Forget about Boys Town, Judge Hardy and Son, Babes in Arm, The Human Comedy or National Velvet. This is the less traveled road of Mickey Rooney’s post-MGM career where anything goes like co-starring with a talking mule (Francis in the Haunted House, 1956) or managing a troupe of trained monkeys (Babe: Pig in the City, 1998).
Most classic movie fans are well acquainted with this actor’s career at Metro Goldwyn Mayer from his first bit parts in such films as The Beast of the City (1933) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) on up to his final films under contract there – Summer Holiday (1948) and Words and Music (1948). Yet even admirers of this 5 foot 2 inch powerhouse are probably unaware of some of the bizarre, unexpected, challenging and questionable roles he accepted in the post-MGM years – many of them much more fascinating and entertaining than box office hits like Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1938) or Young Tom Edison (1940). Anyone familiar with The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960), an Albert Zugsmith sex comedy, co-directed by Rooney, with Mamie Van Doren, Fay Spain, Mel Torme, Tuesday Weld, Paul Anka and June Wilkinson? Or Hollywood Blue (1970), a soft core documentary on the stag film directed by Michael Benveniste (Flesh Gordon), Bill Osco (Mona: The Virgin Nymph) and Howard Ziehm (Harlot) with Mickey providing the voiceover narration?
How about the French spy comedy, Bon Baisers de Hong Kong (1975, aka From Hong Kong with Love) or Treasure Island (1982, aka The Emperor of Peru aka Odyssey of the Pacific) in a fantasy film for children from surrealist artist Fernando Arrabal (Viva la Muerte, 1971)? And don’t forget Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991), a direct-to-video horror thriller with Rooney as a crazed inventor who designs toys that kill or Illusion Infinity (2004), an all-star biopic about Las Vegas singer Patricia Paradise – who? – and her search for “Shangri-La” with the Mickster mixing it up with Dee Wallace, Timothy Bottoms, Barbara Carrera, Theresa Saldana, Martin Kove and Lilyan Chauvin.
The slippery slope that became Rooney’s career in the post-MGM years was a rollercoaster ride of peaks and valleys, filled with disasters in the opinion of the star and countless career comebacks – the late 50s (The Comedian on Playhouse 90, Operation Mad Ball, Baby Face Nelson), the late seventies (Pete’s Dragon, The Black Stallion) and the late 2000s (Night at the Museum, The Muppets).
In the two autobiographies he has written – I.E. An Autobiography (published in 1965) and Life is Too Short (published in 1991), the actor freely admits that he took a lot of jobs for the money and is particularly harsh in critiquing the results, even when the resulting film deserves more credit than that due to Rooney’s committed performance. For example, he stated, “I made The Big Wheel for $10,000. If you saw it, you’re in a small, unselect minority. I made Quicksand for another $10,000. As a few critics wrote, I sank in the stuff.” I happen to like Quicksand, which is a forgotten noir by director-actor Irving Pichel (he is most memorable in Dracula’s Daughter) and co-stars Peter Lorre, Barbara Bates and Jeanne Cagney, sister of Jimmy, as the femme fatale.
The Big Wheel (1949) and Quicksand (1950) were the first two films Rooney made upon leaving MGM after a volatile argument with Louis B. Mayer. He had decided to partner with executive producer Samuel H. Stiefel and go solo, a decision he would live to regret but not so lamentable for any true fan of the actor because there were many career milestones ahead along with some cherished oddities and hilariously memorable pitfalls.
Consider then some of these eccentric endeavors in a career that has yielded more than 325 film and television credits and that’s not counting stage work or Broadway productions like Sugar Babies. Not too shabby for a guy born in 1920 who worked right up to the year he died in 2014 at age 93.
The Atomic Kid (1954)
As sophisticated as a Bowery Boys comedy but with a much more ambitious premise, this Republic Pictures programmer directed by Leslie H. Martinson features Mickey as a prospector caught in an experimental bomb test in the desert. He survives but develops a telling glow; instead of being highly toxic, the exposure gives him unique powers such as being able to ignite fireplaces, short circuit electrical equipment and win jackpots at Las Vegas casinos. Now that we are more enlightened about the dangers of nuclear bomb testing, this movie works better as a black slapstick comedy with Mickey in hyperactive mode. The star was rather happy with the outcome and stated, “I become radioactive and, with my newfound powers, help to round up some Communist spies. Benedict Freedman and John Fenton Murray turned it into a cute script, and darned if this little picture didn’t win rave reviews.”
