America lost its all-time greatest entertainer when Mickey Rooney died on Sunday April 6 at the age of 93. Though he only stood 5’ 2” inches tall, Rooney was a one of a kind energetic and captivating performer equally adept as a song and dance man, dramatic actor and comedian who garnered four Oscar nominations plus Juvenile and Honorary Awards. Though his best films came in the 1930’s and 1940’s, a time when he also symbolized America’s youthful innocence, he worked constantly right up to his death and left a few gems in later decades.
Born to showbiz parents, Rooney hit the vaudeville stage as a toddler and then broke into silent movies with the 1926 short “Not to Be Trusted” at the age of 6. The following year he appeared in “Orchids and Ermine,” the first in a seemingly endless series of shorts in which he played a character named Mickey McGuire. His first major talking picture role came in the terrific 1934 crime-drama and triangle romance “Manhattan Melodrama” starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy. He plays Gable’s gangster, Blackie Gallagher, as a boy in the film’s opening.
Showing amazing versatility even as a young teen, Rooney played puck in the Oscar winning 1935 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with James Cagney and Dick Powell. His role as Andy Hardy in 1937’s “A Family Affair” spawned a huge string of sequels in which Andy became the main character. “Love Finds Andy Hardy” (1938) marked his first appearance with frequent co-star Judy Garland. They appeared in numerous musicals such as 1939’s “Babes in Arms” which earned Rooney’s first Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Among Rooney’s other must-see films is the 1938 classic “Boys Town.” He received a juvenile Academy Award for playing troubled youth Whitey Marsh opposite Spencer Tracey’s Oscar winning work as Father Flanagan. Rooney received his second Best Actor Oscar nomination for the wartime coming of age tale “The Human Comedy” (1943). Also of note is 1944’s “National Velvet,” a horse racing classic co-starring Elizabeth Taylor. Supporting Actor nominations then came for the 1956 war movie “The Bold and the Brave” and for his beloved role of horse trainer Henry Dailey in 1979’s “The Black Stallion.”
Fortunately for movie fans, Rooney’s astounding body of work is available on DVD with many titles at your Roanoke Valley Public Library. He also has two final films, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Night at the Museum 3,” due to hit the big screen later this year.