Killer McCoy (1947) is an engaging hybrid of genres, a post-war noir with a 1930s innocence and parade-of-years element; a story where the slum-raised protagonist is actually a hero rather than anti-hero, as sentimental as he is cynical. The racketeers are soulless, except for the one with the most to lose. The romantic couple never even kiss, but they are bonded together from the moment they meet. Most interestingly, it is an MGM movie and not Warner’s, where one might expect to find a gritty boxing picture. It is a both a gift, and a challenge, from the studio—perhaps even a dare to test his box office value—to its prodigal son just back from service in the army, Mickey Rooney.
Ann Blyth, on loan out from Universal for the second time, plays a finishing school debutante, the daughter of the successful racketeer. Her father, played by Brian Donlevy in a tailor-made role, has kept his nefarious career a secret from her, but she learned about it when she was still a child and carries the shame inside her. She doesn’t tell her pop she knows because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. There’s a lot of protecting of parents by disillusioned young people in this movie, not excatly a forerunner of the 1950s and 1960s teen films of mom-and-dad-don’t-understand flicks.
These young adults are much more mature and compassionate than the malt-shop or beach bum gang of whiners that would follow. They are not grappling with growing up; they grew up too soon.
Though this is a remake of the Robert Taylor vehicle, The Crowd Roars (1938), I won’t make any comparisons, partly because I haven’t seen that movie yet, and partly because Killer McCoy can stand on its own as a slice of the careers of its prodigiously talented leads.
Mickey Rooney creates a fascinating double-image of his screen persona. We see flashes of Andy Hardy in his playful song-and-dance routine with the wonderful James Dunn, who plays his alcoholic shiftless father, and even in some of the rubbery pratfalls he takes in the boxing ring. Mr. Rooney, though he is a natural athlete and is clearly in shape, muscular with good upper body development, is no boxer. He doesn’t really have the technique down, but that is covered pretty well by director Roy Rowland’s judicious direction.
Rooney has famously, both in his autobiography, Life Is Too Short, and in his television interview with Robert Osborne on TCM’s Private Screenings series, discussed his fights with Rowland on set, that he felt the director berated him and was out to get him. You’d never know it by the image on screen, though, which is a wonderful blend of skillful cinematography and Mickey Rooney’s own masterful screen presence. In the scene where he first meets Donlevy, Mickey enters the room, casts an eye around, almost as if looking for the camera and for us, as if to say, "Yeah, it's me. I'm back."
It is in the quieter moments of serious dialogue where Rooney really shines, where we see he has left Andy Hardy behind, in his beaten, cynical manner and in the lines on his face. He confronts what he feels is Ann Blyth’s snobbery about boxers in a speech that displays his anger, his resentment for the fight game and himself a pawn in it, and yet also his compassion for all the washed-up boxers he’s ever met. Despite his pride, we see his self-loathing later in a scene where crisis comes and he blurts out, "In a way, I had this coming to me."
Most especially preying on his mind is his friend and mentor, played by Mickey Knox, a boxer who trained him. Knox left the game for wife and baby and chicken farm, but when the money was tight, he went back into the ring for a comeback. He wasn’t in good condition, and his opponent—Mickey Rooney by luck of the draw—kills him in the ring.
Mr. Rooney has a terrific scene with Knox’s wife, played by Eve March, where they, both embarrassed and in pain, try to make small talk in one of the worst places in the world to do that: a hospital waiting room in the wee hours of the night. Miss March is excellent in this scene. Her career comprised of a lot of bit parts, mostly uncredited, but the strength of her realistic performance as a careworn, lower class woman of dignity, so striking, makes us wonder why she wasn’t used more. I love the quick flashes of a weak smile when she speaks proudly of her little son. She tells Rooney the boy wants to grow up to be a boxer like his daddy.
Rooney’s expression hardens. “Don’t you let him, Mrs. Martin. Don’t you ever let him.”
“No.” she quietly agrees.
So many scenes, which could come off as cliché, ring true, such as when Rooney, betrayed and disgusted that his father would sell his contract to racketeer Donlevy for gambling and drinking money—only one in a string of disappointments in his washed-up actor father.
