Mickey Rooney and The Unexpected Ascend to Manhood
Mickey Rooney was a powerhouse of career longevity. From his earliest screen appearances as a baby during the silent era to his final performance in the still unreleased Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rooney graced the big and little screen for nine decades. My introduction to Rooney, however, was at a very specific time in his illustrious career. The first, probably, five Rooney films I had seen all fell between the years of 1938 and 1941. From Love Finds Andy Hardy and Boys Town to Strike Up the Band and Babes on Broadway my initial image of Rooney was the jolly, energetic teen with nothing more on his mind than girls and dancing. He was the very image of a naïve, teenage boy just trying to have a little in his life. All of that changed, however, when I plopped on the couch to watch National Velvet.
From the very first image of a now adult Rooney walking center frame down a dirt path in the countryside of England, I knew I was seeing a different Rooney. I wasn’t seeing the smiling face of a rambunctious teenager ready to get out there and face the world but rather, the back of a faceless wanderer already far too familiar with the world’s harsh realities. This is made all the more evident when we are ‘officially’ introduced to the character of Mi Taylor though the lens of a young Elizabeth Taylor. In their brief conversation we learn he’s alone, he’s cynical, he’s hungry, and he’s broke – a far cry from the well-loved, well-fed, and well-off Mickey Rooney of yesteryear. His newfound label of ‘adult’ is then succinctly solidified at the dinner table when the typically jovial favorite son of the Andy Hardy series is met with suspicion and ire from the Brown patriarch. As the viewer, we have a certain familiarity with Rooney. With already over 15 years experience on the big screen, at this point in his career Rooney was a something of a household symbol of boyhood. How could Mr. Brown be so distrusting of such an earnest young man?
Seriously, just look at that face!
Well, that’s the beauty of Rooney’s role – the father was right. Soon after the dinner is over and the Brown family has graciously offered Mi a place to rest his weary feet, we see him ‘stake out the place.’ We flat out catch him spying on where the family keeps their money stash and as we cut to the next scene with Rooney, we see him counting the money he stole from the very family that gave him a meal and some lodging for the night. Of course, when Mi finds out that his host family had extended their invitation from one night to as long as he wishes to work, guilt overcomes him and he quickly returns the money. But still, the very fact that Mi Taylor was more than willing to lie, cheat, and steal from a family that clearly only wished to help him was a major departure for the squeaky clean Rooney.
The rest of the film continues to show this new, adult Rooney. As Mi Taylor, we see Rooney evolve from student to mentor, teaching new kid on the block Liz Taylor (playing the film’s lead, Velvet Brown) the preverbal ropes of the steeplechase. He is, for the most part, patient and understanding, while still remaining willing to listen and willing to grow. So, for me, National Velvet serves as a very important film for Rooney in two ways. The first is as a Rooney coming of age story – his own ascension into adulthood right in front of the public eye. And the second, well, is simply to pass the torch to the new generation of MGM children superstars – starting with Liz Taylor.
A big Thank You to Once Upon a Screen and getTV for hosting this fun Mickey Rooney Blogathon event! There are so many more wonderful Classic Bloggers participating in this event so please be sure to check out the other entries.
–Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub