Yesterday, one of the last of the great Golden Age stars passed way. Mickey Rooney (born Joseph Yule Jr.) has died at age 93, ending a career that literally spanned ten decades.
Nearly ten decades of working in every facet of show business. Makes you think–what have I done so far? (Yesterday I cleaned my apartment somewhat…)
Most people out there know him from his popular ’30s and ’40s films, such as the Andy Hardy films, his musicals co-starring Judy Garland, and classics such as National Velvet and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some might not realize that his career went back so far that he began on the vaudeville stage as a baby and transitioned to being a child actor in silent films–just in time, before the talkies started taking over.
His first film was the short Not To Be Trusted (1926), where he played the part of “The Nephew.” He was then cast–as a midget!–in Orchids and Ermine (1927), a Colleen Moore vehicle.
William M. Drew’s book “Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen” contains a wonderful anecdote about this film–according to Moore:
“[The midget had] a little mustache and was twirling a cane. He sat down and talked to me like a 30-year-old man. He said, ‘What about this, Miss Moore?’ Then he’d reach over and pat the lady who was with him on the knee and say, ‘And my mother. Someday, I’m going to build her a beautiful house.’ The casting director said, ‘Okay, we’ll hire him.’ Then Al Santell turned to me and said, ‘Look, the casting director said he’s a five-year-old kid. He’s crazy–that’s a midget, and that lady’s his wife and not his mother.’ Well, of course, it turned out to be Mickey Rooney. Sonny Yule was his name originally.”
Following this Rooney was given the starring role of “Mickey McGuire” in a series of comedy shorts based around the comic strip Toonerville Trolley. Apparently, the audition had called for a “dark haired child” and Rooney’s mother couldn’t afford to get his light hair dyed–so she colored his hair with burnt cork. It worked, and Rooney would play Mickey McGuire until 1936, in almost 80 films.
Rooney signed a contract with MGM in 1934, and officially became a star through the popular Andy Hardy films. By the late ’30s and early ’40s he was the top box office draw in Hollywood. The rest, which includes a massive output of film, television, stage, commercial, and voice acting work, is history. (IMDB lists 340 credits for acting alone.)
Rooney was a fun-loving guy who had probably lost count of all the famous people he had known and worked with (he perhaps even lost count of his marriages). For years now I’ve been wondering how many people have been interviewing him about his work in Hollywood–where are the books, the documentaries? Why wasn’t he being more celebrated (from what I could see) for being one of the very last great links to old Hollywood? After all, his was a life that doesn’t come twice.
Thank you for all your hard work and enthusiasm, Mr. Rooney. I hope you’re up there hanging out with Judy Garland again, putting on another show.
UPDATE: Some amazing and very relevant news–Rooney’s very first starring film, Mickey’s Circus (1927) was found very recently in the Netherlands and is slated for preservation. The timing of this amazing find can only be chalked up to fate. Cheers!