• U.S.

Cinema: Success Story

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Hollywood’s No. 1 box office bait in 1939 was not Clark Gable, Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power, but a rope-haired, kazoo-voiced kid with a comic-strip face, who until this week had never appeared in a picture without mugging or overacting it. His name (assumed) was Mickey Rooney, and to a large part of the more articulate U. S. cinemaudience, his name was becoming a frequently used synonym for brat.

Nevertheless, Mickey Rooney was no brat to some 24,000 movie exhibitors who (in the annual Fame-Motion Picture Herald poll) voted him the man whose pictures kept their houses best filled.

Mickey Rooney was no brat either to thousands of movie-goers who had already mightily plumped for him in the solid form of dimes and quarters at those theatres.

Nor did Mickey Rooney seem a brat to his studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for whom in 1939, he grossed a box-office total of $30,000,000. They saw Mickey Rooney in bread & butter terms, and as such he was the biggest actor of the year in pictures.

Mickey Rooney began as small as an actor can be. And to get where he has gotten took Actor Rooney a lot of time, a lot of talent, a lot of brass, a lot of luck, and a lot of names.

Sonny. Mickey Rooney was born Joe Yule Jr. some 19 years ago on the present site of the Brooklyn Telephone Company building. His mother, née Nell Carter, was a small-time Kansas City vaudevillian when she met up with dancing Joe Yule shortly before World War I, married him.

Mickey was called Sonny and at seven months Sonny could walk around backstage. At one year he could already say: “I’m not going to do that.” He was ready to make his debut. He did so by interrupting a serious duet of Sid Gold and Babe Latour. Dressed in his backstage jeans, Mickey brought down the house by ambling out from the wings in the middle of their act and piping Pal of My Cradle Days. After that first performance Sonny was in the act.

At three Sonny was wearing specially tailored, midget-sized tuxedos that cost the Yules $55 a suit. At four Sonny was a has-been. Age was robbing him of his infantile cuteness. It took him almost a decade to get it back again.

Meanwhile the Yules separated. Mom, who kept Sonny, found the going hard.

One day, with some six or eight other footloose vaudevillians, Mom bundled Sonny and luggage into two automobiles, headed for Hollywood. It was 1925. Sonny was five.

Joe Yule Jr. First effect of Hollywood on Mickey Rooney was to make him resume his rightful name, Joe Yule Jr.

Mom got $15 knocked off her rent for taking charge of a bungalow court. Joe Yule Jr. got some small parts, sometimes made as much as $50 a week. But this was small change compared with the dreams Joe Yule Jr. was beginning to dream in the heady Hollywood air.

Afternoons off, Mom and her son, like two characters out of a Theodore Dreiser novel, would go for long bus rides through booming Beverly Hills. Joe promised his Mom a big house some day and a great big car “where you sit inside and the chauffeur sits outside and gets rained on.” Mickey McGuire. Through thick and thin Mom has always been a great newspaper reader. Combing the classified ads one day, she found one asking for a young actor to play black-polled Mickey McGuire in a series of shorts based on Cartoonist Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Trolley strip. Mom blackened little Joe’s tow head with burnt cork, and for the next seven years Joe Yule Jr. made 78 Mickey McGuire pictures at $200 a picture. He also had his name legally changed to Mickey McGuire. But in 1932 Producer Larry Darmour shelved the series.

Without a job himself Mickey McGuire decided to put his name to work. He planned to take Mickey McGuire on a ten-week vaudeville tour. McGuire never went. For this time Mickey was not only jobless but nameless. Irate Cartoonist Fox had haled him into court, forced Mickey to relinquish the name McGuire. But Fox could not make him give up Mickey. In a moment of inspiration Mom suggested that Mickey take the surname Looney. Mickey changed it to Rooney.

Mickey Rooney. In 1937 MGM bought a play by Aurania Rouverol, called Skidding. It was a mild little piece about a small town U. S. family, named Hardy, whose ups and downs were intended to rouse no deeper emotion in theatre-goers than a tender smile through a film of happy tears. MGM proposed to turn Skidding, with title changed to A Family Affair, into a picture on a rock-bottom budget of less than $200,000.

