Tribute: Mickey Rooney

Posted on April 9, 2014 at 8:00 am

One of the last remaining links to the golden age of Hollywood left us this week when Mickey Rooney died at age 93. That means he was in show business for more than 90 years, from his first performance in vaudeville before he was 2 to his last in the upcoming remake of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”  In the Washington Post, Adam Bernstein’s graceful obituary paid him tribute.

The irrepressible performer Mickey Rooney, who died April 6 at 93, began appearing before audiences at 15 months in his parents’ vaudeville act, singing “Pal o’ My Cradle Days” while sporting a tuxedo and holding a rubber cigar.

So launched a nine-decade career of unapologetic scene-stealing — he could sing, dance, play drums and do pathos, pratfalls and impersonations — that once made him the top box-office draw in the world.

Born into a performing family as Joe Yule, Jr., he was just 15 months old when he joined his parents on stage. He appeared in more than 300 films, television shows, and theatrical productions, winning a special Oscar and nominated for a Tony. He was a performing powerhouse. His greatest success came as the star of the popular series of Andy Hardy movies, playing a small-town kid in an idealized America, and as the co-star of his close friend and fellow second-generation vaudeville veteran, Judy Garland. They made several musical films together and were usually finding some reason to put on a show in somebody’s barn. The stories were corny but the musical numbers were magnificent.

He first appeared as a child in silent films. Here he is in an early talkie, as Puck in the lovely “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Rooney was a gifted serious actor as well. Some of my favorites of his early performances are “Boys Town,” “The Human Comedy,” “Young Tom Edison,” and especially “National Velvet.”

He was nominated for an Oscar for another horse movie, “The Black Stallion.”

He appeared in every kind of film, from crime drama (“The Strip”) to sports (“Requiem for a Heavyweight”) to wacky comedy (“It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”). But in a romance, he was more likely to be the wacky neighbor (his most embarrassing performance, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) than the lead.

Off-screen, he struggled, with eight marriages (including Ava Gardner), and substance abuse, gambling, and financial problems, all described with candor in his autobiography, Life Is Too Short. His real home was performing and we were very lucky to be his audience. May his memory be a blessing.

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Actors Tribute

Pete’s Dragon

Posted on August 18, 2009 at 5:47 pm

“Pete’s Dragon,” a warm-hearted Disney musical fantasy combining live action and animation, is out on DVD today. It stars Helen Reddy (singing the Oscar-nominated song, “Candle on the Water”), Mickey Rooney, and Jim Dale (narrator of the Harry Potter audiobooks). The first person who sends me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with “Dragon” in the subject line will win a DVD.

PetesDragonHighFlyingEdDVD.jpg
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Contests and Giveaways Elementary School Fantasy For the Whole Family Movie Mom’s Top Picks for Families

The First of May

Posted on April 27, 2009 at 12:01 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some sad moments
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to DVD: May 7, 2008
Amazon.com ASIN: B0013FCYD2

Cory (Dan Byrd) is not enthusiastic about meeting Dan (Tom Nowicki) and Michele (Robin O’Dell), his new foster parents. Clearly, he has already decided it makes no sense to allow himself to get close to people. He responds to their kindness and patience by thawing a little, but it is not until his choir goes to perform at a nursing home that he finds someone to feel close to.
It is Carlotta (Julie Harris), like Cory also unhappy and out of place. Cory buys Carlotta the ingredients she needs to make her special candy, halvah. He loves to hear about her life in the circus, and as they become close they agree to be each other’s family.
When Cory thinks he overhears Michelle and Dan saying they are going to send him away, he goes to see Carlotta, and they agree to run away together. At first, they are able to support themselves by selling halvah. But when someone threatens to report Cory as truant from school, they run away. They find a circus and persuade Boss Ed (Mickey Rooney) to take them on to sell concessions. Carlotta meets up with some old friends and Cory makes some new ones (and triumphs over a jealous bully). They are very happy, until Carlotta becomes ill and has to go to the hospital. The circus has to leave without them, but Cory finds a way to have the family he dreamed of. This sweet, episodic story has many magical moments. The backstage glimpses of circus life are delightful. Cory even gets some batting advice from Joe DiMaggio, who appears as himself. Families of all kinds will respond to this story about people who triumph over a series of obstacles to create a family for themselves.

