Posted by Jeff Stafford on April 29, 2012
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…and often did.
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 The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933) on up to his final films under contract there – Summer Holiday (1948) and Words and Music (1948). But 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 boxoffice hits like Love Finds Andy Hardy (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 thriller, BONS BAISERS DE HONG KONG (1975, aka From Hong Kong with Love) or TREASURE TRAIN (1982, aka The Emperor of Peru aka Odyssey of the Pacific) in which Mickey plays a crippled railway conductor 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 (The Last House on the Left, 1972) 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 an underrated 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 300 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 and he is STILL working today, with at least four movies in production (according to IMDB) including a thriller called THE WOODS with Franco Nero and Michael J. Pollard!
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.”
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 underrated and brutal 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.
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.”
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). But, 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. But 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 the shock of that 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 boxoffice disaster and career staller for director John Frankenheimer. 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).
As you can see I have only spotlighted some of the more offbeat detours in Mickey’s filmography of the fiftes and sixties and haven’t even touched upon the much stranger movies he would make in the seventies on up to the present. Stay tuned for more Mickey magic and madness in the next installment.
Life is Too Short by Mickey Rooney
I.E. An Autobiography by Mickey Rooney
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