Hollywood's No. 1 box office bait in 1939 was not Clark Gable, Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power, but a rope-haired, kazoo-voiced kid with a comic-strip face, who until this week had never appeared in a picture without mugging or overacting it. His name (assumed) was Mickey Rooney, and to a large part of the more articulate U. S. cinemaudience, his name was becoming a frequently used synonym for brat.
Nevertheless, Mickey Rooney was no brat to some 24,000 movie exhibitors who (in the annual Fame-Motion Picture Herald poll) voted him the man whose pictures kept their houses best filled.
Mickey Rooney was no brat either to thousands of movie-goers who had already mightily plumped for him in the solid form of dimes and quarters at those theatres.
Nor did Mickey Rooney seem a brat to his studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for whom in 1939, he grossed a box-office total of $30,000,000. They saw Mickey Rooney in bread & butter terms, and as such he was the biggest actor of the year in pictures.
Mickey Rooney began as small as an actor can be. And to get where he has gotten took Actor Rooney a lot of time, a lot of talent, a lot of brass, a lot of luck, and a lot of names.
Sonny. Mickey Rooney was born Joe Yule Jr. some 19 years ago on the present site of the Brooklyn Telephone Company building. His mother, née Nell Carter, was a small-time Kansas City vaudevillian when she met up with dancing Joe Yule shortly before World War I, married him.
Mickey was called Sonny and at seven months Sonny could walk around backstage. At one year he could already say: "I'm not going to do that." He was ready to make his debut. He did so by interrupting a serious duet of Sid Gold and Babe Latour. Dressed in his backstage jeans, Mickey brought down the house by ambling out from the wings in the middle of their act and piping Pal of My Cradle Days. After that first performance Sonny was in the act.
At three Sonny was wearing specially tailored, midget-sized tuxedos that cost the Yules $55 a suit. At four Sonny was a has-been. Age was robbing him of his infantile cuteness. It took him almost a decade to get it back again.
Meanwhile the Yules separated. Mom, who kept Sonny, found the going hard.
One day, with some six or eight other footloose vaudevillians, Mom bundled Sonny and luggage into two automobiles, headed for Hollywood. It was 1925. Sonny was five.
Joe Yule Jr. First effect of Hollywood on Mickey Rooney was to make him resume his rightful name, Joe Yule Jr.
Mom got $15 knocked off her rent for taking charge of a bungalow court. Joe Yule Jr. got some small parts, sometimes made as much as $50 a week. But this was small change compared with the dreams Joe Yule Jr. was beginning to dream in the heady Hollywood air.