When veteran actor Mickey Rooney passed away on April 6 at the age of 93, he left behind a tremendous legacy of work, even if its scope confused the occasional entertainment journalist. (He wasn’t, for example, in any HARDY BOYS movies, nor was his last film A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, but this is what happens when you don’t pay film writers or give them access to the internet.) Rooney worked from childhood until his death, and through the nine decades, he amassed a huge variety of work that few actors could ever hope for. (Your move, Christopher Lee.)
But because Rooney was always working on one thing or another, his career choices were often… curious. He played Puck in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, and he played a gas station attendant in the sleazy THUNDER COUNTRY. He made films involving talking mules, black stallions, jailbreaks, roller derby prodigies, secret agents, and mentally disabled men, in every genre you could possibly come up with. It was as though Rooney didn’t really care what he was doing, as long as he was working – though even in some of the sleaziest films he made, he always gave his all to the performance. Can you imagine anyone else even having the gall to do the ridiculous Japanese accent Rooney sports in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S?
With this in mind, we present a look at ten of Rooney’s oddest films. And when bizarre works like SINBAD: BATTLE OF THE DARK KNIGHTS, PULP, MAXIMUM FORCE, JOURNEY BACK TO OZ, FIND THE LADY, FROM HONG KONG WITH LOVE, 80 STEPS TO JONAH, THE EXTRAORDINARY SEAMAN and EVIL ROY SLADE don’t make the list, you know the man has left behind a weird, wild world of film that will never be touched.
10. THE ATOMIC KID (1954)
Back in the ‘50s, atomic radiation didn’t lead to cancer – it led to super powers. You saw the effects in comics, and you saw it in 1954’s THE ATOMIC KID, in which Rooney and pal Robert Strauss absent-mindedly wander onto an atomic testing site after Rooney’s character Blix throws the compass away because “it always pointed in the same direction.” Blix, it seems, survives the blast because he happens to be eating a peanut butter sandwich at the time, which doubles his metabolism.
Based on a story by Blake Edwards, THE ATOMIC KID is fairly passable Saturday matinee fare, but it’s certainly a unique one as the nuclear angle isn’t just a plot device – it’s the whole point of the film! After some tests on the base featuring Rooney’s then-wife Elaine Devry (who is billed as Mrs. Mickey Rooney!) as a nurse and love interest, While his best pal tries to work up a profitable angle, Blix helps break up a spy ring thanks to his new powers, which involve setting off slot machines and glowing when he gets romantically aroused. It’s like a dumb, kid-friendly version of “Captain Atom,” and it’s one of the few times Rooney played the lead as an adult – even if as a “kid,” he’s a bit long in the tooth at 34 years old at the time.
9. THE GODMOTHERS (1973)
I’ll admit that I haven’t been able to track down a copy of THE GODMOTHERS, but the fact that it comes from DEATH CURSE OF TARTU director William Grefe is certainly enough to pique my interest – an interest increased by the fact that Rooney wrote the project himself, along with coming up with the songs.
Yes, songs. According to Shock Cinema’s write-up, Rooney plays a mobster who gets the hand of a Don’s hefty daughter but wants to get out of it, so he concocts a scam involving cabbage, drag, and kimonos. Described as a “Dean Martin Show skit that went terribly, terribly wrong,” THE GODMOTHERS seems like something that has to be seen to be believed. So, c’mon, Mr. Grefe, release it on DVD!
8. SKIDOO (1968)
You might expect SKIDOO to rank a little higher on this list – Otto Preminger’s bizarre LSD musical comedy with an all-star cast has developed a cult reputation over the years as one of the strangest studio films ever made. And it is, what with Jackie Gleason getting dosed by Austin Pendleton to see the floating head of Groucho Marx, and being capped by Carol Channing singing the title track dressed as George Washington.
But Mickey Rooney, playing the mob stoolie Gleason’s retired mobster is sent to prison in order to “kiss,” turns in one of the film’s most normal performances. He’s not really involved in any of the film’s most notoriously nutty sequences, and while the movie itself goes off the rails at every opportunity, Rooney is just another cog in the plot machine here. Maybe if his character had been a hippie, SKIDOO would have ranked higher.
7. EVERYTHING’S DUCKY (1961)
EVERYTHING’S DUCKY begins with a prologue about how much it respects those who serve in the United States Navy. It then proceeds to tell the story of two incompetent naval officers and a talking alcoholic duck.
Rooney was no stranger to talking animals when he co-starred with Buddy Hackett in DUCKY, the directorial debut of actor Don Taylor – he’d taken a talking mule to a haunted house before – but DUCKY is pretty dumb even for a talking animal film. He and Hackett are stationed on a fake submarine in the middle of the desert when they’re given the task of releasing a deceased scientist’s duck, Scuttlebutt, into the wild. They soon discover the duck has a voice and a taste for martinis, so they protect him when the government discovers he may have the scientist’s secret formula in his head. Hackett gets most of the fowl play, but Rooney is certainly just as ridiculous as the pair teach the duck to quack and eventually all end up in a rocket ship. It’s incredibly dumb and nonsensical, but the experience couldn’t have scared Rooney off the concept that much, as he’d work with live-action talking animals again years later in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY.
6. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 5: THE TOY MAKER (1991)
Sure, Rooney got some flack for hypocrisy when he appeared in the fifth (and, to date, final) chapter in the holiday slasher franchise as he’d publicly denounced the first film in 1984. To be fair, however, he had no idea Martin Kitrosser’s THE TOY MAKER was going to be marketed as a sequel – it’s nonsense that stands on its own quite well, thank you very much.
