Mickey Rooney

Erik the Viking (1989, Terry Jones)

Erik the Viking is a great example of when the director doesn’t know how to direct the script. What makes it peculiar is… director Jones wrote the script.

The film, an absurd comedy about a group of Vikings trying to end Ragnarok so they people will stop killing each other, starts with the the very not comedic scene (though the film gets to laughs really quickly, which is rather impressive) of lead Tim Robbins, having completed his looting and pillaging, moving on to the raping part of the Viking code. His intended victim is Samantha Bond. Only Bond’s not into being raped, which throws Robbins for a loop—he’s never done this raping part before and doesn’t have the predilection for it. Instead he and Bond have what becomes a life defining conversation (for Robbins anyway) right before his comrades show up to rape her and he kills them.

And, accidentally, her as well, which throws him into a right funk. He can’t stop seeing Bond’s face, whether in a crowd, in the distance, or laid over another woman his comrades are torturing. Empathy’s a very un-Viking value, something Robbins’s grandfather (Mickey Rooney in a wonderfully unhinged cameo) tries to explain.

Rooney, rightly, doesn’t reassure Robbins, so Robbins heads up into the mountains to talk to recluse Eartha Kitt (in a good but sadly not great cameo, partially just due to the terrible composite shots showing the landscape outside her cave) and she tells him how he’s going to have to quest to the mystic land, Hy-Brasil, retrieve a magic horn, blow the horn to get to Asgard, then again to wake the gods, then again to get home.

To accomplish this task, Robbins has to put the band together. There are tough guy Vikings Richard Ridings and Tim McInnerny, McInnerny’s dad, Charles McKeown (who doesn’t think McInnerny’s tough enough), Christian missionary Freddie Jones (who’s the butt of endless great jokes, even when he’s saving the day), John Gordon Sinclair as the wimp (he’s great), and Gary Cady as the heartthrob blacksmith. Now, turns out Cady doesn’t want Ragnarok to end because he’s a blacksmith and capitalism; you stop the looting, pillaging, raping, and murdering and he’s out of business. So he gets his sidekick, Anthony Sher, to go and narc to local warlord John Cleese (of course) about Robbins’s mission. So Viking is basically Robbins and company on their quest, while avoiding Cleese trying to kill them all.

The quest takes them to the aforementioned magical land, which is a violence-free paradise with Greco-Roman style architecture, ruled by Jones. Imogen Stubbs plays Jones’s daughter, who becomes infatuated with Robbins. The attraction is mutual but only when Robbins forgets his secret mission—to bring Bond back from the dead. The questing will also take the band to Asgard, where they find the gods don’t live up to expectations but are a lot realer than anyone could anticipate. Because Jones, as writer, has a bunch of great ideas and a lot of good sequences, he just can’t figure out how to realize them on screen.

Making it stranger is the fantastic production and costume designs from John Beard and Pam Tait, respectively. Good photography from Ian Wilson, good music from Neil Innes; not good editing from George Akers, but you really get the impression it’s because Jones, as director, didn’t get enough coverage for him. Viking has great sets, great costumes, great make-up, so it never makes sense when it doesn’t look right. Sometimes it’s those bad composite shots—but the miniature special effects are excellent—and then the third act has some really bad optical effects.

I’m zealous about special effects not dating, they just sometimes don’t work and Erik the Viking’s special optical effects for the finale… they just don’t work. And the film relies way too heavily on them. Nicely, the film’s able to—more or less—skate by to the finish, which has this really oddly profound moment for the characters and you wish Jones (the director) could’ve visualized it better onscreen. It works but not enough to lift things up. The whole third act seems rushed and cramped in ways it shouldn’t, both in terms of story and setting.

Good lead performance from Robbins, with great support from some of his comrades; Stubbs is good, Bond’s excellent, Cleese is fun (it’s a fluffed out cameo)… Sher’s really good as the turncoat.

Erik has almost all the right pieces for success; Jones not being able to crack his own script is the dealbreaker.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terry Jones; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by George Akers; music by Neil Innes; production designer, John Beard; costume designer, Pam Tait; produced by John Goldstone; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Tim Robbins (Erik), Imogen Stubbs (Princess Aud), Richard Ridings (Thorfinn Skullsplitter), Tim McInnerny (Sven the Berserk), Charles McKeown (Sven’s Dad), Gary Cady (Keitel Blacksmith), Antony Sher (Loki), John Gordon Sinclair (Ivar the Boneless), Freddie Jones (Harald the Missionary), Danny Schiller (Snorri the Miserable), Samantha Bond (Helga), Mickey Rooney (Erik’s Grandfather), Eartha Kitt (Freya), Terry Jones (King Arnulf), and John Cleese (Halfdan the Black).


