Like most horse-crazy girls, my introduction to Mickey Rooney was through his pair of horse racing films—National Velvet and the underrated, Francis Ford Coppola-produced The Black Stallion. As a big fan of Walter Farley’s books especially—my well-worn collection of them sits on a bookshelf to my left as I type—I thought Rooney was just perfect as trainer Henry Dailey, and still do. If you watch the above clip, one I chose because of the amount of time Rooney’s Dailey spends teaching young Alec how to handle a spirited stallion, and especially the part beginning at 11:32, where he teaches the boy to ride, you’ll even see a nod to Rooney’s other big horsey film at about 7:26 (a photo still). Though this was far from Ronney’s last film, it seems like such a fitting tie-in to me.
The Black Stallion came during what was a bit of a lull in Rooney’s career; much like Shirley Temple Black, as he reached maturity roles were harder to come by for a fella who’d gotten his showbiz start before he could really even walk. I think being able to step out in front of an entirely new generation of impressionable young people was a really wonderful thing for Rooney—his Dailey is gruff but super-likable, and of course in America, any man who truly loves horses is bound to be a good guy beneath the rough exterior—and may have had much to do with this TV and other movie roles in the 80s and beyond (his hilarious turn in Night At The Museum, for instance).
Rooney’s biggest years were undoubtedly the 30s and 40s, when his singing, dancing, good comedic timing and boyish winsomeness made him hugely popular; he’s also a standout in the superb Captains Courageous and obnoxiously hard-hearted and self-centered, as he was meant to be, in Boys’ Town, a perfect contrast to Spencer Tracy’s firm but kind-hearted Father Flanagan (aside: I’m not even Catholic and really miss the days when priests weren’t all monsters).
In an era when our young “stars” are or quickly become purely crass and vulgar, looking back at Rooney’s work is a joy and a relief. Determinedly grinning despite just about any fix he found himself in, willing to make self-deprecating jokes about his lack of height, and obviously very hard-working, his characters were lovable (perhaps this is why some of his bad-guy roles made his growing up so hard to take for movie fans) even when they were a bit on the too-chipper grating side (which was probably intentional).
A whole generation of Americans grew up absorbing Rooney’s characteristic pluck and good nature. Not a bad thing in my book.
Rooney was 93.