Francis in the Haunted House (1956)
After six movies in the Francis, the Talking Mule franchise for Universal, Donald O’Conner called it quits so guess who was the perfect go-to actor to replace him? In his only Francis movie – though he would work many more times with “talking” animals – Mickey muddles his way through a plot about a series of murders at a creepy old mansion. Directed by lowbrow comedy specialist Charles Lamont (Ma and Pa Kettle, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars), this was the final film in the Francis series but is more interesting for early screen appearances by David Janssen and eccentric character actor Timothy Carey (he had just appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing) than Rooney’s comically nervous hero.
Magnificent Roughnecks (1956)
I love Jack Carson – a great, underrated character actor – and he seems like an ideal match up with Rooney for a comic buddy movie but this one was promoted as an action-adventure with the two stars as brawling, lusty oil field men in a poverty row production from Herman Cohen (I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Trog). 1956 was a low point for Rooney as he noted in his memoirs, “In that year, I made three turkeys, The Bold and the Brave, Francis in the Haunted House, and Magnificent Roughnecks. Nobody remembers them. I hardly remember them. But I was nominated for an Oscar for my work in The Bold and the Brave – mainly on the strength of a crap game sequence which, they tell me, I made up as I went along.”
The Comedian (1957)
Luckily, Mickey enjoyed a resurgence the next year with his electrifying performance as tyrannical, egocentric actor Sammy Hogarth in The Comedian, a live TV production for Playhouse 90. It was directed by John Frankenheimer from a teleplay by Rod Serling (based on a novella by Ernest Lehman) and co-starred a dynamite cast: Edmond O’Brien, Kim Hunter, Mel Torme, Constance Ford, Whit Bissell, and King Donovan. Critical acclaim for The Comedian earned Rooney better film and TV offers for a while as he struggled to rid himself of personal problems. As he stated in his autobiography, “Other people were learning Mickey Rooney could act. It was time to get up from the bed. Break the bottle. Kick the pills. Get out there. An audience is waiting.”
The Big Operator (1959)
This Albert Zugsmith production is a lean, mean crime drama elevated by Rooney’s Jimmy Hoffa-like performance as “Little Joe” Braun, a corrupt union boss who resorts to threats and violence when he is investigated for racketeering by a Senate committee. Rooney has made some first rate crime dramas such as Drive a Crooked Road and Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson but this is one of the most overlooked and look at that supporting cast – Steve Cochran, Mamie Van Doren, Mel Torme, Ray Danton, Jim Backus, Ray Anthony (band leader/trumpet player and husband of Mamie Van Doren), Jackie Coogan, Charles Chaplin Jr., Jay North and Vampira!
Platinum High School (1960)
Hot on the heels of The Big Operator came this deceptively promoted potboiler, trading on the name recognition of the popular teen exploitation hit High School Confidential (1958). This one, a thinly disguised remake of Bad Day at Black Rock, casts Rooney as the pint-sized hero, investigating the death of his son at an exclusive military academy populated by delinquent kids from wealthy families. And the school’s unwelcoming commandant (played by Dan Duryea) seems to be hiding something. Retitled as Trouble at Sixteen and released on a double bill with Girls Town, Platinum High School is a completely engaging melodrama elevated by Rooney’s intensely focused performance and is of greater interest to film buffs today due to yet another eclectic acting ensemble that includes Terry Moore, Conway Twitty, Yvette Mimieux, Richard Jaeckel, Harold Lloyd Jr., Warren Berlinger and Elisha Cook Jr.
The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960)
Condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, this low-budget, independent production, presented a lewd come-on in the promotional campaign but was really a glorified schlockfest with plenty of hooks for pop culture freaks like the eclectic cast, the hokey gimmick of Spectacolor (the movie begins in black and white and switches to this inferior color format) and a goofy fantasy approach to what could have been a stultifying morality play. Steven Puchalski of Shock Cinema nails the film’s appeal when he writes, “Rooney hokes it up as Satan — complete with red longjohns and a straw hat w/horns. Conveniently, this co-director is continually fawned over and fondled by his scantily-dressed “Devil’s Familiars” (including June Wilkinson), who dress up as a baseball team and a jazz quartet. The best is when Rooney squeezes into a dime-store snake costume for his tempting of Eve.”
Everything’s Ducky (1961)
When you consider the featured poster for this film, it promises a much more insane viewing experience than the movie actually delivers. I’ve never been able to watch it all the way through but the novelty of Rooney, Buddy Hackett, curvaceous female co-stars, a talking duck and a theme song by The Hi-Los always makes me want to try it again. But I know better because The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops passed final judgment on it in their review which said, “Mindless comedy drags out the slapstick efforts of numbskull sailors Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett to save a talking duck from being used in a Navy missile experiment. Directed by Don Taylor, the situation is tiresome, though the duck proves easier to take than his booby pals.”
