Mickey Rooney remains a trouper

October 30, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

At the height of Hollywood's prominence as the whole world's Dream Factory, millions of people got the Mickey Rooney bug and had the chance to feed it three, four or five times a year. As indelible as the image of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tripping the light fantastic was the image of Rooney and Judy Garland hoofing to beat the band.

But Rooney always was more than a crackling comic and song-and-dance man. His talent stems from a complex and extroverted personality. He expresses joy, sadness and wildly mixed emotions with uncanny incandescence.

Baltimoreans can meet Rooney and sample his peak work when he appears at a screening tonight of his 1944 picture National Velvet for the Fourth Annual Senator Theatre Classic, benefiting the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp.

Next to The Black Stallion -- which starred Rooney 35 years later -- National Velvet, set in England in the '20s, is the best-loved horse film ever made. It inspired James Agee to write in 1944 that Rooney "is an extremely wise and moving actor," and to wish that Rooney and James Cagney could star as the young and old Studs Lonigan in movies of James T. Farrell's trilogy.

You'll never see a better star performance than Rooney's as Mi Taylor, a jockey emotionally crippled from a deadly spill who nonetheless helps the butcher's daughter, Velvet Brown (Elizabeth Taylor), train her horse for the Grand National Steeplechase. Mi tells her: "Someday, you'll learn that greatness is only seizing opportunity: clutching with your bare hands 'til the knuckles show white."

Rooney conjures a rue-streaked avidity that steals viewers' hearts even when Mi considers stealing money. And the way Mi lends his strength to Velvet as a trainer is inseparable from Rooney's generosity as co-star to the 12-year-old Taylor. The scene in which Mi cuts Velvet's hair so she can masquerade as a jockey is difficult dramatically and technically. Rooney and Taylor pull it off with ease, staying tuned to each other's feelings as if caught in a Platonic love duet.

A trouper for more than two decades before National Velvet came along, Rooney was born Joe Yule Jr. on Sept. 23, 1920, and began appearing in his parents' vaudeville act 17 months later. A movie actor from 1926 on, he first played cigar-smoking midgets, then starred in a series of shorts as the Toonerville Trolley comic-strip character Mickey McGuire.

Rooney burst with a keep-them-laughing vitality that he modulated in astoundingly different ways: as the wholesome All-American boy in the Andy Hardy movies, the wised-up kid of the streets in films like Boys Town, or the salt of the earth -- and sea -- in the classic Captains Courageous. As Mrs. Brown says in National Velvet, "What's the meaning of goodness if there isn't a little badness to overcome?" It's a line Rooney has said "could be my epitaph."

Currently, he's appearing nationwide in a revue titled -- humorously enough for a man married many times -- One Man, One Wife. It co-stars his eighth wife, the former Jan Chamberlin; they've been together 23 years.

Rooney answered a few questions by phone from Iowa:

What was your reaction when you were invited to appear at this screening of National Velvet?

Every picture you make is important, but that's one of my favorites. Working with Elizabeth Taylor was wonderful; Clarence Brown [The Yearling] directed, and he was wonderful. You know that scene when I cut Elizabeth's hair? We did that in one take!

Can you tell us how that happened?

I just did!

So Clarence Brown didn't give you any direction on that?

No, he just let everybody go along. We had better directors in those days.

Why?

They didn't work with digitals!

Did you go after the role of Mi? It's been called your first adult role.

I don't know if it was my first, or my third or fourth or fifth. I played it because it was given to me.

I know you don't like theories of acting.

Theories are stupid, silly. You just have to be yourself. That's my theory of acting.

But a lot of people can't be themselves on screen.

That's too bad! Now, in my One Man, One Wife show, Jan sings Patsy Cline; we sing Judy Garland songs; we sing together and do a little dance, and I play the piano. We do a lot of comedy, as well. I'm proud to be going around the country when it's in dire straits, to lift people's morale up and have a little fun.

Well, you've had experience doing that. Didn't you do `jeep shows' in World War II?

I was doing that when I was in the Army, serving in Germany, France, Belgium; and I was given the Bronze Star.

Were you pressured to serve or not serve, one way or the other?

I did it because I wanted to.

Did it affect your career?

No. Hollywood had shut down the way it seems to be doing today. Of course, it was completely different then -- now they make one picture in three years; then, we made three pictures in one year.

Stars were often typed. But you managed to be a star both as a good boy and a bad boy.

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