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.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.