Among the more diverse Mickey offerings in 1961 were his improbable miscasting as Mr. Yunioshi, a tenant in Audrey Hepburn’s building in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and the B-movie biopic of an infamous gangster and bootlegger, King of the Roaring 20’s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein with David Janssen in the title role and Rooney as Johnny Burke, Rothstein’s childhood friend. All I want to say about the latter is that the Mick really knows how to milk a death scene.
The Secret Invasion (1964)
Like many U.S. actors who found movie offers becoming more scarce in Hollywood as they grew older, Rooney ventured to Europe like many before him in the fifties (such as Steve Reeves and Lex Barker) for better job opportunities. One of the first was, ironically, offered to him by American producer/director Roger Corman, who had already discovered that movies were cheaper to shoot in certain parts of Europe than the U.S. And so Mickey traveled to Yugoslavia to shoot a WWII action thriller with a cast that included Stewart Granger, Henry Silva, Edd Byrnes, Raf Vallone and William Campbell.
A minor league predecessor to the 1967 box office smash The Dirty Dozen, The Secret Invasion (1964) is an unpretentious “assemble the team” actioner directed by Roger Corman, produced by his brother Gene and filmed on location in Dubrovnik. Rooney might not be anyone’s idea of an action hero but he works well in the context of this movie’s modus operandi and the film was not only profitable but garnered surprisingly good reviews from critics like Judith Crist who called it “a slam-bang World War II adventure film that proves it takes a lot of action and glorious color photography to make the old cliches sit still…Yugoslavia and, chiefly, Dubrovnik have never been more photogenic than as background for this bit or commando derring-do.”
Twenty-Four Hours to Kill (1965)
If Dubrovnik proved to be an exotic location for a film, Mickey’s next European production, Twenty-Four Hours to Kill (1965) was shot in locations that would soon command world headlines for political upheaval and turmoil – Beirut and Byblos, Lebanon. The Lebanese Civl War broke out in 1975 but rumblings of political unrest were already being felt in the sixties. Twenty-Four Hours to Kill is an espionage thriller in which Rooney plays a crew member of a jetliner who is thrust into a dangerous situation when his flight is forced to make an emergency landing in Beirut due to engine trouble. I’ve not seen this obscure Eurospy entry but it sounds worth catching for a glimpse of Beirut before the bombings completely altered the look of this former tourist destination and a cast that includes former Tarzan Lex Barker, Walter Slezak and Maria Rohm, the Austrian actress who made many exploitation films with director Jess Franco.
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)
You can call the “Beach Party” movies trash. You can accuse AIP of exploiting the youth market with these mindless but calculated formula pictures but there are redeeming values in all of them, even moments of greatness – James Brown and the Fabulous Flames bursting into a ski chalet during a snowstorm to perform “I Feel Good” in Ski Party (1965). Besides giving cameo spotlights to great musical acts like Stevie Wonder and Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, these movies gave work to forgotten screen legends like Buster Keaton and Mickey Rooney. As a teenager in Richmond, Va., my first exposure to both of these actors was probably It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) – there were no classic movie channels then except the NBC franchise “Saturday Night at the Movies” (which premiered in 1961 and exclusively featured 20th Century Fox titles). After that, I followed Keaton in Pajama Party and the other AIP “Beach Party” films he made and Rooney in TV viewings of Baby Face Nelson, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I wasn’t very informed about his MGM career (except for clips of films I’d seen on TV) until college.
There’s no denying that How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is teen drive-in fodder but what a great title and snapshot of ‘60s California beach culture. Rooney, however, is pretty harsh in his memoirs, stating, “In March of 1965, I was tempted beyond my strength (the IRS was dunning me for $91,000 in back taxes) and I took a cheap assignment from American-International Pictures, which wanted to show me and Brian Donlevy How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. I don’t know why Donlevy took the job. I did it to pay some bills….Wild Bikini featured Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and it was one of the worst of the beach-blanket pictures ever. “
The Devil in Love (1966, aka L’arcidiavolo)
Yes, that’s Mickey with a pageboy haircut in this 1966 fantasy comedy from Italian director Ettore Scola (La Nuit de Varennes, 1982). Set during the 15th century, the story depicts a plot by Satan to send two of his minions up from the bowels of Hell to start a war between Rome and Florence but the mission is complicated by the visitors’ romantic involvement with mortal women. Here’s one I’d love to see but it could very well be a lost film at this point. At the time of its release, A. H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote the following, “A Nirreverential approach to Renaissance sex, war and other diversions places “The Devil in Love,”….a few notches above the run-of-the-movie English-dubbed Italian import. While the clowning of Vittorio Gassman and Mickey Rooney, whose voices are not dubbed, is merely rudimentary, the combination of a charming idea and contemporary cracks and sight gags in a period farce makes this a minor but refreshing ribbing of the classic past. As the handsome, womanizing agent of the devil sent to start war between Florence and Rome to recruit candidates for Hell, Mr. Gassman and his puckish, timorous sidekick, Mr. Rooney, foment the necessary troubles.”
