A clip from a 1938 film shows Mickey Rooney in wisecracking mode, finishing with a move from the then 18-year-old that might qualify as the earliest example of breakdancing. While this scene showcases the comic ability of the American actor – who has died at the age of 93 – the movie itself reveals his versatility.
One of Hollywood’s most famous child actors, Rooney was known for his slapstick musical roles, appearing in his parents’ vaudeville act as a toddler and making his film debut, at age six, as a cigar-smoking midget.
Yet one of his best-loved movies saw him take on a serious part to play a juvenile delinquent. Boys Town was released in 1938, the year before Rooney became America’s top box-office star, helped by his performances as all-American boy Andy Hardy in a series of popular films.
Named after an orphanage set up by Father Edward Flanagan in Nebraska, the biographical drama tells the story of the priest’s work with a group of underprivileged boys. Spencer Tracy played Father Flanagan and won an Academy Award for his performance.
Rooney’s role as Whitey Marsh, a sharp-tongued wayward youth who is one of the priest’s greatest challenges, provided a contrast with the wholesome Americana of Andy Hardy. The two parts won him an honorary Oscar in 1938.
Boys Town was shelved for several months after completion –MGM head Louis B Mayer insisted "it will never sell, there's no sex!" – but went on to be a huge hit. Mayer later said it was his favourite movie of his 25-year tenure at the studio.