The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954, Mark Robson)

With the exception of Grace Kelly (the only significant female character in the film), none of Bridges at Toko-Ri’s main characters are ever explicitly scrutable. Even when the admiral, Fredric March, muses about the nature of war and the men who wage it, the film’s already established March’s thoughts don’t betray him. He’s not cagey; if anything, he’s a conversational duelist, on the offensive. It’s a very interesting development on the character, who’s initially set up as a sad old man with a dead son who latches onto those officers with similar demographics in his command, in Toko-Ri’s case it’s William Holden. Holden’s a disgruntled lawyer from Denver, Colorado who got called up ahead of activist reservists because of his WWII experience. He’s got Kelly and two daughters at home; he’s miserable at war, living on the carrier, flying missions; he’s trying to grow a drinking problem and he’s thought through faking mental issues to get out of flying those missions.

And he’s not quiet about it either.

One of the strangest things about Toko-Ri’s script, other than it really being a grim, tense, terse war movie with a bunch of character drama shoehorned in to utter perfection, is how little the film is concerned with establishing Holden’s character. The movie opens with March, then goes to Mickey Rooney, who’s fourth lead in the first half, third in the second… maybe second in the second. March is the admiral, Rooney’s the rescue helicopter pilot (Earl Holliman is Rooney’s sidekick), Holden’s the pilot, Kelly’s the wife. Holden never gets a scene to himself until into the second half of the movie, after he’s been introduced through Rooney’s lens, March’s lens… maybe not Kelly’s lens. She doesn’t really get a lens. She gets the dramatic music and she gets to speak plainly about her feelings, though she’s also adorably small c conservative—the one full, sweet scene we get with Holden, Kelly, and the daughters is when they’re in their Japanese hotel and they go to the steam baths and there’s a Japanese family there too. It’s cute but not pandering; mostly thanks to Robson’s direction and Holden but also editor Alma Macrorie, who’s just as good doing the comedy as the fighter jets.

The movie opens with Holden crashing into the ocean, Rooney saving him, March bonding with Holden and telling him Kelly and the daughters are waiting for them in Japan. Then it’s three days ahead and we only get hints of how they passed from Holden’s expressions and how he interacts with the other guys on the ship. The point of that very soft character development technique becomes clear later, in the second half of the film, when it’s just Holden shutting all the guys out on the ship after they’re back to sea, headed to a dangerous mission. Bridges gives its characters their own politics, identifying most with Holden—who’s slowly buying into March’s take, but March also just sees Korea as a diversion from Soviet Russia… but for progressive reasons. Sort of. Kelly’s living “Donna Reed Goes to War.” Rooney’s a sociopath we find out. A lovable one, but a complete sociopath.

The film is character studies but fits them into the epical war drama frame. While mostly being tense action and preparation for action. Valentine Davies writes a really tight script; Bridges is based on a James Michener so who knows where that efficiency is from. Because there’s also Robson. He opens the movie with this very practical look at the way aircraft carriers work. The film opens with a thanks to the U.S. Navy for their participation, but it’s not clear how much participation Bridges is going to get. It gets a whole lot. There are big action set pieces, both in and out of fighter jets. Macrorie and whoever did the miniature effects startlingly match the actual jets. It’s a beautifully edited film.

Including on the opening “welcome to an aircraft carrier” montage sequence. It fits into the narrative eventually, but for a while it’s just Robson displaying this world. Very quickly the grandiosity of the carrier becomes mundane. Very quickly. In fact, I think Robson just cuts away from the carrier setup and never comes back to it. So he truncates it, because Robson keeps a brisk pace through the Japan sequence. Yeah, there’s the cutesy bathhouse scene but there’s nothing else. Otherwise the film’s always working toward the second half, where it slows down and puts Holden through a wringer and the audience never really gets to understand exactly what’s going on with him. Because even though the narrative distance is fairly firm on being about what happens to Holden and around Holden, it also seems like it could toggle over to being about what Holden’s going to do, which would change reads on how previous events unfolded. The Bridges at Toko-Ri doesn’t tell the audience what kind of the film they’re actually watching until around the third act; from the start, it promises to tell them, then keeps building to it. For at least an hour. It’s kind of breathtaking how well Robson and Davies pull it off. They don’t do it for the benefit of the genre—the early lefty-ish war movie—but for the film’s. Instead of going big, Robson and Davies keep it about the four main characters. It’s a tricky finish and the film’s very nimble in the execution.

