Classic Movies/TV/Celebs - Meredy's Book Reviews

Meredy's random ramblings about classic movies and TV, vintage celebrities, her other interests, book reviews and updates.

April 12, 2014

The Big Valley: Season 3 on DVD

On July 8, 2014, Timeless Media Group is releasing The Big Valley: Season 3 on DVD. Finally!

April 07, 2014

Mickey Rooney Dies at 93

Mickey Rooney, the exuberant entertainer who led a roller-coaster life — the world’s top box-office star at 19 as the irrepressible Andy Hardy, a bankrupt has-been in his 40s, a comeback kid on Broadway as he neared 60 — died on Sunday. He was 93 and lived in Westlake Village, Calif.

His death was confirmed by his son Michael Joseph Rooney.

He stood only a few inches taller than five feet, but Mr. Rooney was larger and louder than life. From the moment he toddled onto a burlesque stage at 17 months to his movie debut at 6 to his career-crowning Broadway debut in “Sugar Babies” at 59 and beyond, he did it all. He could act, sing, dance, play piano and drums, and before he was out of short pants he could cry on cue.

As Andy Hardy, growing up in the idealized fictional town of Carvel, Mr. Rooney was the most famous teenager in America from 1937 to 1944: everybody’s cheeky son or younger brother, energetic and feverishly in love with girls and cars. The 15 Hardy Family movies, in which all problems could be solved by Andy’s man-to-man talks with his father, Judge Hardy (played by Lewis Stone), earned more than $75 million — a huge sum during the Depression years, when movie tickets rarely cost more than 25 cents.

In 1939, America’s theater owners voted Mr. Rooney the No. 1 box-office star, over Tyrone Power. That same year he sang and danced his way to an Oscar nomination for best actor in “Babes in Arms,” the first of the “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” MGM musicals he made with Judy Garland.

He was box-office king again in 1940, over Spencer Tracy, and in 1941, with Clark Gable taking second place. Three years earlier, in The New York Times, Frank S. Nugent had written of Mr. Rooney’s performance as the swaggering bully redeemed by Tracy’s Father Flanagan in “Boys Town”:

“Mickey is the Dead End gang rolled into one. He’s Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and King Kong before they grew up, or knew a restraining hand. Mickey, as the French would understate it, is the original enfant terrible.”

Mr. Rooney’s personal life was as dynamic as his screen presence. He married eight times. He earned $12 million before he was 40 and spent more. Impulsive, recklessly extravagant, mercurial and addicted to playing the ponies and shooting craps, he attacked life as though it were a six-course dinner.

Movie audiences first saw him as Mickey McGuire, a tough kid in a battered derby hat, in a series of two-reel shorts based on the comic strip “Toonerville Trolley.” (The first short in which he had a starring role, “Mickey’s Circus,” was thought to be lost, but a print was found, along with many other silent films, in the Netherlands in 2014.)

At 13, he auditioned for the role of the mischievous sprite Puck in the great Austrian producer-director Max Reinhardt’s 1934 Hollywood Bowl production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Though unfamiliar with Shakespeare, Mr. Rooney impressed Reinhardt, who cast him in the play and — along with James Cagney, Dick Powell and Olivia de Havilland — in the movie version he directed with William Dieterle a year later.

He was a sensation. “Rooney seems inhuman, he moves like mist or water, his body is burnished by the extraordinary light, and his gurgling laugh is ghostly and enchanting,” David Thomson wrote of Mr. Rooney’s performance in his “Biographical Dictionary of Film.” “Could such a performance have been directed? Rooney’s Puck is truly inhuman, one of cinema’s most arresting pieces of magic.”

Between 1936 and 1944, Mr. Rooney made more than three dozen movies. Under contract at MGM, he brought vitality even to bit parts like a Brooklyn shoeshine boy in “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (1936), the kid brother in the film version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” (1935) and a young deckhand on a fishing boat in “Captains Courageous” (1937).

Along with Deanna Durbin, Mr. Rooney was given a special Academy Award in 1939 “for bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.” The next year he received his Oscar nomination for “Babes in Arms.” His second nomination was for his performance in the film version of William Saroyan’s “Human Comedy” (1943) as the messenger boy who delivers telegrams from the War Department telling families in a small California town that their sons have died. That movie seems saccharine and preachy more than 70 years later, but time has not tarnished the desolation on Mr. Rooney’s face when he reads those telegrams.