1966 marked a terrible time in Rooney’s personal life although he appeared to be happily married to fifth wife Barbara Thomason who had recently given birth to their fourth child, a daughter. Thomason had a brief acting career under the under Carolyn Mitchell before marrying Rooney; she starred in Dragstrip Riot and The Cry Baby Killer (both 1958); the latter co-starred Jack Nicholson. Behind the scenes, their relationship was much more turbulent, beginning with their dubious Mexican marriage to Mickey’s philandering to Barbara’s affair with Yugoslavian actor Milos Milosevics, who had a bit part in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, billed as Milos Milos (his only other screen credit is Incubus, the bizarre Leslie Stevens fantasy which is the only known feature, I believe, filmed in the international language of Esperanto).
Divorce seemed imminent for Rooney and Thomason and they separated with Milos moving in with Barbara and her four children and Rooney moving into a new abode. On January 20, 1966, Milos, fearing that Barbara would return to Mickey because she would lose custody of her beloved children, killed her and himself in a double murder. Rooney’s candid comment in his memoirs was “What happened to her was the saddest part of my life.”
Rooney eventually recovered from that personal tragedy and threw himself into working again though the majority of job offers were TV appearances and supporting roles in the films of other top billed actors such as the mega big-budget studio bomb, Skidoo (1968), directed by Otto Preminger, with Jackie Gleason in the top billed role. Gleason plays a high rolling mobster whose daughter (Alexandra Hay) falls in with a bunch of flower children leading to a culture clash between gangsters and hippies. As a jailhouse stool pigeon, Mickey managed to stand out in a sea of supporting performances (Carol Channing, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Groucho Marx, Frankie Avalon, John Philip Law, Frank Gorshin, Austine Pendleton) but probably the most memorable part of the movie was Gleason’s LSD trip.
Mickey followed this up with appearances in The Comic (1969), an intriguing look at the self-destructive behavior of a former silent film comedian played by his off-screen friend Dick Van Dyke, and The Extraordinary Seaman (1969), a so-called WWII comedy that was another major box-office disaster and career staller for director John Frankenheimer.
80 Steps to Jonah (1969)
Rooney’s final movie for 1969, though, might be the weirdest of all – an unlikely family drama entitled 80 Steps to Jonah (1969), which marked the dramatic screen debut of Las Vegas singer Wayne Newton. I love the IMDB one line description for this film, which was directed by Gerd Oswald (Screaming Mimi, 1958): “A young man hiding from the law takes refuge in a summer camp for blind children.” Could anyone come up with a more ludicrous or inappropriate starring vehicle for Wayne Newton? Maybe they consulted with the masterminds behind Liberace’s dramatic screen debut, Sincerely Yours (1955). Still, 80 Steps to Jonah gets points for one of the most amazing supporting casts of all time with Mickey leading a pack that included Jo Van Fleet, Keenan Wynn, Sal Mineo, Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, Erin Moran (of the TV series Happy Days) and little Butch Patrick (of The Munsters).
The Manipulator (1971)
By the early seventies, Rooney’s days as a top billed star were far behind him and he was now seen as a supporting character actor in the eyes of most casting agents and directors. Yet he could still command the lead in low-budget, independent films and capitalize on his former fame as a MGM superstar in various cameo appearances on television. At the beginning of that decade, he was offered a rare starring role in The Manipulator (1971, aka B.J. Lang Presents) by first time director Yabo Yablonsky and the result was one of the strangest movies of his career and one few have seen.
Essentially a two character performance piece, the movie is part psychological thriller, part tragicomedy and comes off like a drugged out film version of an off-off Broadway play. Set in a creepy warehouse full of theatrical props, mannequins and costumes, the movie charts the unhinged behavior of B. J. Lang (Rooney), a former movie director who has gone mad and is under the delusion that he is staging a new version of Cyrano de Bergerac. He has also kidnapped and imprisoned a woman (Luana Anders) he has mistaken for his former lover/actress Carlotta and forces her to enact scenes from the Edmond Rostand play. Keenan Wynn shows up briefly in a cameo as an ill-fated wino but most of The Manipulator is a showcase for Rooney’s schizophrenic, hyperactive performance which begins at level eleven and rarely lets up. The claustrophobic nature of the film is somewhat alleviated by flashy editing techniques, psychedelic visual effects, a disorienting sound design and surrealistic touches such as a waltz through racks of beef carcasses.
