NATIONAL VELVET – A Tribute to Mickey Rooney

One of the “To Be Announced” screenings at this year’s festival was decided on quite early, soon after Mickey Rooney passed away on April 6 at the age of 93.  He was a long-time friend of TCM and a fixture at network functions, past Festivals and Cruises and, of course, can regularly be seen on the network.  Today, in fact, the entire 24-hour programming block starting at 6am EST has been rescheduled as a tribute to Mickey Rooney featuring 13 of his standout roles.  It was more than fitting, then, to recognize him at the TCM Classic Film Festival on the same day.

nationalvelvet_1944_rooneytaylor_1200NATIONAL VELVET (1944) is now often remembered for one of Elizabeth Taylor’s breakout juvenile roles and just the beginning of things to come in her career at MGM.  It is easy to overlook the fact that Taylor was 3rd-billed and that the film was actually built around top-billed star Mickey Rooney, who gives a measured and touching performance as former jockey Mi Taylor.

On hand to introduce the screening was film historian and author Jeremy Arnold, who noted that Rooney had just turned 23 years old at the time of filming and was at the top of his game at MGM.  NATIONAL VELVET director Clarence Brown would later remark that Rooney was “the closest thing to a genius” he had encountered in the film business.

Following the screening, movie historian Eddie Muller spoke with Rooney’s friend and fellow MGM contract star Margaret O’Brien.  O’Brien remarked that she had known Mickey Rooney since she was two years old, when she appeared in Babes on Broadway (1941).  She observed, in fact, that “I made my first movie with him and he made his last movie with me.”  This was a reference to a still-in-production version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that the two veterans had already filmed their parts for.  O’Brien, noting that Mickey loved to work more than anything, remembered that on their last day of shooting on that picture Mickey enthused, “Wasn’t that a fun day?”

Margaret O’Brien was wearing the same green dress this morning that she wore during her last dinner with Rooney, which was on St. Patrick’s Day last month.  She said that Rooney’s other favorite things were animals and going to the races (something he had also done just weeks ago, after he invited O’Brien and she couldn’t go).  Rooney also enjoyed painting and writing–both silly limericks and serious poetry.  Saying that “it was only right that Mickey has the last word,” Muller read aloud a recent poem that Mickey had written called “Flesh and Bones.”  It was a meditation on longevity and redemption that served as a fitting remembrance.  Here is an excerpt:

nationalvelvet_1944_rooney_1200This flesh and bones we wear,

We bear for just a time.

They were never meant to last;

What lasts is in your mind.

The thoughts and things we think of,

That’s the sum of who we are.

So drop that stone you’re holding,

You wouldn’t have cast it far.

Now the reason that I say this

Is a simple point of fact:

It’s to beg the Lord’s forgiveness

For the traits of good I lack.

I’ve gambled and I’ve cheated,

Been a drunkard and I’ve lied.

But if I died tonight my God will know

At least, by God, I tried.

(From My Life in Words and Pictures, By Mickey Rooney,with Laurie Bogart.  Copyright © 2012 by Mickey Rooney, Los Angeles, and Laurie Bogart Wiles, Pinehurst, North Carolina.)

Just as fitting, though, was a line of dialogue from NATIONAL VELVET that Jeremy Arnold noted earlier was Rooney’s favorite line from the film.  It was spoken by Anne Revere as Mrs. Brown about Rooney’s character: “What’s the meaning of goodness if there isn’t a little badness to overcome?”  Mickey Rooney once noted that it would be a suitable epitaph for himself.