A Career of Ups and Downs

Although his career was one of the longest in show business history — about 90 years separated his first movie from his last — it was crammed with detours and dead ends. (“There have been crevices, fissures, pits, and I’ve fallen into a lot of them,” he told The Times in 1979.)

His elfin face and short, stocky body were part of the problem: At 28, with adolescent roles no longer an option and adult roles hard to come by, he said he would give 10 years of his life to be six inches taller. Yet most of his wounds were self-inflicted.

He married in haste — he wed Miss Birmingham of 1944 after knowing her for less than two weeks — and repented in haste. He turned his back on MGM, the studio that had made him a star, for the mirage of running his own production company, and ended up mired in debt and B movies. Suits for alimony, child support and back taxes pursued him like tin cans tied to the bumper of the car he was driving to his next wedding.

When he needed money most desperately, he could always play Las Vegas. “I was a smash hit at the Riviera, where I drew $17,500 a week and lost twice that on the crap table,” Mr. Rooney wrote in his 1991 autobiography, “Life Is Too Short.”

At one point in 1950, the only job he could get was touring Southern states with the Hadacol Caravan. Admission to the shows was a box top from a bottle of a 26 percent alcohol tonic that the government soon forced off the market.

Yet he always bounced back, often higher than anyone expected.

Not including the Mickey Maguire shorts, Mr. Rooney made more than 200 movies, earning a total of four Academy Award nominations — he was nominated for best supporting actor as the fast-talking soldier who dies trying to protect $30,000 he won in a craps game in “The Bold and the Brave” (1956) and as the trainer of a wild Arabian horse in “The Black Stallion” (1979). (Because of his size, Mr. Rooney played a lot of jockeys and, as his waistline expanded, former jockeys who had become trainers. He was the vagabond who helps Elizabeth Taylor turn an unruly horse into a steeplechase champion in her breakthrough film, “National Velvet,” in 1944.)

He was also nominated for five Emmy Awards and won one, for his performance in the 1981 television movie “Bill” as a developmentally disabled man who has spent most of his life in an institution and must learn to live in the outside world.

An Early Start

Mickey Rooney was born Joseph Yule Jr. in a Brooklyn tenement on Sept. 23, 1920. His mother, Nell Carter, danced in a burlesque chorus line. His father was a top banana, a lead comic, but only on second-rate circuits.

Sonny Yule, as he was known, grew up in boardinghouses in a dozen towns, but he lived backstage and, before he was 2 years old, onstage. His parents separated when he was 4, each of them taking $20 of the $40 they had saved.

For a year he had a normal childhood with his mother in Kansas City, Mo. Then she read in Variety that Hal Roach was looking for children for his Our Gang comedies. A few weeks later, the two of them left for Hollywood.

His mother turned down an offer from Roach’s assistant to try Sonny out at $5 a day. In vaudeville, one always waited for a better offer. But no second offer came. There were too many mothers eager for $5 a day.

It was back to Kansas City and then back again to Hollywood. Sonny got a job in a musical revue for $50 a week. “Marvelous for a five-year-old,” wrote the Los Angeles Times theater critic. A few months later he was Mickey McGuire at $250 for each “Toonerville Trolley” short. His professional name was changed to Mickey McGuire until the creator of the comic strip objected. But he kept the Mickey.

Nobody ever doubted his talent. Of his “all but unimprovable” performance in “National Velvet,” James Agee wrote, “He is an extremely wise and moving actor, and if I am ever again tempted to speak disrespectfully of him, that will be in anger over the unforgivable waste of a forceful yet subtle talent, proved capable of self-discipline and of the hardest roles that could be thrown it.”

In “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “Captains Courageous” and “The Devil Is a Sissy” (1936), Mr. Rooney was a foil to MGM’s $2,500-a-week child star, Freddie Bartholomew. Decades after seeing “The Devil Is a Sissy,” the critic Walter Kerr remembered “a brief but instantly shocking moment.” Fifteen-year-old Mickey played a street urchin whose father was to be electrocuted that night. “Without warning, the street lights dimmed, just for a second or two,” Mr. Kerr wrote in The Times in 1979. “As Mr. Rooney glanced upward, the swift and silent realization, the ashen pain, that washed over his face and then was as hastily self-consciously erased was — most literally — staggering.”

By “Lord Jeff” (1938) Mr. Rooney and Mr. Bartholomew, playing delinquents in a naval reform school, had equal billing. In the last of their five movies together, “A Yank at Eton” (1942), Mr. Rooney was the star.