Mickey had been an MGM contract player ($250 a week top) for a year, and his pert ways and brassy cackle had lent themselves to shows like A h Wilderness, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Devil Is a Sissy. It did not look to anybody as if the part of Andy Hardy in A Family Affair would buy Mom’s big car. It was a B picture and got a normal B response. But serials were being done. So MGM made another Hardy picture, and another. The fourth one, Love Finds Andy Hardy, was made by the kind of reflex that keeps studios grinding them out.

Nobody was more surprised than MGM officials to wake up one night to find that Love Finds Andy Hardy was being enthusiastically received in all the best movie houses. Here was MGM with a serial gold mine on its hands and a surprising new star, an appealing Irish roughneck who had twined his boyish fingers around the heart strings of U. S. movie goers.

Andy Hardy. Four more Hardy pictures were made and Mickey found himself with an income of some $1,000 a week and $10,000 bonus per picture. In rapid succession he acquired a list of good things that would stagger the imagination of the dreamiest moppet in the highest hayloft on the hottest day. Items: a ranch, a race horse, a twelve-room home, 19 radios, a jazz band, two dogs, the junior singles tennis championship of the Pacific Southwest, a wardrobe like Clark Gable’s, two automobiles, a hideaway apartment in Beverly Hills, a football team, a colored valet, a collection of pipes, a golf score in the 80s, an Oscar, the authorship of three nationally popular songs, a guitar, saxophone and two pianos, a set of stooges including two U. S. C. football players, a kiss from Bette Davis, a crown from Ed Sullivan, a broken leg, 80 chickens, three turkeys, three ducks, three geese, six canaries and a parrot.

He also acquired a reputation for liking the girls and having a swelled head.

Reports of his heart affairs were fabulous. Mickey Rooney had lived backstage from the time he was two months old, and his approach to tabooed topics was decidedly more worldly and realistic than that of the average boy of his age. He discussed the first stirrings of his young libido with a candor that amazed even the publicity boys. Soon one of the most popular of Hollywood indoor sports was to uncork Mickey Rooney, let him spill his thoughts on forbidden subjects. Wild, baseless rumors began to be gaily whispered around that made Master Mickey look like Hollywood’s leading roue. His fresh-guy impersonations on the screen contributed their bit.

Suddenly MGM took fright. The studio became acutely aware that their most valuable property was in danger of becoming tagged as a pinchbeck, cocksure, juvenile Don Juan.

There were lectures, an enormous publicity campaign to rehabilitate and sell Master Rooney as the typical American boy. It has been highly successful and is still carrying on. So is Mickey Rooney.

But for his public’s sake publicity-wise Mickey now keeps his private life reasonably private. He even endures the presence of the husky attendant whom MGM has appointed to keep him out of trouble.

Not all Mickey’s coetanes are equally fond of him. It is no secret that between Master Rooney and Master Jackie Cooper (another virtuoso of swing) no love is lost. When Dead End Kids Huntz Hall and Gabriel Dell got to Hollywood, both offered to fight Mickey immediately.

Their challenge was never honored though husky Mickey might easily take either of them.

Alone, Mickey likes to run down to Santa Anita for the races on which he fancies himself quite an expert. There are indications that he has ambitions to acquire a stable. Whether he does or not, Mom will have something to say about it.

Greying now, but still spry of step and wrinkleless of face, Mom keeps a close watch over Mickey’s affairs.

Mom adores Mickey and Mickey adores Mom. She is very proud that Mickey takes her (instead of one of his pretty young things) to big Hollywood affairs like the Academy awards dinner (TIME, March 11). Of course, she knows his taking her does no harm to the legend of Mickey Rooney the typical American Boy. Mom welcomes any pretext to show admirers Mickey’s baby clothes, his first shoes and rubbers, which she has kept carefully all these years. She also keeps carefully the half of all Mickey’s earnings which (by California’s Jackie Coogan law) goes to her. Three years ago, Mom remarried—dark-haired, good-looking Fred Pankey, an accountant at MGM, who also lives at the Rooney home—El Ranchito.

Frequent visitor to Mickey and the Pankeys is Mom’s ex-husband, Mickey’s father, Joe Yule, with whom Mickey sometimes goes to the fights. Mickey had little trouble persuading MGM to hire his father for pictures after Joe Yule had been hoofing at a downtown Los Angeles burlesque house, billed as “See Mickey Rooney’s Father.” By hiring his father, the studio also hoped to end Mickey’s backstage visits to the burlesque house.