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DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week For Your Netflix Queue

National Velvet

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney) arrives in a small English town and meets Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor) just as she and her sisters have been let out of school for the summer. They like each other immediately, and she is delighted to learn that the reason he has come to her town is that he found her mother’s name in the address book belonging to his late father. He does not know what their relationship was, or what he hopes to find from her, but he has no other place to go.
At the dinner, Mi is tentative, not sure himself whether he is looking for a friend or an easy mark. That night, as Mrs. Brown goes over that day’s books and puts away the cash from their butcher shop, she and Mr. Brown talk about giving Mi a job. Mr. Brown is reluctant, saying they don’t need him, and that he seems to have a “sharpness” about him, but she insists. After Velvet tells him he is going to stay, he sneaks back into the house to return their money, which he had stolen.
The horse Velvet loves most is owned by a man who, angry and frustrated at his inability to control it, decides to sell it by lottery. Velvet wins and renames the horse Pi. He won’t pull the butcher shop cart, but he can jump a fence as high as the most treacherous hazard in England’s biggest horse race, the Grand National. So Velvet decides that he must be in that race, to have a chance to be the very best he can be, the very best there is.
They hire a jockey by mail, but Velvet knows the horse must be ridden by someone who loves him, and would rather not have him race at all than have a jockey who does not believe he can win. Just as Mi is about to volunteer, Velvet decides that she will ride the Pi, even if they could have had the best jockey in the world, even if they will get in trouble because girls are not allowed to race. She rides the Pi, and he wins. But they are both disqualified because she is a girl.
They come back home in triumph, knowing that they won what was important to them. Though they were not allowed to keep the title or the prize money, all charges have been dropped, and they won’t get into trouble for violating the rules. Mr. Brown is excited by all of the offers for appearances and endorsements, but Velvet knows that it would not be best for the Pi and that it is time to move on. So does Mi, who takes his knapsack and says good-bye to Mr. and Mrs. Brown. When Velvet hears that he has left, she asks if she can tell him about his father, who was Mrs. Brown’s coach, and how much he meant to her in achieving her dream. Mrs. Brown consents, and Velvet races after him, just catching up to him as the movie ends.
Discussion: “National Velvet” taps into one of the oldest, deepest dreams, the dream of horses. Every child dreams of controlling these huge, powerful, loyal creatures, of flying over hurdles on their backs, of earning their devotion and of being devoted to them in return. And then there is the dream of racing, as Velvet says in this movie, until you burst your heart, and then until you burst it again, and then until you burst it twice as much as before, until the two of you explode past the finish line ahead of everyone else.
This is the story of dreams themselves, wise and foolish, big and small, realized and impossible, and about the way all of these dreams change those who are lucky enough to dream them. It is about the importance of faith — Velvet’s faith in herself and in the Pi and in her dream, and her family’s faith in her and in Mi — and the importance of that belief and support in making the dream come true. Mi says, “You bit off a big piece of dream for yourself, Velvet.” But in one of the sweetest scenes ever filmed, Mrs. Brown takes out the 100 gold pieces she won for swimming the Channel, and gives them to Velvet. There were a thousand times the family could have used that money, but she was saving it for a dream as big as her own once was. She tells Velvet, “I too believe that everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly once in his life.”
“National Velvet” is also a rare movie that deals with what happens after the dream comes true. It sometimes seems that half the movies that are made, and well over half of the movies that are made for children, end with the hero or heroine triumphantly standing in the winner’s circle, holding the trophy overhead as the music swells and the credits roll. One of the things I like best about this movie is that it puts the dream in perspective. After they win the race, Mr. Brown is delighted with all of the offers for appearances and endorsements for Velvet and her horse. Instead of arguing with him, Mrs. Brown asks Velvet how she feels about it. Velvet thinks it might be fun for her, but says that she would never put the Pi through all of the foolishness that would be required. Velvet and her friend Mi and those around them take what they have learned from the dream and go on with their lives, something worth discussing in this era when any achievement, good or bad, becomes a miniseries.
But most of all, “National Velvet” is the story of a loving family. It is very different in many ways from the families that the American children of today know — for example, the mother and father are so reserved that they call each other “Mr. and Mrs. Brown” until the very last scene. But it is a wonderful starting point for a discussion of the ways that families of all kinds can teach and support each other.
