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Mickey Rooney

Review: That’s Entertainment

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

I have never counted myself among the musical buffs. It’s mainly been the arousal of interest in a director—Donen, Lester, Minnelli, Cukor, et al.—that enticed me into a theater or in front of a TV screen where a musical was playing. Conversely, taking Groucho’s advice in Horse Feathers, I have more often than not seized on the unwelcome musical interludes in essentially nonmusical films to go make a sandwich or flip over to another channel to check out the credits of the movie starting there. So if I tell you That’s Entertainment is just utterly swell, I’m telling you. And it is. Utterly. There’s nary a ringer among the numbers selected—except for episodes like Jimmy Stewart c. 1936 singing “You’d Be So Easy to Love” without benefit of redubbing, or Clark Gable doing a semi-improvisatory vaudeville song and dance number in the salon of a resort hotel (Idiot’s Delight), and of course those too become marvelous in their very unexpectedness and forgotten-biographical-footnote splendor (Gable is having such an outrageously good time, Stewart an outrageously uncomfortable time). When a sequence has been compressed or otherwise excerpted, it’s been excerpted sensitively and intelligently. And “director” Jack Haley Jr. has exercised impeccable judgment in deciding when to stay with the original 1.33:1 format, when to go with the full 70mm aspect ratio, and when to let the image grow from one to the other. The color has been faithfully transferred (if it hurts your eyes it would have hurt them in 1948, or whenever), and the black-and-white looks more like black-and-white than in any other color movie in my experience. Some of the newly stereophonicked sound is a trifle distracting, the mobility of the voices occasionally getting away from the less agile figures onscreen; but mostly the great care taken with every facet of the technological renovation has paid off many times over.

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MOD Movies: The Andy Hardy Collection, Volume 1

The Andy Hardy Collection: Volume 1 (Warner Archive)

The Andy Hardy films are a snapshot of Hollywood’s idea of small town Americana, circa 1936-1944. Simple, familiar, full of family values and homespun wisdom handed down by the thoughtful, white-haired patriarch (who just happens to be the local judge), these films defined MGM head Louis B. Mayer’s ideal of American values on the modern age. Carvel, the Midwest town where the Hardys live and prosper (apparently close enough to New York City to make the occasional trip in to the Big Apple) could be the model for the Bedford Falls of It’s a Wonderful Life, minus the tyranny of Mr. Potter. Instead, we get Judge Hardy, whose slow-talking paternalism and school teacher-ish commentary suggests nothing less than the bench equivalent of a country doctor giving his constituents their castor oil of justice. (It’s to Lewis Stone’s credit that he brings a sly sense of humor to the performance at appropriate moments.) This is the world of traditional values and responsibility that shapes the character of Andy Hardy, who grows up through the series.

Warner Archive Collection

Corny? Sure. Conventional? It defines convention. Surprising? Not in the least. There is a certain midddlingness of American filmmaking here, with no real wit involved in the writing or directing (and this at a time when the screenwriting rooms were filled with wits) and little of the smooth yet snappy chemistry that MGM’s stable of stars and character actors routinely mixed into the studio’s cinema cocktails. George B. Seitz directed all of the first fourteen films, and all six of the films in this set, and he approaches each film with an anonymous professionalism that improves with time without actually distinguishing itself or defining the films.

What these films have is Mickey Rooney, the spring-loaded ball of energy who grabbed the spotlight whenever he appeared on screen and soon powered the series. And in that sense, the series also chronicles the rise of a career.

Rooney was but a promising young juvenile actor when he created the role of Andy Hardy in A Family Affair (1936). He was just one of the family players, albeit a standout in a cast headlined by Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington, and one of the few actors to return for the sequel You’re Only Young Once (1937), the first film to feature the Hardy family as we know it, with Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy, Fay Holden as wife and mother Emily and Sara Haden as his Aunt Milly joining Rooney and Cecilia Parker as his older sister Marian. He had a gift for comedy, drama, song and dance, and strong screen presence that invested his roles with a buoyant personality and a spirited energy.

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Review: The Black Stallion

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The Black Stallion is more pretty than beautiful, more contrived than inspired. In reporting on the San Francisco Film Festival last fall, I wrote: “The Black Stallion, directed by Carroll Ballard for Francis Coppola’s Omni Zoetrope, was clearly a success with its ‘hometown’ audience. It’s an adaptation of the famous children’s story, and it seems designed for annual ‘prestige’ showings for the family market. It has its moments of visual beauty, but a little more poetic daring and a little less in the way of safe artiness might have made this one something more than an expertly conceived business proposition.” After a second viewing of the film recently, I still find myself feeling that way. The whole thing has an “innocent” charm about it, and there are some stunning shots. It’s pretty and nice in ways that are merely pretty nice. The story seems better suited to the format of the full-length animated cartoon, and the flashy photography draws heavily on the kinetics of the TV commercial and the imagery of travel ads. There is an obvious element of fantasy to this tale of a boy saved from a shipwreck by a wondrous black stallion which becomes the boy’s constant companion and which said boy rides to victory in a big challenge race against two top thoroughbreds.

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