Joe Yule is remarried too. and the somewhat jumbled Yules and Pankeys have great times together. Accountant Pankey is reported to make out Joe Yule’s pay check over at MGM. Mickey’s step father does Joe Yule’s boy a good turn too sometimes, by driving the 40-mile round trip to Pasadena, picking up Mickey’s dates for him when Stepson Rooney is too busy.

Young Tom Edison. Mickey walks through his Hardy pictures, sometimes arrives for rehearsal with only the faintest notion of his lines. But he gives his big pictures everything he has. And he has been getting bigger and better pictures — Stablemates (with Wallace Beery, who calls Mickey “a brat” but “a fine actor”) ; Boys Town (with Spencer Tracy, who does not call Mickey anything) ; Babes in Arms (the musical with Judy Garland).

Last week Mickey got new fame and a new name when MGM released his most important picture to date — Young Tom Edison.

It took 75 years for the Lincoln legend to develop to the point where playing Abraham Lincoln (in Abe Lincoln in Illi nois) could be a peak in the career of an actor like Raymond Massey. The Edison legend is just beginning in the movies which Edison invented. What the rest of the legend would be like depended in part on who interpreted the first installment.

Mickey Rooney, the cheeky adolescent of the Hardy pictures, the little tough guy of Boys Town, the flashy little hoofer of Babes in Arms, was going to have to interpret the boyhood of one of the most significant Americans who ever lived. Mickey Rooney was going to interpret a boy, who (like himself) began at the bottom of the American heap, (like himself) had to struggle, (like himself) won, but a boy whose main activity (unlike Mickey’s) was investigating, inventing, thinking. Mickey Rooney not only had to make young Tom Edison plausible, he had to create the boyhood basis for a legendary manhood. He gave the role his most sober and restrained performance to date. That he did not succeed entirely was partly the fault of the production, partly because the picture featured Mickey in a role so different from his usual ones that puzzled cinemaddicts did not know what bewildered them most—seeing Mickey Rooney as Thomas Alva Edison or the future Wizard of Menlo Park as ebullient Mickey Rooney.

Their quandary was not helped much by the producers’ decision to make mildly misunderstood young Thomas Edison a sort of juvenile Arnold von Winkelried.

One boyhood does not seem enough to hold all the tortures the film Edison undergoes. If this picture has any influence on the Edison legend, the inventor of electric light will be thought of in future years as an inspired masochist.

Proudly Thomas Edison’s home town, Port Huron, Mich., previewed this picture in three movie houses simultaneously on the eve of the 93rd anniversary of his birth. The Port Huron of the picture is a less appreciative human hive with no movie houses. Its citizens seem to have little else to do but torment Tom Edison. Even Tom’s kindly father (George Bancroft) begins to look askance at his gifted offspring, who is universally called “addled” or “tetched.” Mother Edison (Fay Bainter) explains the unhappy state of affairs: it is because “Tom is looking for causes, not effects.” Tom seems to feel most of the effects. He is roughed up, slapped down, has his ears boxed (causing deafness), is thrown off a train by a friend four times his size (Eugene Pallette), is laughed at and denied work.

The villagers are not at all impressed by Tom’s repeated examples of resourcefulness. They resent, too, such boyish pranks as his smoking out the school-house with a chemical mixture, bringing a bottle of nitroglycerine aboard a crowded train, setting the baggage car afire with phosphorus. Not until Tom sends a Morse code warning with a locomotive whistle, prevents a train wreck, do chastened citizens acclaim him a hero.

As his erstwhile tormentors cheer and wave, Tom chugs off to greater things, soon to be revealed in Edison, the Man (with Spencer Tracy) now in production.

Whether Master Rooney is also chugging off to greater things remains to be seen. Because he is a manlier kid than any other who ever achieved stardom, his passage into maturity may not, as it has to others, mean his passage into professional oblivion. It is not conceivable that Jackie Cooper or Freddie Bartholomew might bloom into a Spencer Tracy. It is conceivable that Mickey might. If he does avoid the fate of Jackie Coogan, et al., he will have his Mom and the old theatrical trunk in which he was raised to thank, as well as his rough-&-tumble personality and physique. In fact, he does not like so much attention to be paid to his personality.

Some time ago a studio visitor asked him if he was as tough offstage as on. “Sir,” said Mickey, “I am an actor!”

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