One of the key themes of the movie is the faith that the characters have (and don’t have) in themselves and in each other. Mr. Brown is reluctant to accept Mi at first, with good reason. As Mrs. Brown says, it would be surprising for someone who had lived on the streets not to have a “sharpness about him.” But, she persuades Mr. Brown to give him a chance: “What’s the meaning of goodness if there isn’t a little badness to overcome?” Mi does steal their money, but when he learns of their faith in him, their offer of a job and a place to stay and Velvet’s acceptance of him as a friend, he puts it back. Later, when he has a chance to steal much more money from the family, he thinks about it, but decides that he can’t, because “she trusts me.”
Velvet’s faith in both Mi and the Pi is at the center of the movie. She accepts them both immediately and irrevocably, though both are mistrusted by others. She does not believe Mi when he says he doesn’t like horses, and when he says he is only interested in the race for the money. She knows that he feels as passionately for the Pi as she does, though he cannot say it.
Velvet also has faith in the future. She is certain that she will win the lottery for the horse she loves. When she tells everyone she will win, a suspicious neighbor suggests that she may have cheated by arranging for her father to pick her number in the drawing. She explains that she didn’t bother with that, she just worked it out with God. Mr. Brown responds to the neighbor’s accusation by having him do the drawing, and of course Velvet does win (after there is no holder of the first number picked). When the jockey they have hired by mail to ride the Pi in the race shows them that he not only does not believe that the Pi can win, he does not even care, Velvet knows that it would be wrong to let him ride her horse. Just like Mi and Velvet herself, the Pi deserves someone who believes in him.
Mr. and Mrs. Brown show their trust by risking letting Mi and their children make mistakes. “She has it in her to do the right thing,” Mrs. Brown says of Velvet, and lets her decide how to respond to the offers that come in after she wins the race. Mrs. Brown also lets Velvet run to school after being up all night caring for the horse. When Mr. Brown objects, she reassures him that Velvet will be back — it’s Saturday, and there is no school. But she let her go because “I like that part of her that wants to go to school after a night caring for the horse.”
Mrs. Brown not only lets Mi stay with the family, but she entrusts him to take her 100 gold pieces to London. Mr. Brown is certain he will steal it instead. But as the train pulls away, you can see Velvet reflected in the window of the train car. This symbolizes the way the image of Velvet, and her faith in him, stays with Mi, and prevents him from taking the advice of his friends who get him drunk and encourage him to steal the money. As they leave for the race, Velvet says to Mrs. Brown, “You’ll be proud of The Pi, mother.” Mrs. Brown says, “I want to be proud of you.” And she is.
Throughout the movie, Mr. and Mrs. Brown balance a spacious acceptance of their children’s passions with a firm set of values and a fairly strict set of rules. Velvet is permitted to pretend to ride in bed only one night a week, and only for fifteen minutes. At his first dinner with the family, Mi is reprimanded sharply by Mr. Brown (Donald Crisp) for feeding the dog at the table (“It will turn him into a beggar,” is a pointed comment made to the young man who has arrived at their door and may have some hope of being helped). But as we see during the course of the scene, each member of the family, including Mr. Brown, sneaks food to the dog when the others aren’t looking.
Similarly, Velvet is constantly reminded by everyone to wear her braces. When Mi does this, on the way to the race, it shows how much he has accepted the family’s set of priorities and the responsibility of caring for its members. In this case, though, he lets her take the braces out until the race is over. Like Mr. and Mrs. Brown, he knows when to suspend the rules. Mrs. Brown won’t tell Mi how much his father meant to her until he leaves them. As long as he had no faith in himself, that information would be no more than a way to get something from the Brown family. But once he no longer felt “soft and yellow inside,” he could accept it as a heritage to build on.

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Babe: Pig in the City

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Families who loved the adorable and heartwarming “Babe” need to know that this sequel, co-written and directed by “Mad Max’s” George Miller, is a much darker and more unsettling movie, not suitable for most small children.

Once again, Babe is called on to save the day, as the Hoggett’s farm is threatened with foreclosure. Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) and Babe must appear at a fair to raise the money to save the farm. But everything goes wrong. They miss their connecting flight and are stuck in the strange and menacing city.

Then things get worse. Mrs. Hoggett and Babe are beset upon by every kind of predator, and the warm and cozy scenes of redemption and reconciliation we expect never come. Mickey Rooney plays a genuinely creepy clown. A mildly happy ending is almost coincidental and anti- climactic.

The movie is easier to admire than like, which may be why it ended up on several critics’ end of the year “10 best” lists, and was picked by the late Gene Siskel as the best film of 1998. The visuals are wonderfully imaginative. The city is a miracle of production design, brilliantly conceived. There are special effects of breathtaking skill and small moments of genuine charm. Babe and some of his new friends are adorably endearing. Older kids and teens who are not too embarrassed may appreciate the film’s artistry. But younger children should stick with the original.

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