But MGM’s cleverest use of Mr. Rooney was teaming him with Judy Garland. His enormous energy and her voice and vulnerability melted the screen in four musicals. That the plots were more or less the same did not matter. In “Babes in Arms,” they put on a show to raise money for their out-of-work parents. In “Strike Up the Band” (1940), they raised money for a high school band contest. In “Babes on Broadway” (1941), they wanted to send orphans on an excursion to the country. And in “Girl Crazy” (1943), the money their Wild West Rodeo raised saved their college. What really mattered were Mickey’s brash charm, Judy’s sincerity and the songs by the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hart, and others.

They were also teamed in three of the Andy Hardy movies and — before either of them was famous — in “Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry” (1937), as a jockey who is tricked into throwing a race and the girl who tries to help him.

Running to the Altar

Mr. Rooney was 21 when he married the 19-year-old starlet Ava Gardner in 1942. The studio fought the marriage and was equally upset at Mr. Rooney’s divorce a year later.

This was just the first chapter in what would be a long and tumultuous marital history. Mr. Rooney was divorced six times, and the divorce petitions all had similar complaints: He had a fiery temper, and he would leave home for days or even weeks at a time.

Drafted into the Army in 1944, Mr. Rooney met Betty Jane Rase, an Alabama beauty queen, at a party. “Sometime after the seventh bourbon or maybe the seventeenth,” Mr. Rooney wrote in “Life Is Too Short,” “I asked Miss Birmingham if she’d like to become Mrs. Mickey Rooney, and she said yes.”

They divorced in 1949. His third marriage, to the actress Martha Vickers, who had played Lauren Bacall’s nymphomaniac sister in “The Big Sleep,” lasted three years. His fourth wife was another beauty queen, Elaine Mahnken, who later recalled, “While they were dunning him for bills, he’d be out buying two new Jaguars.” She handled the finances and brought Mr. Rooney to the brink of solvency. He rewarded her by going to Las Vegas and losing $50,000.

His fifth marriage, to Barbara Thomason, an aspiring actress, ended tragically. When Mr. Rooney declared bankruptcy in 1962, soon after the birth of their third child, he had $500 in cash and almost $500,000 in debts, and he owed $100,000 in delinquent taxes. The I.R.S. gave him an allowance of $200 a month, so he borrowed money to play the ponies. A month after they separated in December 1965 and began a messy custody battle, Barbara Thomason Rooney was shot to death by a jealous lover, Milos Milosevic, who then used the same gun to kill himself.

By then, Mr. Rooney’s career was at low tide. As he grew older and wider, the pugnacious cockiness that had been charming when Andy Hardy sipped sodas with Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Ann Rutherford or Esther Williams in the Carvel drugstore seemed rancid. He drank too much and was addicted to sleeping pills. In December 1959, after he had apparently had a few drinks too many, Mr. Rooney made a fool of himself on “The Tonight Show”; the audience applauded when the host, Jack Paar, asked him to leave.

He could still be an electrifying actor, and often was, especially on television. He inherited the title role in “The Comedian,” written by Rod Serling, on “Playhouse 90” in 1957 because a half-dozen other actors had refused to play a lecherous, vicious and greedy comedian. The role won him his first Emmy nomination.

But he took virtually every part he was offered in those years, and he was most often seen mugging his way through bad movies. He replaced Donald O’Connor in the last of a series about a talking mule, “Frances in the Haunted House” (1956). In “Everything’s Ducky” (1961), one of his co-stars was a talking duck. In “The Private Lives of Adam and Eve” (1960), a low-budget oddity for which he shared director credit with Albert Zugsmith, he played the Devil in an extended dream sequence. He was a manic advertising executive in search of sex symbols in “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” (1965), a beach-party movie of which The Times critic Howard Thompson observed that anybody expecting the worst would not be disappointed.

The Spotlight Returns

Things began turning around for Mr. Rooney in the 1970s. He stopped drinking and became a born-again Christian. In 1978, after two more marriages and divorces, he married Jan Chamberlin, a country singer whom he met through his son Mickey Jr. Their marriage, his eighth and last, brought stability to his life. And a return to stardom was just around the corner.

It took a year to put together the boisterous and proudly old-fashioned burlesque-style revue “Sugar Babies,” in which Mr. Rooney’s co-star was the former MGM hoofer Ann Miller. Mr. Rooney fought over every skit and argued over every song and almost always got things done his way. The show opened on Broadway on Oct. 8, 1979, to rapturous reviews, and this time he did not throw success away.