The best performances are Holden and March. Not to knock Kelly or Rooney, they just don’t get the parts. Holden doesn’t really get to talk about his and March doesn’t talk about his when he’s talking about his. Robson cuts to their close-ups and waits for their reaction, in expression or dialogue, the film unable to continue until they’ve had their moment. Bridges hinges on them. Kelly and Rooney are both excellent, but the film doesn’t hinge on them in the same way. Because Kelly does get to talk about her experience; arguably her learning to speak up for herself is the film’s only traditionally successful character arc. She doesn’t suffer in silence or obfuscation. Rooney’s an entirely different case, initially set up as comic relief (or near to it) he’s actually something quite different. While still retaining some of the comic quality. But just as tragic as everyone else in their mutual delusions.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri takes the pieces of a war action movie and a war melodrama and assembles them into something very special. Great work from Robson, Davies, Holden, March, Kelly, Rooney, editor Macrorie, and photographer Loyal Griffs (save a rear screen projection shot here and there). It’s a phenomenal piece of work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Valentine Davies, based on the novel by James A. Michener; director of photography, Loyal Griggs; edited by Alma Macrorie; music by Lyn Murray; produced by William Perlberg and George Seaton; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Lt. Harry Brubaker), Fredric March (Rear Adm. George Tarrant), Grace Kelly (Nancy Brubaker), Mickey Rooney (Mike Forney), Earl Holliman (Nestor Gamidge), Charles McGraw (Cmdr. Wayne Lee), Keiko Awaji (Kimiko), and Robert Strauss (Beer Barrel).



Captains Courageous (1937, Victor Fleming)

As Captains Courageous enters its third act, Spencer Tracy (as a Portugese fisherman) reminds Freddie Bartholomew (a spoiled blue blood kid Tracy rescues after he falls overboard from an ocean liner) it’s almost time to go home to his regular life. It’s a shock for Bartholomew, but also for the viewer. Even though the first act is mostly Bartholomew and his regular life–bribing his teachers, threatening his classmates, whining a lot about how his rich dad (Melvyn Douglas) will exact his vengeance–it’s been forever since the film has been anywhere but a fishing boat. Just when the film is sailing its best, Tracy comes along to ring the bell and announce its going to be wrapping up.

Fleming’s direction is strong throughout, but most of the fishing boat scenes are contrained. The transition from second to third acts is when Captains really gets out on the water. Franz Waxman’s score is phenomenal during those sequences; the film’s enraptured with the fishing life. Bartholomew’s on board with it, this obnoxious ten-year-old who–shockingly–becomes a part of the crew.

While setting up Bartholomew’s backstory, screenwriters John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every keep the film’s focus moving. Sometimes it’s on Bartholomew, sometimes it’s on Douglas, sometimes it’s on tertiary supporting cast members. Fleming handles it fine, but Bartholomew’s always got to be the biggest jerk possible. He’s intentionally unsympathetic. And the film keeps that approach for quite a while once he’s onboard the fishing boat.

The boat’s got this great cast–Lionel Barrymore’s the captain, John Carradine’s a fisherman who can’t stand Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney’s Barrymore’s son and a proven teen fisherman–and Bartholomew clashes with everyone to some degree. Even if he’s not being a complete jerk, there’s a clash. The script starts getting a lot more nuanced in how it positions the characters; another reason it’s become so separated from the boarding school and Bartholomew’s rich kid life. But the film never tries to force a redemption arc on Bartholomew, it’s all character development, it’s all part of his arc.

It works because the acting is so strong, especially in how the actors work off one another. Barrymore’s kind of gruff, but also kind of cuddly. He doesn’t have time to get worked up about Bartholomew being a little jerk, whereas Carradine rages beautifully on it. Even though Rooney’s closest in age to Bartholomew, their relationship never forgets the difference of experiences–something the film brings in beautifully in the third act. Bartholomew and Tracy are wonderful together. Fleming knows it too; he’ll fill the frame with their faces, with the lovely Harold Rosson photography, and the film becomes very heavy and very quiet in this deep, soulful way.

Tracy’s got a strong part and his performance is incredibly measured. He never goes too far with it, never pushes at it. There’s a give and take with the other actors–principally Bartholomew, but also Carradine; Tracy never seems reserved or guarded or even indulgent to his costars. He just keeps the right temperment throughout, which isn’t easy given a lack of both melodrama and action for much of the second act. The film’s tension comes from Tracy’s muted exasperation. It’s awesome. And his curled hair looks great.

