This post kicks off Noir's Serious Goofballs, a series examining comic actors who gave compelling dramatic performances in film noir.
After singing and dancing his way through most of the thirties and forties, Mickey Rooney found his particular brand of sunshine out of fashion in postwar America. The collapse of his popularity must have come as a shock to a man who, only a few years before, was one of the biggest box office stars in America.
Born Joe Yule Jr. in Brooklyn in 1920, he was hustled onstage in a tiny tuxedo at 17 months old by his vaudeville parents. In a sense, he never left the spotlight. After his parents divorced in 1923, little Joe’s mother hauled him out to Hollywood. After he was cast as Mickey “Himself” McGuire in a series of popular comedy shorts, his mother legally changed his name to “Mickey McGuire” to cash in. A few years later, when he was ready to branch out into other roles, he was rechristened Mickey Rooney. In the 1937 B-movie A Family Affair, he turned the supporting role of a spunky kid named Andy Hardy into a box office juggernaut. Over the course of fourteen Andy Hardy films, he represented a worry-free American boyhood. More successes followed: hit musicals like Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band with Judy Garland, a critically acclaimed dramatic turn in Boys Town opposite Spencer Tracy, the smash hit National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor. From 1939 to 1941, he was Hollywood’s biggest box-office draw.
Then came the war. By the time it was over, everything had changed—from Hollywood itself to the country it was trying to entertain. No longer a kid, Rooney faced darkening horizons. The country had taken a turn for the noir.
Like many a man faced with trouble, Rooney tuned to crime—at least on screen.
In 1950, he teamed up with actor-turned-director Irving Pichel for the cautionary tale Quicksand. In the film, Rooney plays a cash-strapped mechanic named Dan Brady. In the opening scene, Dan’s drinking at a greasy spoon diner when a beautiful woman (Jeanne Cagney) saunters through the door. Her name is Vera, and like all women named Vera in film noir, she seems to have wandered in from hell looking for a man to kill. Dan volunteers to take her out for a good time because he’s too dumb to see that all Vera really wants is a two-thousand dollar mink coat. Since he can’t even afford to take her out to dinner, he borrows twenty bucks from the cash register at work. This one act of dishonesty sets into motion a nightmarish chain of events.
Here's a clip from Quicksand with Vera, who's distinctly tilted, and her ex-boss, played by noir stalwart Peter Lorre.
Every move Dan makes only gets him into deeper trouble, and yet moment by moment his decisions seem to make sense. His mistakes are huge, but it’s easy to see how and why he makes them.
This film owes a lot to Rooney’s willingness to complicate his iconic cheerfulness. In past roles, this quality had always been a good thing, an all-American can-do boldness. Part of what he does in Quicksand, however, is to let that attribute curdle into a little man’s insecurity and bluster. Dan’s a dope and doesn’t know it—and, this being film noir, that’s exactly as it should be. Watching this film is like watching fate rough up Andy Hardy.
Fate wasn’t done, either. Rooney did more work on the dark side: the 1951 musical noir The Strip; the title role in Don Siegel’s 1957 Baby Face Nelson; the 1959 The Big Operator, a bargain-basement On the Waterfront.
These films ran from the good (The Strip) to the awful (The Big Operator), but Rooney did make one excellent film noir. Richard Quine’s Drive a Crooked Road (1954) tells the story of Eddie Shannon (Rooney), a mechanic and part-time race car driver. Without knowing it, Eddie catches the attention of a group of bank robbers led by Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy). Norris needs a wheel man for a job he’s planning, a job which will require a driver of great skill. He dispatches his sexy girlfriend Barbara (Dianne Foster) to seduce the little guy and talk him into helping them pull the job. At first, Eddie refuses, but he’s simply too in love with Barbara to resist for long.
What happens next is interesting. We might expect the bank job to go badly, or for Norris and his gang to stiff Eddie on the money, but the film makes a rather unexpected detour. The money (oddly enough for a film noir) isn’t really the sticking point here. The fallout is really over matters of love.
While Rooney still had some spring in his step in Quicksand, in Drive a Crooked Road, we find him playing a very different kind of role. For one thing, the film uses none of the usual tricks to lessen the impact of the actor’s height. Everyone in the film, including Foster, towers over him, and the film uses his diminutive stature as a way to way to underline that Eddie Shannon is an odd little guy. He’s quiet, even around his buddies at work, and Rooney is surprisingly effective as an introvert. He’s a lonely man, and the gang picks him out because he’s a lonely man.
How will Rooney be remembered? Unlike his frequent co-star Judy Garland, he never had an enduring Wizard of Oz-sized phenomenon, and while Shirley Temple movies have had staying power, does anyone watch Andy Hardy movies anymore? If he is to be remembered as more than a song-and-dance man who peaked at the age of 21, Rooney’s surprising noir work during the fifties might make for an excellent point of reevaluation.
Jake Hinkson is the author of several novels, including the newly-released The Big Ugly.
Read all of Jake Hinkson's posts for Criminal Element.