Dunn plays his role with relish, a helpless big-talker who lives for the next stroke of luck, but who can’t settle down to an honest day’s work, as pitiable as he is repugnant. Rooney has supported his parents and been the man of the family since boyhood. But there is no hearts and flowers sentimentality to his sacrifice; on the contrary, he is more resentful than a truckload of George Baileys. Rooney does not apologize for his father, indeed, lets him have it in strong words and a slap on the face, but with the extraordinary compassion (one keeps coming back to that noble word) of his character, he also looks out for him.
“You’re a ham and I’m a pug. Maybe that’s all we’ll ever be, but at least we’ll have each other. At least we can go on hoping.”
Another good, genuine scene with Rooney is when the gold-digging waitress at the dinner chats him up for a big spender, and he, with self-depreciating humor, though too shrewd to be taken in, is still generous to her.
The scene where Ann introduces Mickey to her father, unaware they already know each other and are working together in a racket. Her eagerness for them to like each other, their uncomfortable and embarrassed pretending for her sake.
The scene where when he takes Ann Blyth to a nightclub and she, with youthful importance, orders a drink, and he orders tomato juice.
“Don’t you drink?” she says, startled, expecting more of the big-time boxer in a night on the town.
“No,” he says with wonderfully unconcerned nonchalance, showing the maturity and self-confidence of the young man who doesn’t give it a second thought. He’s got his own code of honor.
And it’s torturing him.
Though it’s Rooney’s movie, Ann Blyth is a particularly good choice for the role of the girl. This is her first time at MGM, the studio that will in a few years give her a chance at a big musical, The Great Caruso (1951), which we discussed here
, and would be her own home studio when she left Universal in the 1950s.
Her own maturity, her empathy not only for her character, but for Rooney, makes her an intriguing and quietly powerful companion for Mickey. Noting the difference in their social spheres, he tries to stop seeing her many times, but she won’t let him, yet she is not clinging, she is even sickened by her first sight of a boxing match, watching him getting punched, the blood lust of the crowd enjoying it. Their worlds collide because their souls are drawn to each other.
One particularly affecting scene takes place in a sailboat, where she confesses to him that she has known since she was a child that her father was a gangster, and so she had never really fit in with her private school classmates, his criminal activity like a long shadow over her.
From a technical aspect, the scene is magical, a still and quiet world away from the noise of the boxing arena and its savage fans. The boat lifts and falls in a lapping of a gentle wave on an otherwise deserted lake. The rear-screen projection is used very skillfully here. The scene is exquisitely gentle. There is power in Mickey’s restraint as he confesses his dream to leave boxing, and in the consoling way he listens to her and tries to advise her. There is power in the waver of Ann’s voice and tearing eyes as she tries to carefully unburden herself with fragile dignity.
“I’m all he has,” she says helplessly of her father, who lives a double life.
Ironically, the strongest aspect of their relationship is that, as mentioned above, they do not kiss. They don’t embrace, there are no confessions of love between them. They just need each other, and are both too wary, too burdened by others, too fearful to risk loving one more person. They are taking their time. Only at the magnificent end, when his last terrible boxing match is over, after Rooney screams hoarsely and out of breath into the radio microphone that he’s quitting, do they share a single, sweaty, bloody clinch. It’s perfect.
Only one scene doesn’t work for me, when Miss Blyth first meets Mr. Rooney, and he is playing Franz Liszt’s “Lebestraum” on the piano. How a guy who never went beyond seventh grade in school and scrambled to sell papers to feed his parents and spent every free moment hustling chumps in pool halls ever found the time or money to learn how to play classical pieces on the piano, I don’t know. We need to have a scene of him learning to play the piano as a child to believe it.
Interestingly, there is no mention of the war, though the movie covers a time span of about five years. The montage of headlines flashes only news of boxing, nothing else.
I won’t go play-by-play on the plot, except to note another scene were Dunn, in an attempt to save both himself and Ann from mobsters, finally displays mettle and resolve in a crisis instead of indulgent self-pity.
Donlevy’s devoted father-panic when he rages at Mickey for hanging around his daughter:
“You’re a pug. You come from the slums. You’ve fought your way through back alleys. You’ve killed a man.”
“Sheila knows that.”
"She’s just a child. She’ll feel differently,” he says, when Rooney’s been rendered senseless by one too many punches.