The third act has some high points and some lower ones. Captains doesn’t run out of ideas, it runs out of patience for sturdily linking them together. It’s like Fleming knows he can get away with it, thanks to the actors, thanks to Waxman, thanks to Rosson. The script sets up opportunities and the film ignores them, rushing to the end.

Fleming’s right–he can get away with it–especially since the third act gives Barrymore his best moments in the film. As sort of implied, Barrymore’s been sage all along. Only he hasn’t had the motivation, time, or space to reveal it. Barrymore’s always good, but in the third act, he’s phenomenal. It’s a shame the rest of the third act isn’t as successful.

Nice or great performances throughout, strong script, great pace from director Fleming, Captains Courageous almost sails through. It gets bogged down at the finish. It could’ve been better, but it’s still quite good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every, based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Louis D. Lighton; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Freddie Bartholomew (Harvey), Spencer Tracy (Manuel), Lionel Barrymore (Disko), Mickey Rooney (Dan), Melvyn Douglas (Mr. Cheyne), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Salters), John Carradine (Long Jack), Sam McDaniel (Doc), and Oscar O’Shea (Cushman).


Quicksand (1950, Irving Pichel)

Quicksand is a film noir with room for cream and about five sugars. The genre often has a morality element to it, but this entry goes way too far with it. Or it might just be how the film treats lead Mickey Rooney.

Most film noir male protagonists are overconfident simpletons taken in by devious women; Rooney is a complete moron, however. And his confidence is all obvious bravado. He isn't just not smart, he never shows any reason for anyone–himself included–to think he is smart.

The script even gives femme fatale Jeanne Cagney, presumably cast due to her height (very few cast members are taller than Rooney), lines about Rooney being a malleable simp. There isn't much tension when she's telling him she's going to take him for a ride and he's just too dumb to figure it out.

Rooney has a likable quality, even in Quicksand, and maybe if director Pichel were better able to use the location shooting–he's visibly desperate for a sound stage–or the script gave Rooney narration throughout instead of just during summary scenes, the film might go better.

As for the supporting cast… poor Peter Lorre looks embarrassed, like he's waiting for someone to hand him a check after each scene. Then there's Cagney; her enthusiasm doesn't translate to a good performance. In one of the stupider roles, Barbara Bates can't make the good girl hung up on Rooney believable. He's just too much of a tool.

Quicksand misfires on all levels, but inoffensively.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Irving Pichel; written by Robert Smith; director of photography, Lionel Lindon; edited by Walter Thompson; music by Louis Gruenberg; production designer, Boris Leven; produced by Mort Briskin; released by United Artists.

Starring Mickey Rooney (Dan), Jeanne Cagney (Vera), Barbara Bates (Helen), Peter Lorre (Nick), Taylor Holmes (Harvey), Art Smith (Mackey), Wally Cassell (Chuck), Richard Lane (Lt. Nelson), Patsy O’Connor (Millie), John Gallaudet (Moriarity) and Minerva Urecal (Landlady).


Boys Town (1938, Norman Taurog)

I can’t figure out–past being an inspiring melodrama–if the filmmakers were trying for anything with Boys Town. The question of its success as that inspiring melodrama is easily answered… it fails. The first act of the film deals with Spencer Tracy trying to get Boys Town, starting just as a home, started. It works pretty well, especially since there’s the heavily comedic interplay between Tracy and grudging benefactor Henry Hull. The Tracy and Hull relationship keeps up throughout the movie, which is nice, since Hull’s occasional presence in the late second act makes a lot of difference.

The problems start with the arrival of Mickey Rooney. It isn’t just Rooney, whose performance is affected and exaggerated (at times, it seems like he inspired Jack Nicholson’s Joker performance), but the present action’s lapse as well. An indeterminate period of time passes from the first act to the second and after the public service tour of Boys Town, the movie centers itself entirely around Rooney. Oh, there are some scenes with Tracy in there, worrying about the finances (which would have made a far more interesting story), but mostly Tracy’s just around to try to reform Rooney.

There’s also a significant problem with neon foreshadowing. When Edward Norris shows up what ought to be a brief presence, it’s very clear he’ll be important later on, so there’s nothing to do but wait for him to come back (and he does in an exceptionally contrived manner). Or precious Boys Town mascot Bobs Watson… he’s destined, from his second or third scene, to end up in a hospital bed for something.

A lot of the cheap storytelling undoes some fine acting. Tracy’s excellent, of course, though after a while, there’s nothing for him to do. Norris is good in his part and a number of the kids are good, particularly Frankie Thomas and Sidney Miller. There are no credited female performers (though some nuns eventually show up–another of the movie’s problems, establishing just how Boys Town actually runs) and their absence is felt.