Yes, it’s not for everyone and there is no middle ground here. You will either find it an unwatchable, pretentious mess or be entranced by its badness…or greatness, as the case may be. Consider these comments from the Final Girl web site: “I’m 13 minutes into the movie and I want to set myself on fire. I knew I wasn’t going to make it through The Manipulator…maybe my immune system isn’t what it used to be, or maybe I’m starting to feel my mortality and, you know, 90 minutes is a decent chunk out of the finite time I’ve got left on this planet.” Then again, you might side with Steven Puchalski of Shock Cinema, who writes, “Here’s a lost curio from the acid-inspired days of indie filmmaking….featuring a tour de farce performance by Mickey Rooney. It’s also an amazing achievement, which quickly destroys any preconceptions you might walk in with… it’s a slim concept (Sunset Boulevard meets The Collector) mutated into a hallucinogenic, comic nightmare… After 90 minutes of its dizzying pace, you feel like you’re on the verge of madness too. Overbearing, pretentious and brilliant, this is one film that bares repeated viewing.”
Prior to the Watergate scandal of June 1972, President Richard Nixon was already a target for parody and satire among the counterculture, resulting in such films as Emile De Antonio’s barbed documentary critique, Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971) and the lesser known Richard (1972), which was released only a month after the Watergate break-in…before it became a national news story. Unfortunately, Richard vanished shortly after a brief run and is an obscure cinema footnote today but the description on the TV Guide web site makes it sound worth digging up, noting that the movie “points out what America would soon be learning: Our President was indeed a crook. [Dan] Resin plays the young Richard Nixon, an “aw-shucks” boy-next-door type. He answers an advertisement for a Congressional candidate and becomes subject to [Hazen] Glifford, [Hank] Garrett, and [Paul] Forrest, a trio of unholy advisers. After some political failures, they advise the hopeful to submit to some plastic surgery under the knife of facial reconstruction whiz Carradine (the same job he held in Myra Breckenridge). The result is a new Nixon, played by Richard M. Dixon, a popular Nixon look-alike who had steady work from 1968 to 1974. This incarnation still can’t cut the political mustard, so the Powers Up Above send down for the future President a guardian angel (played here by [Mickey] Rooney in a parody of his boyhood role of “Puck” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Dixon is forced to undergo a filmic brainwashing not unlike that of A Clockwork Orange. [Paul] Ford, [Kevin] McCarthy, and [Vivian] Blaine subject him to newsreel footage of the actual Nixon (which is funny stuff in and of itself–the infamous “Checkers” speech, a classic in unintentional self-parody). Dixon learns his lessons well and goes on to political fame and fortune.…Considering what happened over the next few years, Richard is weirdly prophetic as well.”
Mike Hodges, who directed the grim, highly influential British noir Get Carter in 1971, didn’t fare as well with this subtle tongue-in-cheek crime thriller, which is both a satire and a homage to the Hollywood gangster films of Bogart, Cagney, Robinson and Raft. Despite an excellent cast featuring Michael Caine in the lead and strong supporting roles for Rooney, Lizabeth Scott, Lionel Stander and Dennis Price, the moviegoing public stayed away and the handful of film critics who reviewed it were either puzzled or mildly amused. Still, it has a clever premise – a hack writer (Caine) agrees to ghost-write the autobiography of a former movie star (Rooney) with well known Mafia connections, a decision that results in the writer being implicated in increasingly dangerous situations. It’s a plum role for Mickey, who has great fun sending up his own image, and a quirky, pleasant diversion with some dazzling, sun-drenched cinematography (shot in Malta).
Pulp was also a memorable experience for Caine who wrote fondly about it in his autobiography. Caine stated that Rooney, who was supposedly quite religious and “belonged to some small sect or other,” wasn’t completely capable of keeping his bawdy side in check…I remember how he used to tell me the filthiest jokes,” Caine writes, “with every four-letter word imaginable. At the end of the joke he would clasp both my hands, a pious look would come over his face and he would say, ‘God bless you, my son,’ with complete sincerity.”
The Godmothers (1973)
It was always one step forward, three steps backwards when it came to Rooney accepting film work. His constant financial and personal problems didn’t offer him the luxury of being discriminating in his choice of roles and he accepted almost any reasonable offer to the dismay of his agent. The Godmothers is a typical example of what happened when the actor exploited himself for profit. Steven Puchalski of Shock Cinema, wrote “this Mafia-comedy abomination is my definition of the Seventh Circle of Cinematic Hell. A G-rated, no-budget mobster-farce starring and written by Rooney (who also penned the songs!), and co-starring equally-down-on-their-luck cronies Jerry Lester (who hosted the first network late-night variety show, Broadway Open House, back in 1950) and a frighteningly obese Frank Fontaine (best known as The Jackie Gleason Show-sidekick Crazy Guggenheim). The end result is so painful to watch that only Rooney could’ve been responsible…. Clocking in at a merciful 75 minutes, it plays like a crappy Dean Martin Show skit that went terribly, terribly wrong, and made me long for the comparative subtlety of Jerry Lewis’ Hardly Working.”
