 with U.S. director Richard Kelly’s 2006 flop [...]

  • Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) in

    'Morbius,' 'Ghostbusters' Sequel and More Sony Movies Pushed Back to 2021

    Sony Pictures has pushed back many of its major tentpoles — including “Morbius,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” “Uncharted” and “Peter Rabbit 2” — to next year, the studio announced on Monday. Jason Reitman’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” has moved from July 10, 2020, to March 5, 2021; Jared Leto’s “Morbius” has been pushed back from July 31, 2020, to [...]

  • Anne Hathaway to Star in 'French

    Film News Roundup: Anne Hathaway Stars in 'French Children Don't Throw Food'

    In today’s film news roundup, Anne Hathaway will portray an American journalist in Paris, blockbuster director Michael Bay signs with Sony Pictures, and “Extra Ordinary” and “The Etruscan Smile” are added to arthouse streaming services. CASTING Anne Hathaway is starring in the movie “French Children Don’t Throw Food,” based on Pamela Druckerman’s autobiographical book, “Bringing [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content