This post is the first installment of my new series entitled Unusual Suspects. In this series, I explore films with unusual casting choices.
As far as I knew, Mickey Rooney’s career went something like this: Andy Hardy, Mr. Yunioshi, Santa Claus, Bill. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw Quicksand (1950)!
In Quicksand, Rooney plays an auto mechanic named Dan Brady. Brady asks a waitress Vera (Jeanne Cagney) out on a date but soon realizes he is low on cash. After making the rounds calling all his friends, he borrows $20 from the till at the auto shop. Unfortunately, the bookkeeper arrives a day early and comes up $20 short.
Brady has to replace the funds, so he goes to a jeweler, buys a watch on a payment plan, pawns the watch, and replaces the missing money. Then the police show up looking for him because pawning an item purchased on an installment plan is against the law! Brady needs to pay for the watch immediately, down on his luck and desperate he robs a drunk for $150. Just when we think he is in the clear, he catches Vera being beat up by Nick (Peter Lorre) for an outstanding $50 loan. Dan gives Nick a $50 bill. The problem is, a lot of people know the drunk was robbed, and he always carries $50 bills!
Things get worse for Brady, every time he fixes one problem, a bigger one occurs. Blackmail leads to car theft, breaking and entry, attempted murder, bullet dodging, car jacking, his life spirals out of control. Quicksand is an exciting film.
However, Quicksand does not cast Rooney against his type, Brady is like Rooney’s other characters, his performance sparkles with his trademark optimism. The major difference, he is in a tight spot and doesn’t have many options.
Dan Brady makes bad decisions, but he’s still a nice guy, he’s a sympathetic criminal. I felt for him. I spent most of the film screaming “Oh, no!”
I found little information from Rooney’s perspective. The picture merely got a byline in Alvin Marill’s book, Rooney says:
The less said about Quicksand, the better, except to note that it was aptly titled
While Rooney’s biographer barely mentions the film. Co-star Peter Lorre’s biographer Stephen Youngkin writes, “According to the Hollywood Reporter, February 3, 1949, Rooney had sought to pull out of Quicksand (1950) … By February 22, the partners had apparently patched up their differences.” This film was a three-way venture between Rooney, Lorre, and a third partner. The third partner had mismanaged funds, and the film drove Lorre into bankruptcy.
Despite Rooney’s personal issues with the film, he really should be proud of Quicksand. He delivers a top-notch performance and is supported by a superb cast. I would go as far as to say it is my favorite of his pictures, including the ones with Judy Garland. I know, shocker!
As it turns out, Quicksand is not Rooney’s only foray into crime drama! He starred in other films, including Killer McCoy, The Big Wheel, The Strip, Drive a Crooked Road, The Last Mile, and Baby Face Nelson!
Baby Face Nelson?
THE BANK ROBBER?
THE COP KILLER?
How is lovable Mickey Rooney pulling this role off?
I had to see Baby Face Nelson!
This film follows Nelson from his release from Joliet, to his execution of mob boss Rocca, his association with Dillinger’s gang, his promotion to Public Enemy #1, and his eventual death.
When the movie starts, Nelson (like Brady) is just a nice guy in a bad situation. He refuses a hit job against a union leader during the Chicago Steelworkers Strike. I did not hold my expectations high, everything felt wrong about this picture. While Nelson and Rooney look similar, I could not see him as a cold-blooded killer. Then Nelson hooks up with Dillinger’s gang, and all bets are off! From this moment on, Rooney plays the character with a raging cruel streak. Rooney does an excellent job and is a believable tough guy!
Rooney is definitely as cast against type in Baby Face Nelson. As Nelson, Rooney has many childlike moments. Rooney plays boyish characters. In Baby Face Nelson, the childishness is grotesque. He does not exhibit Andy Hardy’s boyish charm. Repeatedly emasculated, the police carry Nelson from his bed. Later in the film, a creepy doctor molests Nelson’s wife, Sue (Carolyn Jones) in Nelson’s presence. Nelson meets Dillinger’s men at the swing set. Rooney’s small stature (5’2″) is emphasized heavily throughout the picture.
Nelson reaffirms his masculinity with virility, tough talk, flying fists, and a machine gun! This film astonished me. Watching Mickey Rooney lurking in the bushes, debating whether or not to shoot a couple of kids is disconcerting. It is a gritty, rough, unapologetic film, with an excellent jazz score.
Director, Don Siegel, often butted heads with Rooney for creative control during the production. Siegel described Rooney as “the most unpleasant person to work with he ever knew” (Thomson, 60). I imagine playing an unlikable character, unlike his other characters, was stressful. A role can make or break a career.
This film has potential, but the script has some major issues, the event chain is choppy, the film feels like vignettes, not a solid screenplay. Despite the film’s obvious shortcomings, Rooney’s talent outweighs the script. Had the script been stronger, this film would be legendary, reshaping Rooney’s career.
Watching these two films back-to-back was an unusual experience, it re-introduced me to Rooney as an actor. I highly recommend watching Quicksand first, it will ease you into the shock of Baby Face Nelson! Apparently, I do not know Mickey Rooney at all. Fortunately for you, both films are available online via Youtube for free!
You can see Quicksand here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV0G0S06Nag
You can see Baby Face Nelson here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4qQ80rlwos
If you need a palette cleanser, you can watch Love Laughs at Andy Hardy here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAStV8LlTqI
Marill, Alvin H. Mickey Rooney: His Films, Television Appearances, Radio Work, Stage Shows, and Recordings. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. Print.
“Turner Classic Movies – TCM.com.” Turner Classic Movies. Web. 3 Aug. 2015.
Youngkin, Stephen D. The Lost One a Life of Peter Lorre. Lexington, Ky.: U of Kentucky, 2005. Print.
Be sure and catch the next installment, when Tony Curtis gets downright creepy.
Wait! The swinging ladies man that talks like Cary Grant? Oh, yes!