The Daily Pulse:

Mickey Rooney, Clarence Brown, and James Agee

Whatever you think about Mickey Rooney, it's a good bet that no one else will ever have an active career in movies that lasts 87 years. That a Hollywood actor whose name was recognizable even in the silent era was, as of last week, still officially making movies, is hard to digest.

Some years ago, a Mexican restaurant on Bearden Hill--I think it was the predecessor to El Charro, but across the street--used to display a framed picture of two famous actors who showed up in the restaurant, Jason Robards and Mickey Rooney, both as older men, probably in the '80s. I'm told Rooney was here at least once with the road-show version of Sugar Babies, which was at the Civic Auditorium, around that time. But I like to think that he and Robards were just driving across the country, two old thespians on a spree, and stopped off in Knoxville for a burrito lunch.

There were more significant Knoxvillian connections early in Rooney's career. Two of Rooney's best movies--in fact, two of the few that weren't just silly--were The Human Comedy (1943) and National Velvet (1944), both directed by Knoxvillian Clarence Brown. "Mickey Rooney, to me, is the closest thing to a genius I ever worked with," Brown remarked of the 22-year-old Rooney after The Human Comedy, an unusual wartime film for which Rooney was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor.

Another chronological detail that's hard to swallow is that Rooney's heyday as an actor corresponded with Knoxville native James Agee's career as much-quoted movie critic for The Nation, even though Agee died almost 60 years ago.

Some of the big-city obituaries today have quoted Agee referring to Rooney's performances as "magical," but as far as I can tell, that may be a little out of context, concerning a 1948 movie called Killer McCoy, which Agee called "a harmless, worthless movie about prize-fighting" with "a coolly magical performance by Mickey Rooney."

Early on, Agee sometimes made fun of Rooney, as many did. About another of Rooney's silly comedies, Agee wrote, "Girl Crazy has nothing in it I can recommend unless you are curious to see what makes one of the biggest box-office successes of the year; unless, like me, you find Mickey Rooney much more bearable since he quit putting his soul into his comedy--he seems now just a detached and very competent vaudeville actor; and unless, like me, you like Judy Garland."

About Rooney in National Velvet, though, Agee wrote "he is an extremely wise and moving actor, and if I am ever again tempted to speak disrespectfully of him, that will be in anger over the unforgivable waste of a forceful yet subtle talent, proved capable of self-discipline and of the hardest roles that could be thrown at it."

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