Mickey Rooney might be best remembered for his ceaseless ups and downs, his dramatic failures and his many comebacks. But Rooney’s roller-coaster melodrama – he was married eight times and quickly spent the fortune he amassed – wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t also had genuine, enduring talent.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, while under contract for MGM, Rooney was one of the most popular stars on the planet. At just 19, he was the top box-office draw. In Rooney’s subsequent decades, things would rarely come as easily as his early stardom. But across movies, Broadway and television, his manic energy rarely flagged. Rooney, who died Sunday at age 93, remained working into his 90s, still driven to “put on a show.”
Five of Rooney’s most memorable movie roles:
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935) The production of Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s Shakespeare adaptation had to be rearranged after Rooney broke his leg while skiing, enraging Warner Bros. head Jack Warner. But as the mischievous sprite Puck, Rooney (who did the play on stage before the movie) excelled in the dreamy film, and it remains one of his finest and most enchanting performances.
“A Family Affair” (1937) It’s the film that birthed Rooney’s most famous role, Andy Hardy. Rooney would play Hardy, an all-American trouble-making boy, 14 more times over the next decade and again in the attempted revival “Andy Hardy Comes Home” in 1958. The films were hits. But while Rooney was portraying an idealized American home – chasing girls (Judy Garland in three films) and getting lectures from his judge father (Lionel Barrymore in “A Family Affair”) – the young actor was leading the more tempestuous life of a child star.
“Boys Town” (1938) Spencer Tracy starred as the kindly priest Father Edward J. Flanagan, who ran a home for underprivileged boys. But Rooney shared top billing with Tracy, playing the school bully and pool shark, Whitey Marsh, who – with maximum corniness – is reformed in the end. For his performance, Rooney won a special Juvenile Oscar, an honor that was given to performers younger than 18 from the 1930s to the 1960s, starting with Shirley Temple.
“Babes in Arms” (1939) This big-screen version of the Broadway musical also paired Rooney and Garland. Rooney earned his first lead actor Oscar nomination for the film, which showcased his song-and-dance talent with numbers like “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Good Morning” (later done in “Singin’ in the Rain”).
“National Velvet” (1944) As a former jockey (a common role for the diminutive Rooney), the actor starred opposite an 11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in her screen debut. The adaption of Enid Bagnold’s tale was Rooney’s last film before heading to war, a rare two-year gap in his otherwise constant output.