Norman Taurog brings little in way of direction, but it doesn’t matter if he did, since editing miscreant Elmo Veron cut the film. Veron does an awful job, one so bad–even given Boys Town‘s other problems with artifice–he brings the production down a notch.

At some point in the film’s production timeline, it might have been a good idea (unless it was always just supposed to be a vehicle for Rooney) in addition to a well-intentioned one. But as it is, Boys Town is a failure. It misses telling the story it should and it doesn’t do a good job of telling the one it has (and shouldn’t bother telling).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Taurog; screenplay by John Meehan and Dore Schary, from a story by Schary and Eleanore Griffin; director of photography, Sidney Wagner; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Edward Ward; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Father Flanagan), Mickey Rooney (Whitey Marsh), Henry Hull (Dave Morris), Leslie Fenton (Dan Farrow), Gene Reynolds (Tony Ponessa), Edward Norris (Joe Marsh), Addison Richards (The Judge), Minor Watson (The Bishop), Jonathan Hale (John Hargraves), Bobs Watson (Pee Wee), Martin Spellman (Skinny), Mickey Rentschler (Tommy Anderson), Frankie Thomas (Freddie Fuller), Jimmy Butler (Paul Ferguson), Sidney Miller (Mo Kahn), Robert Emmett Keane (Burton) and Victor Kilian (The Sheriff).


Manhattan Melodrama (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)

It’s funny how obvious writers’ contributions can be in certain films. For instance, Joseph L. Mankiewicz very likely wrote some of the best scenes in Manhattan Melodrama and Oliver H.P. Garrett wrote some of the worst. The clue is the dialogue. Mankiewicz has distinctive dialogue, even in a film relatively early in his career, and it’s very good dialogue.

Unfortunately, uneven writing isn’t the only problem with Manhattan Melodrama. Running ninety minutes and covering thirty years, it plays like a summary of a longer film. The characters exist only in their scenes, never in between. Myrna Loy’s got a particularly troublesome role in that regard, because her character rarely makes sense for longer than ten minutes at a time. She’s good in some of her scenes and a little lost in the others, the fault clearly resting on the script. Her character is constantly yo-yoing between, she thinks, Clark Gable and William Powell. Except, rather specifically, Gable informs her she is not. But the script keeps it up, because without it and with the rapid pace, there’s not enough… pardon the term… melodrama.

Gable gives a fantastic performance, a great leading man performance. He’s amazing in every scene, bringing both a sense of humor and sadness to the film.

Nat Pendleton and Isabel Jewell help with the humor when Gable’s being sad and their comedic scenes–along with some of the romantic scenes between Powell and Loy–are when Van Dyke’s doing his best work in the film. His worst work is when he’s being melodramatic and, oddly, a little artistic. Way too artistic for him. There’s a clear divide in the film–the good scenes sound like Mankiewicz and have good direction, the bad scenes don’t sound like Mankiewicz and have poor direction. It’s just not Van Dyke’s kind of film–the ninety minutes sounds right and I can even understand some of the lack of coverage (Van Dyke shot notoriously fast)–but Manhattan Melodrama occasionally feels like The Godfather in terms of its potential and it doesn’t (or couldn’t) even acknowledge them.

It’s clearest at the end, when Gable and Powell shake hands, when it’s perfectly honest–even in this film–they need to hug. Well, it was 1934 and they couldn’t hug and that reality is probably what makes Manhattan Melodrama a doomed effort.

The film does feature some of Powell’s best acting. I’m not familiar enough with his work outside the Thin Man series and a handful of other films–all comedies–but he had a very definite ability as a dramatic actor. So, of course, most of his more important scenes are the ones poorly written. Also, the film ends abruptly, resolving itself in the alloted time (with a really, really unfortunate scene).

I’d seen Manhattan Melodrama before and I remember it being a disappointment, but certainly not as disappointing as it turned out this time. However, Gable’s performance (and Powell’s too, but not in the showy, movie star way) is incredible.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on a story by Arthur Caeser; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Ben Lewis; produced by David O. Selznick; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Clark Gable (Blackie), William Powell (Jim), Myrna Loy (Eleanor Packer), Leo Carrillo (Father Joe), Nat Pendleton (Spud), George Sidney (Poppa Rosen), Isabel Jewell (Annabelle), Muriel Evans (Tootsie Malone), Thomas E. Jackson (Snow), Jimmy Butler (Jim as a boy) and Mickey Rooney (Blackie as a boy).


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