Thunder County (1974)
Of course, The Godmothers looks relatively wholesome compared to what Mickey did next – Thunder County, a sleazy exploitation thriller which has appeared under the various titles of Swamp Fever, Cell Block Girls and Convict Women, which is how it appears on Netflix bearing this description: “Ted Cassidy (Lurch on TV’s The Addams Family) and Mickey Rooney star in this story of four female inmates who bust out of prison only to find themselves stranded in a swamp and caught up in a drug deal. Now, they must contend with alligators, venomous snakes, heroin smugglers and federal agents as they make their way toward freedom. Needless to say, there’s plenty of sex and violence in this exploitation extravaganza.” Rooney, despite the prominent billing, has a small role as a backwoods gas station attendant.
In typical fashion, Rooney always seems to bounce back from bad career moves and inferior movies thanks to his innate talent and the occasional manager or PR person who was able to save him from himself. A perfect example is publicist Ruth Webb, who according to Mickey in his autobiography, Life is Too Short, got him booked on the TV series Hollywood Squares and bought space on the electronic billboard in Times Square to wish him a happy birthday. “Soon, I was getting some modest movie offers. In 1975, I did Find the Lady for John Trent and Bon Baisers de Hong Kong (sometimes called From Hong Kong with Love), a kind of spoof on James Bond, for Yvan Chiffre. Neither of these pictures raised my stock very high, but they and Ruth’s PR kept me in the public eye.”
Find the Lady (1976)
A Canadian production shot in and around Toronto, this crime comedy features bumbling cops, inept mobsters, a kidnapping plot gone awry and a climax set in a carnival fun house. Rooney plays a hit man named Trigger but the movie’s curiosity value is upped by the presence of John Candy, who was just beginning to gain attention for his hilarious work on the SCTV series, plus Peter Cook (of British TV Beyond the Fringe fame) and Lawrence Dane.
The rest of the seventies marked a resurgence for Rooney beginning with a key supporting role in Stanley Kramer’s paranoid conspiracy thriller, The Domino Principle (1977), which featured a first rate cast including Gene Hackman, Richard Widmark, Candice Bergen, Edward Albert and Eli Wallach. Mickey followed this up with two popular family films, Pete’s Dragon (1977) and The Magic of Lassie (1979) and then appeared in the relatively unknown fantasy adventure, Arabian Adventure (1979), directed by Kevin Connor. The New York Times reviewer called it “a sweet-spirited, bargain-basement variation on the sort of film that reached its peak of splendor in 1940 with Alexander Korda’s “The Thief of Bagdad,” and went on to say, “The best thing in the picture is a brief appearance by Mickey Rooney, who plays the harried custodian (what we used to call janitor) of an Ali Baba-like cave, much in the manner of a latterday W.C. Fields.”
Following Arabian Adventure, Rooney enjoyed the biggest comeback of his career with The Black Stallion (1979). Not since the late ‘50s when he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for The Bold and the Brave (1956) and an Emmy nomination for his performance in the Playhouse 90 teleplay The Comedian had he received such audience and critical acclaim. As a result, he scored his second Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for The Black Stallion (1979), which was directed by Carrol Ballard and executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Rooney capped this triumph by winning an Emmy for his performance in the TV drama, Bill (1981), and then, as he had done many times before, marched off to the beat of his own mad drummer and agreed to star in The Emperor of Peru (1982).
The Emperor of Peru (1971)
Released under such various titles as Odyssey of the Pacific and The Railway Engineer, this unlikely children’s fantasy from director Fernando Arrabal (Viva la muerte, 1971) has recently surfaced as a Blu-Ray release bearing the name Treasure Train. DVD Review calls it “a film that strives to be a fanciful, timeless adventure, but ends up being strained, creepy, and overall pointless. I know Arrabal is something of a renaissance man, having written plays, novels, essays, poems, film scripts, and operas; he’s had exhibitions of paintings and he’s directed his work for film and stage. Here, he seems to be trying to tell a simple story of the faith of children and the boundless capacities of their imaginations, but he ends up with something that looks like it belongs in the K. Gordon Murray universe of weird foreign family films.” Nothing else Rooney made in the ‘80s was quite as peculiar as Treasure Train. Instead, he concentrated mainly on family fare such as The Care Bears Movie (1985), Lightning, the White Stallion (1986) and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989) with one wacky exception, Erik the Viking (1989), a comic fantasy by Monty Python’s Terry Jones with Tim Robbins in the title role and Mickey in a choice part as his grandfather.
