As part of the getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon, Paula’s Cinema Club is pleased to present this post by occasional contributor Jack Deth. He is also a regular contributor at Flix Chatter, so be sure and check out his posts there too.
Welcome, all and sundry!
When given the opportunity to examine, elucidate, and opine on Mickey Rooney, one of Hollywood’s busier actors of the 1930s and ’40s — opposite up and coming heavy-hitter Spencer Tracy in Boys Town, and countless young romantic musicals with Judy Garland, while being front and center in a string of shorts as very young man, “Mickey,” to a succession of lighthearted films about the travails of Andy Hardy — it’s the decade beyond that sparked my interest, in a quest to seek answers to the question: What now?
The 1950s presented Rooney with a string of offerings, some memorable, some not, which he took in a desire to put distance between himself and the characters most fondly remembered, cherished, and empathized with.
Two lesser-known films from this era caught my attention long ago, left their mark, and nearly demanded a second viewing, to see if that juvenile magic was still there. And for the most part, both films remain intact.
Without further ado. Allow me to proffer two distinct views of one of the more unsung character actors:
Breaking Away From Andy Hardy: A Mickey Rooney Double Feature
The first is a nearly forgotten, rarely seen, B & W post-Atomic Bomb comedy from 1954, directed on a miniscule budget by Leslie H. Martinson, and buttressed with the flimsiest of plots in and around the deserts of Nevada, New Mexico, and far southwest California.
The Atomic Kid (1954)
Where Mr. Rooney plays amateur archaeologist, mineralogist, and uranium prospector, Barnaby “Blix” Waterford. Down on his luck financially and romantically, Blix and his partner and longtime friend, Stan Cooper (marvelously gravel-voiced and slovenly Robert Strauss, who played Sgt. Stanislaus “Animal” Kuzawa in Stalag 17) hear a rumor about a mineral lode deep beneath the sands of New Mexico. (Read: the outreaches of government-owned and -facilitated White Sands Testing Range.)
Blix and Stan approach the next-to-nothing town. Stan decides to wait and watch at a distance as Blix stumbles in, investigates, and eventually enters one standing clapboard home in the deserted, middle-of-nowhere “town,” sees mannequins fully dressed around a family kitchen table, feels hungry, and decides to raid the pantry for a peanut butter and sardine sandwich.
While far away in a sandbagged bunker, high-ranking Army officers and white-smocked scientists (amongst them, the always-reliable Whit Bissell) start the countdown for a Nuclear Test, then notice activity in the far-off rocks around mesas outside the “town.” Soldiers arrive. Stan tells them that Blix is somewhere in the “Test Town”. The countdown can’t be stopped or aborted. The bomb high atop a tower explodes!
A mushroom cloud rises. Winds gust and swirl dust and debris to all points of the compass rose. The dust settles and Jeeps and trucks arrive as guards set a perimeter. Stan and an entourage of scientists gather around outstretched Geiger counters.
The site is hot. Just shy of leveled. Testament to the weapon’s destructive power. As a sound is heard, a pile of rubble and shingles shift. And Blix twists and inches out. Sandwich scorched on one side. Obviously unscathed. But speaking at about six times normal speed, and radioactively hotter than a three dollar pistol. Questions abound as Blix is taken to a lab and soaked in a heavy water tank to leech off some Roentgens.
Refreshed and his speech back to normal, Blix is introduced to Nurse Audrey Nelson (Elaine Devry, aka Mrs. Mickey Rooney at the time). And his luck changes. Though it’s kept in check, kind of, with a wristwatch-like device that points to different levels of danger when Blix gets excited. Which becomes often and obvious, as light fixtures in the immediate area that were turned off suddenly have brightly glowing bulbs.
With the passage of time. Men in dark suits and hats arrive, announcing themselves as the FBI, and want Blix to roam around Vegas and other spots to help flush out a Communist spy ring. Blix obliges. With Nurse Audrey safely ensconced in a hotel room nearby at first. Becoming inseparable with time. As contact is made, and the Commies being just as sloppy and ill-focused as you would imagine in the 1950s. Led by stalwart Robert Emmett Keane as “Mr. Reynolds,” and Peter Brocco as “Comrade Mosely.” Blix plays dumb, once delivered to the spies’ hideout. Becomes excited as future plans are laid bare. Pulls off some razzle dazzle with lights, lab equipment and appliances. As the spies panic and run into the waiting arms of the FBI.
After all the excitement settles down. Blix decides to throw fate to the wind and ask Audrey to marry him. Audrey is standoffish at first. Yet slowly agrees. Sealing the deal with a kiss that lights up the romantically darkened room, to the point that the FBI agents covertly watching from across the cul-de-sac have a fair idea of what’s going on.
What Does Mr. Rooney Bring To This Role?
Not really a buffoon, but more of life’s recipients of sad to bad tidings, enriching a rather flimsy plot and heightening the writing of a young upstart named Blake Edwards, in a “bread and butter” Republic Studios film that clocks in at 86 minutes.
Mr. Rooney also produced the film and used its budget frugally. Pinching pennies, though not really cutting corners, when necessary, while director Lewison uses Mr. Rooney’s talents as an ensemble player, if not the continuous focus of attention. All of the stock players have their times to shine. Especially Robert Strauss and Ms. Devry (the only woman in the cast), bouncing emotions off Mr. Rooney, who has lovely timing, and a penchant for riding the roller coaster from sad to ebullient and back again.
