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Mickey Rooney ventures into crime noir

POSTED: April 24, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Mickey Rooney was a man who lit up the silver screen for decades. Often known for his portrayal of the clean-cut Andy Hardy in the film series of the same name, Rooney also made a brief foray into crime noir.

In honor of the actor, who died earlier this month, I revisited his often overlooked and criminally underappreciated 1957 film “Baby Face Nelson.”

“1933, an era of jazz, jalopies, prohibition and trigger-happy punks!” The movie’s opening crawl sets the stage for Lester Gillis (Mickey Rooney), better known as “Baby Face Nelson,” the notorious gangster and cohort of the bank robber John Dillinger.

It opens with Nelson’s release from prison when he is promptly whisked away to the office of a Chicago crime lord named Rocca (Ted de Corsia), who claims he organized Nelson’s release by paying off the parole board.

“I’ve got a big job for you, little man,” Rocca said.

“If it is a big job, why get a little man?” Nelson said.

This seemingly small interaction creates the central theme that follows Nelson throughout the two-hour flick. At first glance Nelson seems to be a repentant criminal, who is ready to do right by the world he wronged. And it comes off as a natural fit for the boyish Rooney. However, that quickly changes after Rocca frames him for murder.

To Nelson, it is the world that wronged him, not the other way around. The small man then transforms into a shifty, quick-triggered gangster. Accompanied by Sue Nelson (Carolyn Jones), his devoted girlfriend who first suggested he go by the name “Nelson” to throw off the FBI, he escapes from prison and murders Rocca and two of his cohorts before joining the Dillinger gang.

The remainder of the film is full of robberies, police chases and gang infighting as Dillinger slowly realizes Nelson is unhinged and dangerous.

Overall the acting in the movie is good, if not quite amazing. The film centers mostly around Rooney, who manages to encompass Nelson’s insecurities and rage while never coming off as over the top. Most of the supporting characters are short-lived, but Jones and Cedric Hardwicke, who played the alcoholic and womanizing Doc Saunders, both put on terrific performances.

At just over two hours, the movie manages to never feel too slow or gratuitous, and the ending is appropriately tragic.

The real tragedy, however, is the fact that this movie has mostly been lost to time. As far as I can tell, it was never officially released on DVD or VHS. Critics also panned the movie when it came out. Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, delivered a scathing review in 1957, claiming the movie “is a thoroughly standard, pointless and even old-fashioned gangster picture, the kind that began going out along with the oldtime sedans.”

I couldn’t possibly disagree with Crowther more. “Baby Face Nelson” is an enjoyable and well-crafted noir film, with both emotional impact and action.

Unfortunately, it is not available on DVD, but the entire film is available to stream on YouTube.

Andrew Akers is a member of the features staff at The Times. He can be reached at aakers@gainesvilletimes.com.


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