La Vida Lactea aka The Milky Life (1992)
Just when it looked like Rooney was going to settle into a career of making children’s films and providing voiceovers for animated features, he popped up in a direct-to-video horror thriller as an insane inventor in Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991) and followed it with the most jaw-dropping movie of his latter career – La Vida Lactea, a surreal black comedy by Spanish filmmaker Juan Estelrich Jr., which I previously covered in a post in 2007.
A movie that hovers between art house fare and exploitation, La Vida Lactea is the sort of movie that makes you think you are hallucinating….but you’re not. In the film, Rooney plays, Barry Reilly, a billionaire who decides on his 80th birthday to retire but his announcement comes with an unexpected zinger that is a shock to his greedy family and in-laws. Reilly intends to spend his twilight years reliving that carefree, pre-consciousness state when he was a new born infant. He wants to regress to a state where he can be coddled, bathed, fed and loved – and he has the money to replicate the conditions and environment necessary for his indulgence. His vulture-like family has no choice but to humor him if they expect an inheritance and their devious schemes to sabotage the grand plan provide an intriguing subplot.
If only the rest of Rooney’s films in the ‘90s had been as wonderfully off the wall. Instead, what followed was an onslaught of genre films, most of which I have not seen and, judging from viewer comments on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, probably deserving of their obscure status.
Sweet Justice (1992)
This 1992 low-budget action thriller was strictly a take-the-money-and-run affair for Rooney who has an uncredited cameo. A direct to video release about a gang of female kickboxers avenging the murder of one of the women’s sister, the movie really belongs to Marc Singer (The Beastmaster), Finn Carter and Frank Gorshin in the key roles. Another example of Rooney’s slumming was his appearance as a corrupt police chief in Maximum Force (1992), a bottom of the barrel potboiler about three rogue cops forming their own vigilante squad to take down mobster Richard Lynch. Sam J. Jones (Flash Gordon, 1980) and John Saxon co-star.
Revenge of the Red Baron (1994) is another family adventure fantasy with Rooney playing grandpa to Tobey Maguire while Outlaws: The Legend of O.B. Taggart (1994) is a Western featuring one of the more eclectic casts of the ‘90s: Ned Beatty, country music stars Larry Gatlin and Randy Travis, Ernest Borgnine, Oscar winner Ben Johnson, Gloria DeHaven and Billy Barty. 1998 was an especially prolific year for the Mick with him starring in no less than five features and numerous TV shows, including Sinbad: The Battle of the Dark Knights with Richard Grieco and Dean Stockwell, and Michael Kael Contre La World News Company, a French comedy with Benoit Delepine, Victoria Principal, William Atherton and Elliott Gould.
ANIMALS WITH THE TOLLKEEPER (1998)
Here is a genuine curiosity which became a film festival favorite and then vanished from view. According to this viewer comment on IMDB, “Tim Roth stars as a broken dreamer who finds new meaning in the pursuit of an elusive love (Mili Avital) after a trio of elderly French documentary filmmakers hijacks his Checker cab to drive from New York to South Carolina. Praised as intelligent, sensitive, wise, artistic, funny and weird, Animals captures the story of three wayward souls guiding one man’s search for happiness and love. The film starts with a 13-minute B&W set piece, “The Tollkeeper”, which finds the Frenchmen, led by Lothaire Bluteau, in the Utah desert in 1933 filming Mickey Rooney as a cranky tuba player manning a way station to nowhere….International proponents of Animals include Roman Polanski, Jeremy Irons, Tchecky Karyo, Kazuko Kurosawa, Isabelle Pasco and Gilles Jacob of Cannes Film Festival.” Animals with the Tollkeeper also co-stars Rod Steiger, John Turturro and Barbara Bain which only adds to its cult status.
BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1998)
Rooney finished out 1998 with this much anticipated sequel to Babe, the beloved 1995 boxoffice hit from director Chris Noonan about the little pig who becomes a sheepherder. The sequel, however, directed by George Miller (of Mad Max and The Road Warrior fame) became one of the most misunderstood and maligned sequels of its era, earning mostly negative reviews from many high profile critics and finding little support among fans of the original Babe because of its dark, fantastical look and tone. It really isn’t a film for small children – too frightening – but Babe: Pig in the City is pure cinema, a dazzling flight into and through a daunting urban landscape with elements of black comedy, adrenaline-fueled adventure, tragedy and biting satire. The plot finds Babe on a mission to save the Hoggett farm from foreclosure but he ends up in desperate circumstances in a cruel, inhospitable city. Mickey Rooney only has a small role here – he plays a grumbling old clown who manages an act of trained monkeys – but his bizarre appearance coupled with his sad fate lend a haunting poignancy to the film.