In TOY MAKER, Rooney takes the lead as a toy store owner named Joe Petto, giving him a chance to explore the other side of the Pinocchio story that he’d previously brought to life via a 1957 television special. This puppeteer, however, is a bad dad, an alcoholic with an army of attack toys whom he inflicts on unwitting folks while dressed as Santa due to family issues. Or is he? THE TOY MAKER feels even stranger than the premise suggests, thanks to some impressively odd plot twists and a gleefully manic performance by Rooney, who goes from kindly old man to psychopath with the efficiency of an old pro. You can’t blame a guy for the mild hypocrisy – maybe if the producers of the first SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT had given Rooney a nice, juicy part, he wouldn’t have had to write any strongly-worded letters.
5. ILLUSION INFINITY (2004)
Plenty of major stars retire, or at least become very selective as to their roles, after their fame starts to wane, but Rooney wasn’t one of them. He kept working right until the very end, even appearing in a new version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE that has yet to be completed.
While this meant he was certainly busy, it also meant he appeared in a lot of weird stuff. Case in point: 2004’s ILLUSION INFINITY, an “autobiopic” of singer Patricia Paradise that’s such a personal project that it becomes completely pretentious and incoherent to anyone not named Patricia Paradise. Dee Wallace stars as the singer, who takes a road trip to the desert after her husband’s apparent death and has visions and/or experiences about her past and future, including Rooney as both her grandfather and the head of “Shangri-La,” a land she once knew and seeks again. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds, and it’s paced so poorly that you can’t even get much “camp” value from it. Joseph Bottoms plays five roles, Barbara Carrera seems to be playing a supervillian, Martin Kove shows up at a sexually aggressive taxi driver, and Rooney, who took the role after Ray Walston died during production, defaults into “wise old man” mode because it’s apparent nobody knew what to make of any of this. It’s nice to see Wallace in the lead, though.
4. THE DEVIL IN LOVE (1968)
What the heck was Rooney doing in Ettore Scola’s 1966 Italian supernatural comedy? He probably got a very nice vacation out of the deal, but I don’t know if that was enough to make up for the weirdness of the role he plays.
It’s 1486, and the lack of strife in the world has made collecting souls difficult, so Super Devil Belfagor (Vittorio Gassman) is sent to Earth with his assistant Adramalek (Rooney) in order to start a war between Rome and Florence. Belfagor, however, just wants to get with the ladies, much to the chagrin of Adramalek, who teleports, starts fires and can only be seen by his master. Rooney plays the role as an adult Puck, and it’s completely silly stuff, with Rooney’s voice dubbed into Italian – at least Armando Trovajoli’s score is pretty solid. The rest of the movie can basically be summed up with the snapshot above.
3. FOL-DE-ROL (1972)
In FOL-DE-ROL, Mickey Rooney plays a leather-clad, mask-wearing executioner and torturer who has his wife locked up, raves about how great it is to cause pain, and places hot irons on a victim’s feet. FOL-DE-ROL is a children’s musical comedy.
Made as a pilot for a prospective series, 1972’s FOL-DE-ROL came from the minds of Sid and Marty Krofft, who provided the ‘70s with insanely memorable kid’s entertainment that would scar a generation. FOL-DE-ROL only aired once, and it’s hard to see how the musical set in the renaissance era. The cast includes Cyd Charisse, Totie Fields, Billy Barty, Yma Sumac (!), Ann Sothern and Ricky Nelson. Puppets sing Hoyt Axton’s “Joy to the World.” A person plays a poodle. There are jokes about the Crusades. A mute jester wanders around. Rooney also plays the biblical Noah, introduced by Howard Cosell. It’s a shame the only version available is so washed out, but at least you can see it here just to see that I’m not a crazy person.
2. THE MILKY LIFE (LA VIA LACTEA) (1993)
Another title in Rooney’s roster that exists primarily on word-of-mouth (I haven’t been able to track it down), Juan Esterlich’s THE MILKY LIFE stars Rooney as billionaire playboy Barry Cortez Reilly, who decides to retire on his 80th birthday. Sound normal? Sure! But Reilly’s retirement has his life going full-circle, as he decides to become a man-baby, dressing only in a diaper and being cared for by a wet nurse played by BAGDAD CAFÉ’s Marianne Sagebrecht!
From what it sounds like, things get even odder than that, as Reilly starts becoming an actual infant, but for more info, you’ll have to check out Shock Cinema’s Steve Puchalski writing about the film here. It’s certainly something special that shows that Rooney was willing to take insane chances even into his 70s. Here’s a compilation of clips, anyway:
1. THE MANIPULATOR (B.J. LANG PRESENTS) (1971)
There’s no doubt that Rooney made plenty of strange movies. But all the baby fetishists, deranged santas, LSD-induced mobsters and talking ducks in the world don’t have a thing on THE MANIPULATOR, the strangest, Mickey Rooniest Mickey Rooney film of all. The sole directorial effort of Yabo Yablonsky (later the writer of the wild JAGUAR LIVES! and the John Huston WWII soccer flick VICTORY), THE MANIPULATOR is all Rooney, all the time, and all at his scenery-devouring craziest.
In THE MANIPULATOR, Rooney plays Bill Lang, a deranged man who lives on an apparently abandoned Hollywood storage facility, who talks to mannequins and non-existent people as he works on his dream project, some sort of experimental film involving… love and dancing and naked pale people maybe? His “star” is a woman that he calls Carlotta tied up (played by Luana Anders) who just wants some food. The entire film is a journey into Lang’s madness, as he preens, dances, rants, serves Carlotta baby food, hallucinates (a lot), puts on make-up and generally acts like a deranged psychopath, but Rooney pulls it off, eliciting a performance that borders on strangely sympathetic through all of the crazy. Complete with music that seems designed to disorient, THE MANIPULATOR is a film that needs to be seen to be believed, and fortunately, you can do so below:
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