“Sugar Babies” ran for three years. A road company with Carol Channing and Robert Morse was not a success — audiences wanted only one top banana, Mickey Rooney — so he spent four more years on the road with the show.

In 1983, Mr. Rooney was given an honorary Academy Award “in recognition of his 60 years of versatility in a variety of film performances.”

He continued performing well into the new millennium. He had roles in “Night at the Museum” (2006), “The Muppets” (2011) and other movies. In 2007 he and Ms. Chamberlin began touring in a “one man, one wife” show with the nostalgic title “Let’s Put On a Show.” As late as 2014 he was still making movies.

In Mr. Rooney’s later years, his life became tumultuous once again. In 2011 he obtained a restraining order against his stepson Christopher Aber and Mr. Aber’s wife, Christina, charging them with withholding food and medicine and forcing him to sign over his assets. He repeated his allegations in Washington before the Senate Special Committee on Aging. He later filed suit against them; the suit was settled in 2013, with the Abers agreeing that they owed Mr. Rooney $2.8 million.

Mr. Rooney is survived by Ms. Chamberlin.

For all the ups and downs of Mr. Rooney’s life and career, there was one constant: his love of performing. “Growing up in vaudeville,” he once said, “made me cognizant of the need to have fun at what you’re doing. You can’t get it done well without it being fun. And I’ve never felt that what I do is ‘work.’ ”

March 27, 2014

Gone With the Wind Prequel Coming in October

Mammy, the faithful slave in Gone With the Wind, may finally get her due — and a proper name.

More than 75 years after the publication of the epic novel by Margaret Mitchell, a prequel with Mammy at its center is set for release in October, the publisher said on Wednesday.

The completed book, Ruth's Journey, is the fictional telling of the life of one of the novel’s central characters, a house servant called Mammy who otherwise remains nameless.

Read the full article by clicking here.

Donald McCaig, the author of Ruth's Journey, has also written a Gone With the Wind sequel. Rhett Butler's People came out in 2007.

March 26, 2014


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March 14, 2014

Bob Thomas, Dean of Hollywood Reporters, Dies

Bob Thomas, the longtime Associated Press writer and dean of Hollywood
reporters who covered a record 66 Oscar ceremonies, reported on the
biggest stars, from Clark Gable to Tom Cruise, and filed AP's bulletin
that Robert F. Kennedy had been shot, died Friday. He was 92.

Thomas, a last link to Hollywood's studio age who retired in 2010,
died of age-related illnesses at his longtime Encino, Calif., home,
his daughter Janet Thomas said.

A room filled with his interview subjects would have made for the most
glittering of ceremonies: Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe,
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Groucho Marx and Marlon Brando,
Walt Disney and Fred Astaire. He interviewed rising stars (James
Dean), middle-aged legends (Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson) and elder
institutions (Bob Hope).

Thomas' career began in 1944, when Hollywood was still a small,
centralized community, tightly controlled by a handful of studios, and
continued well into the 21st century. During his nearly seven decades
writing for the AP, Thomas reviewed hundreds of films and television
shows, compiled hundreds of celebrity obituaries and wrote numerous
retrospective pieces on Hollywood and how it had changed.

He was the author of nearly three dozen books, including biographies
of Disney, Brando and Crawford and an acclaimed portrait of studio
mogul Harry Cohn, "King Cohn." He wrote, produced and appeared in a
handful of television specials on the Academy Awards and was a guest
on numerous television programs including "The Tonight Show," ''Good
Morning America" and "Nightline." His biographies of reclusive
billionaire Howard Hughes and the comedy team of Abbott and Costello
were made into television movies.

He is listed twice in Guinness World Records, for most consecutive
Academy Awards shows covered by an entertainment reporter and for
longest career as an entertainment reporter (1944-2010).

In 1988, he became the first reporter-author awarded a star on
Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

But one of his biggest stories had nothing to do with entertainment.

Helping out during the 1968 presidential election, Thomas had been
assigned to cover Sen. Kennedy on the night the New York Democrat won
the California primary. Minutes after declaring victory, Kennedy was
shot to death in the kitchen of Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel.

"I was waiting in the press room for Kennedy to arrive when I heard
what sounded like the popping of balloons in the hotel kitchen,"
Thomas would recount years later.

"I rushed into the kitchen where men were screaming and women
sobbing," he recalled. "I jumped onto a pile of kitchen trays and saw
Kennedy lying on the floor, his head bloody."