The ending may remind you of Rocky (1976). Concidence?
Another one of the joys of this movie is the parade of wonderful character actors: Sam Levene as Mickey’s trainer and cut-man, Happy, who suffers from the corner every time he’s hit, and has some great wisecracks.
Tom Tully plays a rival racketeer, a great performance that runs a knife-edge of humor and frightening cruelty. He tells a funny story about having indigestion, and he’s willing to kill for spite, let alone money. Everybody in this movie has two sides. Walter Sande his is partner.
Bob Steele, who’d been around since the days of the silents and made a name for himself in westerns, plays boxer Sailor Graves in a delightfully good-natured and even comic performance.
Watch for the extras, including Milburn Stone, Ray Teal, and blink-and-you-miss-her Shelley Winters in a non-speaking role as a boxing groupie who crashes training camp. She’s driving the convertible.
Ann Blyth, we could also note, is photographed absolutely beautifully in this movie. You can really see the MGM gloss in how the movie handles her. She conveys dignity, gravity, and decency, and her thoughtful expression darkens, cringes everytime someone speaks of gambling and mobsters. She was coming out of one of the worse periods of her personal life—her spine injury and death of her mother—and slogged out these bad memories in her intense bad-girl role in Swell Guy (1946), which we discussed here,
and popped up only briefly in Brute Force
(1947), which we’ll discuss down the road. In a way, this loan-out to MGM was, for her as much as Rooney, a kind of reboot to her career.
She would head back to Universal and a couple more intense dramas and characters of dubious moral conduct: A Woman’s Vengeance (1948) which we discussed here
, and Another Part of the Forest (1948) discussed here.
She was about to enter the busiest and most prolific period of her screen career. Though she was still a young woman, just 19, and she would not yet be through playing teens, still, not since the early four films at Universal in 1944 had she really been locked into ingénue roles. Instead, she could and would play women who, if not chronologically older, were certainly world-wise and knowing. Her own personal maturity and empathy contributed to this ability. A playfulness, even goofiness that was also part of her personality, would remain hidden and that would not come out until later films: Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) here
; Once More, My Darling (1949) here
; and Rose Marie (1954) discussed here.
A syndicated review in the Toledo Blade called the movie a…
Great comeback by Ann Blyth, who’s Mickey Rooney’s sweetheart in Killer McCoy. She’s the Mildred PierceAcademy Award nominee who broke her back tobogganing. It threatened to end her career! Hollywood’s happy for her...
Mickey Rooney’s career would lose momentum, despite his splendid performance in this film, and would ride a variety of crests and valleys through the coming years, but endured with remarkable longevity, which itself was a tribute to this very talented man.
Killer McCoy is available on DVD from the Warner's Archive Collection.
Come back next Thursday when we head back west on TV’s Wagon Train for another episode, “The Martha Barnham Story” where Ann Blyth plays an officer’s
haughty daughter whose bigotry will alienate a former love and mean life or death for herself and others.
Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne interview with Mickey Rooney.
Rooney, Mickey. Life Is Too Short. (NY: Villard Books, 1991).
Toledo Blade, July 9, 1947, “Filmdom chatter box”.
As most of you probably know by now, this year's TCM Classic Cruise will set sail (proverbially) in October, and one of the celebrity guests is Ann Blyth.
TCM has just published the itinerary for the cruise. Ann will be doing a couple hour-long conversation sessions, and will also be on hand for a screening of Mildred Pierce.
Have a look here for the rest of the schedule
and events with the other celebrity guests. Unfortunately, the cruise is booked, so if' you're late, you can try for the waiting list.
I, sadly, am unable to attend this cruise, but if any reader is going, I invite you (beg you) to share your experiences and/or photos relating to Miss Blyth on this blog as part of our year-long series on her career. I'd really appreciate your perspective on the event, to be our eyes and ears. Thanks.
THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable: EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign. The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
TRIVIA QUESTION: I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth. It seems to be a rare one. Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film. Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange. Maybe not the windows part. But you know what I mean.
Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from Switch, The Dick Powell Show, the Dennis Day Show (TV), the DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre. Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances. Release the hounds. And let me know, please.
A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century
is now out in eBook
, and in paperback here.
I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review. Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com
with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference). Thanks.