Another thread was broken this week that tied the 21st century to the Golden Age of Hollywood. This thread was a thick one, too. Unlike other child stars, including his contemporaries Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin, Mickey Rooney didn’t go gentle into that good night after a long retirement far from the limelight. No, he was working — or planning to work — right up to the end; his last credits on the IMDb are for the second sequel to Night at the Museum and (as both actor and composer) a forthcoming production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Whether he passed away before contributing anything to those pictures remains to be seen, but even if he did, you need only go back to 2012 for his next credit (The Woods). He began performing in vaudeville at the age of 18 months. Yes, it’s true: Mickey Rooney was the only movie star — and surely there will never be another — who could boast a 90-year career in show business.
Just about every kind of show business, too, except medicine shows, grand opera and ballet. Vaudeville, movies (and, in the 1930s, personal appearances to go with them), radio, television, Broadway (in Sugar Babies, which was a revival of old-time burlesque), you name it. At one time or another, people as varied as Cary Grant, Anthony Quinn, Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando and Gore Vidal named Mickey Rooney as the best actor in Hollywood. Well, I don’t know about the best actor, exactly — competition there is mighty stiff — but there can be little doubt that he was the most multi-talented person who ever stood in front of a movie camera. He could act, sing, dance, clown, and play piano and drums (among other musical instruments).
He also had a talent for getting married. Or, to be more precise, the one talent he lacked was for staying married — at least until his eighth and last marriage, to Jan Chamberlin in 1978. (They eventually became estranged but never divorced, and she survives him as his widow.) He once joked that his marriage licenses were addressed “To Whom It May Concern”, and said that “in those days you had to get married to get laid.” (A reading of his 1991 autobiography Life Is Too Short shows that, in his case anyhow, that wasn’t true.)
Ninety years in any line of work is going to have its ups and downs, and Mickey’s life was turbulent. There were problems with alcohol, pills, gambling and bankruptcy. His Irish brashness wasn’t always charming, and not everyone who worked with him cherished fond memories of the experience (Ann Miller was particularly bitter about Sugar Babies, for which both of them were nominated for Tonys). Through it all, he kept plugging away. He had to — both psychologically and financially. Along the way he accumulated four Oscar nominations (two in his heyday, then two more after he was supposedly washed up), two special Oscars (1938, 1982), five Emmy nominations (one win), two Golden Globes, four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and that Tony nod for Sugar Babies.
During all those decades, he worked with four generations’ worth of moviedom’s best performers and/or biggest stars. A partial list, in no particular order: Ed Wynn, Joel McCrea, Maureen O’Sullivan, Edward Arnold, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Will Rogers, Jean Harlow, William Powell, James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Wallace Beery, Spencer Tracy, Warner Baxter, Rosalind Russell, Sophie Tucker, Robert Montgomery, Lana Turner, Rex Ingram, Kathryn Grayson, Lee J. Cobb, Esther Williams, June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Walter Huston, Agnes Moorehead, Thomas Mitchell, Pat O’Brien, William Demarest, Robert Preston, Bob Hope, William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, Edmond O’Brien, Mel Torme, Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Audrey Hepburn, Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, James Caan, Bruce Dern, Clint Eastwood, Stewart Granger, Jean Arthur, Red Skelton, Dick Van Dyke, Burt Reynolds, Michael Caine, Raymond Massey, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Griffith, Liza Minnelli, Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, Richard Widmark, James Stewart, Christopher Lee, Dennis Quaid, Nathan Lane, Helen Hunt, Stacy Keach, Tim Robbins, John Cleese, Cesar Romero, Angela Lansbury, Tobey Maguire, Ernest Borgnine, Ned Beatty, John and David Carradine, George Clooney, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Kirk Douglas and Amy Adams.
Not to mention the entire cast of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Plus, during his hungry days and among the more obscure of his 338 movie and TV credits, more unknowns, losers and nobodies than most of us have even seen.
In the late ’30s and early ’40s, when Mickey was the No. 1 box-office star in America, it seemed that the Andy Hardy pictures would be his legacy to movie history — that is, it would have, if anybody had been talking about things like “legacies” back then. Certainly Louis B. Mayer thought the Andy Hardy series was MGM’s (and his own) greatest achievement, and it was Andy that won Mickey that first special Oscar, “for bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth”.
Well, time and changing tastes have rubbed some of the bloom off Judge Hardy’s family. In fact, the rub started early: the last Hardy picture, in 1958, was a flop. Now, with hindsight, we can see that the high point of Mickey’s epic career was his screen partnership with Judy Garland. Most of all, there were the four Mickey-and-Judy musicals they made for Arthur Freed, the ones where the rallying cry was “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show/form our own band/stage a rodeo!” First came Babes in Arms (1939), then Strike Up the Band (’40) and Babes on Broadway (’41), and finally, the best of the bunch, Girl Crazy in ’43. (That’s the one that inspired this multimedia rendering by MGM staff caricaturist Jacques Kapralik.) In addition to those, there were Judy’s appearances in three of the Andy Hardy pictures (Love Finds…, Life Begins for…, and …Meets Debutante) and a specialty number in 1948’s Words and Music, with Judy guest-starring as herself in a duet with Mickey’s Lorenz Hart to “I Wish I Were in Love Again”. Finally, there was a nostalgic, wistful reunion on Judy’s short-lived TV show in December ’63. Every time, their teaming was nothing less than pure joy.