He ran to a phone and delivered the bulletin to The Associated Press.

As the son of a newspaper editor turned Hollywood press agent, Robert
Joseph Thomas seemed destined to become an entertainment writer from
his earliest days. In junior high school and high school he wrote
entertainment columns for the campus newspaper, and in college his
favorite reading was the industry trade paper Daily Variety.

But when he joined the AP in Los Angeles in 1943, it was with
aspirations of becoming a war correspondent. Instead, the wire service
named him its Fresno, Calif., correspondent, a job he gave up after
little more than a year.

"It gets so damn hot in Fresno in the summer and nothing much ever
happens there," he once told a colleague.

He returned to the AP's LA bureau in 1944 and was soon named its
entertainment reporter. He was also told that the byline he'd been
using -- Robert J. Thomas -- had to go.

"Too formal for a young guy who's going to work the Hollywood beat,"
he said the AP's bureau chief told him. "From now on your byline is
'Bob Thomas.'"

Soon he would become a ubiquitous presence in Hollywood, attending
awards shows, wandering studio back lots or going from table to table
at the Polo Lounge, Musso and Frank and other favored Hollywood
hangouts of the day. The gentlemanly, soft-spoken reporter with the
wry sense of humor rarely had trouble getting people to talk to him
and enjoyed access to the stars that modern journalists rarely attain,
whether visiting with Nicholson at his home or chatting on the set
with Tracy and Hepburn.

Although he insisted he never became friends with the people he
covered, Thomas did strike up close, long-lasting acquaintanceships
with many, and he had the anecdotes to prove it.

There was the time he tried, unsuccessfully, to match the
hard-drinking Richard Burton drink for drink on the set of the 1964
film "Night of the Iguana."

Another time, he showed up for an interview with Betty Grable armed
with a tape measure. He had been sent, he told the actress, to
determine if her figure had suffered during her recent pregnancy.
Grable good naturedly let him measure her.

"Can you imagine doing that with Michelle Pfeiffer today?" he once
asked. "In those days, it really seemed like a playground."

Thomas even received fan mail from the stars. Soon after her marriage
to actor John Agar in 1950, Shirley Temple wrote: "John and I want you
to know that we are very grateful to you for the manner in which you
handled the story on our wedding."

Some sent telegrams: "Thanks for sending the article to me; I got a
kick out of reading it," Jimmy Durante wrote via Western Union in
1951. "Boy, you're great."

But Thomas also had his share of run-ins.

Doris Day and Frank Sinatra went months without talking to him after
he quoted them candidly in stories, and Tracy cut off contact for
years when something Thomas said about him offended the Oscar-winning
actor. The fiercely private Brando never spoke with him again after
Thomas published the biography "Marlon."

His encyclopedic knowledge of the industry was well appreciated by his
colleagues. A former AP editor, Jim Lagier, would recall that Thomas
had a filing system at his home that rivaled that of any news bureau.

"Because if you call Bob Thomas at two o'clock in the morning and say,
'Bob, Mary Smith has died,' he would say, 'Mary Smith,' and then,
suddenly you could hear the filing cabinets were opening. He would
start dictating the lead," Lagier told the AP in 2008 during an oral
history interview.

Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the AP, worked with Thomas in
the Los Angeles bureau in the early 1980s.

"Bob was an old-fashioned Hollywood reporter and he knew absolutely
everyone," she said. "He had a double-helping of impish charm with the
stars, but back at the office, he was the quiet guy who slipped into a
desk at the back and poked at the keyboard for a while, then handed in
a crisp and knowing story soon delivered to movie fans around the

"Some days, you'd even get a smile out of him before he headed out the
door again."

Through the years, Thomas' enthusiasm for his profession never waned.

"I get to interview some of the most beautiful people in the world,"
he said in 1999. "It's what I always wanted to do, and I just can't
stop doing it."

Thomas is survived by his wife of 67 years, Patricia; daughters Nancy
Thomas, Janet Thomas and Caroline Thomas; and three grandchildren.

March 11, 2014

Please Visit Classic Movies on Facebook

Meredy's Place - Classic Movies/TV/Celebrities now has its own page on Facebook.

There's a daily classic movie/TV/celebrity trivia question, classic star photos, and discussion of favorite films, TV shows and performers.

Please come join us!

March 09, 2014

Book and DVD Recommendations

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
By Mark Harris

You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood's Golden Age
Robert Wagner and Scott Eyman

Midnight Lace is now on DVD! Click here for more info.