Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rooney's Still Putting On A Show. Reflections on Mickey Rooney's 90th Birthday

He, it could be argued, was the first teen idol. Mickey Rooney has had a career that has lasted longer than some of his contemporaries entire lifespans. In fact, it can be argued that other than Jackie Cooper (who recently celebrated his own birthday, turning 88 on September 15), no other current star can claim to have started work in the silent era.

Having that vaudeville background (and youth) saved his career when sound came to cinema (still amazing he started out in SILENT pictures). In fact, it was his youthful exuberance that helped get him a part in a small film called A Family Affair (1937).

It wasn't suppose to be anything special, this story of Judge Hardy and his family. However, America fell in love with the Hardys, and MGM (which knew a good thing when they saw one), made what can be called one of the longest franchises in film: a total of 15 Andy Hardy films were made between 1937 and 1946 (with one more, Andy Hardy Comes Home, in 1958 in a failed bid to revive the franchise). There are more Hardy films than the Superman, Spider-Man, and X-Men films combined. They beat out the Harry Potter series (at a mere eight) and the Star Wars films (only six).

If you account for number of films, the Andy Hardy films rank with such ventures as the James Bond films. Not bad for a film series about an ordinary family.

It was this ordinariness of the Hardy family that the public loved. It may not have been how a typical American family in the 1930s & 40s actually was, but it was the way Americans wanted it to be: a stern but loving father, a doting mother, wise daughter and irrepressible & lovelorn son. MGM more than any studio did the most to shape how America saw itself and what a family should be like (and it's a testament to their longevity that when people think of the 'typical' American family, they hearken to those like the Hardys or their television counterparts the Cleavers from Leave it To Beaver). Soon, Rooney's character of Andy became the center of the series (9 of the 15 films have Andy Hardy as part of the title). Andy Hardy made Mickey Rooney a star, and then, in 1938's Love Finds Andy Hardy, we had magic.

It was the first film to team Rooney up with Judy Garland, and thus was born one of the greatest screen team in film history. Together, they made the screen come alive with their mix of song, dance, and youthful idealism. Their films may have become repetitive (the theme of "let's put on a show" almost has become a cliché and even the titles sound similar), but in nine films Rooney & Garland worked beautifully together, and their films ranging from Babes In Arms to Babes on Broadway continue to entertain. In a certain way, Rooney & Garland set the standard for all sorts of male/female teams on screen. 

A quick glance at his films besides the Hardy pictures show his range as an actor: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Boys Town, Young Tom Edison, The Human Comedy, National Velvet, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Requiem For A Heavyweight, The Black Stallion, right down to Night at the Museum.

His first film was in 1927, his most recent hit film in 2006; only an 80 year span between the two. If that isn't an extraordinary career, what is? This isn't counting his television and stage work as varied as the burlesque homage Sugar Babies to his brilliant turns in the television films Bill and The Comedian. As good as he has been, he's also made a few mistakes.

This being chief among them: Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's. I know many people love this film and see it as the ultimate in romance. However, I couldn't get over the first few minutes of the film, where we're treated to one of the worst characterizations of Asians in all film history. It was the worst caricature of a Japanese man this side of World War II propaganda cartoons.

In fact, cartoonish is the best way to describe this abysmal exhibition of racial insensitivity. It wouldn't have been any better if an Asian actor (say Keye Luke or Sessue Hayakawa) were Mr. Yunioshi: the imagery is still quite horrifying, especially if, like me, you weren't expecting it. However, at least you would have had an Asian playing an Asian.

Having an Anglo play this Japanese character, and in the way he was played, added insult to injury. Lead to believe Breakfast at Tiffany's was this beautiful love story, one of the first things I see is an obviously Anglo man with thick glasses and buck teeth screaming at "Miss Go-righ-ry". As far as I know Rooney stands by his performance, and to a certain point I'll go along with him: for better or worse the interpretation was a product of its time (and I'm so glad to say 'was'). However, in retrospect it is quite shocking and distressing to see that imagery as late as 1961. In his defense, Mickey Rooney has never been connected to any bigotry or racism, so I don't believe it was the intent to offend. The viewer of Breakfast at Tiffany's should be the judge, but I think he/she should be warned ahead of time.

Ultimately, that might be considered a glitch in a lifelong career, and one role should not blot out an entire life's work. If we look at his entire body of work, he has much to be proud of. It's amazing that he is still working. It's not the fact that he's working at his age that is amazing. It's the fact that, given how tumultuous his life and career have been, he'd still want to.

In tribute to his career, we wish Mickey Rooney a Happy 90th Birthday.

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