Babe: Pig in the City deserves a major reassessment but I’m not the only one who thinks it was shamefully overlooked. Comparing it to the original Babe, Roger Ebert wrote, “It is more of a wonderment, lolling in its enchanting images–original, delightful and funny. It doesn’t make any of the mistakes it could have. It doesn’t focus more on the human characters–it focuses on them less, and there are more animals on the screen. It doesn’t recycle the first story. It introduces many new characters. It outdoes itself with the sets and special effects that make up “the city.” And it is still literate, humane and wicked. George Miller, who produced, directed and co-wrote the film, has improved and extended the ideas in “Babe: Pig in the City,” instead of being content to copy them….Here is a movie that is all made up. The world and its characters materialize out of the abyss of the imagination, and in their impossibility, they seem more real than the characters in many realistic movies. Their hearts are in the right places. And apart from what they do and say, there is the wonderment of the world they live in (“A place just a little to the left of the 20th century”). I liked “Babe” for all the usual reasons, but I like “Babe: Pig in the City” more, and not for any of the usual reasons, because here is a movie utterly bereft of usual reasons.”
After Babe: Pig in the City, I found it difficult to access or see many of the movies Rooney worked on in the intervening years. Still, I continue to be amazed by his energy and drive. Has anyone seen any of these obscure entries in his filmography?
THE FIRST OF MAY (1999) – An eleven year old boy (Dan Byrd) runs away from home with a nursing home inmate and joins the circus. Sounds like a formulaic family film until you look at the cast. Julie Harris is the nursing home escapee, Charles Nelson Reilly plays an aging clown, Rooney is the circus owner and, in his final screen appearance, is baseball legend Joe DiMaggio!
INTERNET LOVE (2000) – Even more under the radar is this indie rom-com in which two romantic pen pals – one in Los Angeles, one in Germany – finally meet after a sizzling email relationship and find they have no chemistry together. The supporting cast here is especially intriguing and besides Mickey Rooney includes Tippi Hedren, Don Murray and director Budd Boetticher as himself.
THE THIRSTING (2007, direct to video) – God only knows what the Mick is doing in this soft core occult thriller which has ambitions to be a nunsploitation film as well. Here is a brief excerpt from the IMDB on the storyline: “The Thirsting is a derivation of the Lilith myths taken from biblical texts. It centers around the story of a nun, Sister Katherine, who fled to the church seeking comfort from memories of ritualistic abuse as a child in an effort to get her to voluntarily host the spirit of Lilith – Adam’s first wife and the mother of all demons.“ I guess Rooney still needed money badly.
THE VOICES FROM BEYOND (2012) – This low-budget paranormal thriller offers the novelty of seeing Rooney with his current wife Jan Rooney in a film together and sweetens the pot with Linnea Quigley and Joe Estevez, brother of Martin Sheen, in minor roles.
Mickey just kept chugging away with more films including Driving Me Crazy (2012), a comedy by Steve Marshall starring Renee Taylor, Joseph Bologna, Dick Cavett, Celeste Holm, Louise Lasser and Jan and Mickey Rooney, The Woods (2012), a fantasy adventure that seems to be geared for the Harry Potter crowd, and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014).
It all sort of boggles the mind when you look at Rooney’s entire career. He has received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor twice and Best Supporting Actor twice, not to mention winning two honorary Oscars – a 1939 Juvenile Award (shared with Deanna Durbin) for “bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth” and a 1983 Honorary Award (for “50 years of versatility”).
Anyone who happened to witness the red carpet ceremony of TCM’s Classic Film Festival of April 2012 would have seen the spry 92-year-old legend practically doing a jig down the red carpet. There was also an unexpected reunion of sorts with Mickey and the daughter of former co-star Judy Garland – Liza Minnelli.
I know this entire blog has been focused on the offbeat and bizarre films of Mickey Rooney but I would be remiss if I didn’t list some of my favorite films of the actor that make him a legend for the ages in my eyes: the mischievous Puck in the William Dieterle/Max Reinhardt film version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), the egotistical rich kid who gets humbled by Judy Garland in Girl Crazy (1943) with its superb music by George and Ira Gershwin, the Korean war vet turned jazz drummer with gangster connections in The Strip (1951), Baby Face Nelson (1957) with Mickey in his most ferocious and threatening mode, the loyal, sad sack trainer of beaten down boxer Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) and his poignant, twilight years role as a wise, elderly jockey in The Black Stallion (1979).
Other links of interest: