Tag Archives: Mickey Rooney

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).


blogathon-barrymore

THIS POST IS PART OF THE BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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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).


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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).


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