Is ‘The Atomic Kid’ a great film? No. Though it is a worthwhile diversion.And not just for its rarity.
A fairly well executed and streamlined into the near absurd. Not to be taken seriously. Outside of a fairly decent attempt to switch and take on a character a bit older and wiser than one which was a meal ticket only a decade earlier.
Which brings us to another journey of exploration, and a bit of exploitation, in a low-budget B&W United Artists release, directed by up-and-comer Don Siegel. And a screenplay, courtesy of Daniel Mainwaring (Out of The Past) and Irving Schulman.
Baby Face Nelson (1957)
Which opens with the standard honorarium to the FBI and its agents, then shifts to the shadow-swept confines of Joliet Prison and the release of shabbiily-suited Mr. Rooney, as low-rent nobody and recidivist criminal Lester M. Gillis, to the tender mercies of 1933 Illinois.
Fully expecting to follow the straight and narrow. Gillis is offered a ride within seconds of the prison gates closing. A ride to see “Mr. Rocca” (Ted De Corsia), leader of a small gang of bootleggers on Chicago’s south side, who may have had a hand in sending Gillis to Joliet originally. No love is lost, nor manly hugs exchanged, as Rocca explains the reason for Gillis’ early parole.
A Union bigshot is making too much noise and needs to be taken care of. Pointed out by Rocca as they share the back seat of a touring car. Gillis is given a silenced pistol to do the job. Gillis wants none of it. He takes the Rocca paid for hotel room, bathes, and is off to see his girlfriend, Sue Nelson (beguiling Carolyn Jones, long before “The Addams Family”). She watches the register and buzzer to the back-room offices of one of Rocca’s many pool halls.
Kisses are savored and a date is set for three hours later, when Sue goes off shift. In the interim, Gillis reads that his intended target has been murdered. Detectives bust in, and find the silenced pistol taped to the roof of the room’s flush box. A classic frame. Gillis is arrested. Booked. And gets to see Sue through a mesh screen before being shipped back to Joliet.
Sue finds out when and where Gillis is be loaded on the train to Joliet, and intervenes. Stumbling before two armed guards as Gillis knocks both unconscious and Sue wheels around with a getaway car, to ambush and seek revenge on Rocca and his hideout’s deserted staircase. With that task accomplished, Gillis decides to take Sue’s last name as they go to see if John Dillinger (Professional Bad Guy Leo Gordon) could use an extra gun hand. Dillinger nicknames the new arrival “Baby Face”. Gives him a Thompson. And explains their next payroll heist.
Cleverly executed, with the main guns hiding in a plumber’s van as the armored car arrived at the factory. Dillinger and his crew have the drop on the guards. A steam whistle shrills. And Nelson cuts loose. Dropping the three guards as they head off to lick wounds and hide out at the out-of-season Little Bohemia Lodge, where unlicensed and lecherous, “Doc” Saunders (Cedric Hardwicke) works on Dillinger, and starts flirting with the recently-arrived Sue.
Dillinger doesn’t want the heat of three dead bodies and cuts Nelson and Sue loose. The two head west to Minnesota and a string of bank and payroll robberies. Courtesy of architect and engineer “Fatso” Nagel (Jack Elam), who supplies schematics and blueprints. One robbery goes bad, Nelson is wounded, and decides to return to the one place no one will look. The Little Bohemia Lodge.
A group of FBI agents decide to play a hunch after Dillinger is betrayed and removed from the spotlight of “Public Enemy Number One”, and are spotted shortly thereafter. An agent (Dabs Greer) is shot and killed. Baby Face becomes a worthwhile substitute, as Nelson and Sue begin putting together their own gang, among them, Homer van Meter (Perpetual Sap Elisha Cooke, Jr).
A final job is suggested by Nagel, with the help of the FBI — a bank job, whose execution catches the Feds off guard, with the addition of tear gas grenades. Van Meter and the rest of Nelson’s gang locked in the bank’s vault. And a hail of gunfire as Nelson and Sue slip through the Fed’s dragnet.
I’ll leave it right here for spoilers’ sake.
What Does Mr. Rooney Bring To This Role?
An apocryphal and tabloid-splashed take one of the Midwest’s lower-tier desperadoes, heightening the folklore while bringing creepy life to a short and shallow man with an enormous chip on his shoulder.
Mr. Rooney fills the bill quite well. With mercurial mood swings, especially when and where Sue is concerned. Taking his anger out in grisly and cleverly edited ways. Letting his long-smoldering sociopath out to play and be glimpsed by Sue, who still loves him.
Backed up by a satisfactory Rogues Gallery of solid character actors of the day, on both sides of the law. Especially Mr. Hardwicke’s drunken “Doc” Saunders, Leo Gordon’s arrogant John Dillinger. And the building, grounds, lakes and dusty roadways around The Little Bohemia Lodge, a very familiar backdrop for several gangster and desperado films of the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. All under the touch of aspiring Don Siegel, adding another notch in his gun belt early on in his quest for greatness. And creating another noteworthy step towards branching out and away for Mr. Rooney!
This post is part of the getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen, and Outspoken & Freckled, taking place throughout the month of September. Please visit the getTV schedule for details on Rooney screenings throughout the month and any of the host sites for a complete list of entries. You can access the entire getTV schedule here and check to see if getTV is available in your area here.