Posted by morlockjeff on May 13, 2012
This is Part Two of a tribute to that irrepressible force of nature known as Ninian Joseph Yule Jr. (aka Mickey Rooney) and some of the more offbeat, underrated and over-the-top movies he made in the post-MGM years. Part One covered the ‘50s and ‘60s – http://moviemorlocks.com/2012/04/29/hey-mickey-youre-so-fine-you-blow-my-mind/ – and this post takes us through the ‘70s and beyond.
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.
Basically 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 – a sleazy exploitation thriller which has appeared under the various titles of THUNDER COUNTY, 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, and if you aren’t afraid to inquire further, check out the lurid trailer below:
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).
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 Way (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 – http://moviemorlocks.com/2007/12/08/mickey-rooney-as-youve-never-seen-him/.
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. But the main focus is on Reilly who wastes no time in hiring Aloha (Marianne Sagebrecht of Bagdad Cafe), a wet nurse, and getting down on all fours, crawling around in an oversize diaper and communicating in babytalk gibberish (which is dubbed into Spanish by an actor whose hilariously incongruous voice adds another layer of bizarreness to Rooney’s performance). The make or break moment – the one where you decide to either flee the room or continue watching in astonishment – is when the Mickster begins breast-feeding on Marianne Sagebrecht’s more than ample bosom.
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 & 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, MICHAEL KAEL CONTRE LA WORLD NEWS COMPANY, a French comedy with Benoit Delepine, Victoria Principal, William Atherton and Elliott Gould, and ANIMALS WITH THE TOLLKEEPER (1998), 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 needs 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.
And Mickey just keeps chugging away with three more films currently in production including BAMBOO SHARK, a satire about some college dropouts turned filmmakers, DRIVING ME CRAZY, a comedy by Steve Marshall starring Renee Taylor, Joseph Bologna, Dick Cavett, Celeste Holm, Louise Lasser and Jan & Mickey Rooney, and THE DEVIL IN THE FOG (2012), a fantasy adventure that seems to be geared for the Harry Potter crowd.
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”). And he’s still with us and going strong. Anyone who happened to witness the red carpet ceremony of TCM’s Classic Film Festival this year (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.
http://www.shockcinemamagazine.com/godmothers.html The Godmothers
http://firstofmay.com/behindthescenes.html First of May site
http://to-cite-movie.livejournal.com/36618.html?thread=168970 animals with the tollkeeper
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