Hey kids, let's put on a show! We'll have singers, dancers, and a drag routine!
Don't let the title fool you – this is no Disney cartoon. Mickey's Tent Show is in fact an entry in the long-running Mickey McGuire series of short comedies, produced by Larry Darmour from the late silent days into the early talkie era: 1927 to 1934 to be exact. Mickey Rooney starred from the first short to the last as Mickey (Himself) McGuire, a character created by Fontaine Fox for his popular Toonerville Trolley comic strip. The role was well suited to the young Mr. Rooney, who was only six years old when he landed the gig. Mickey McGuire was the undisputed leader of his own gang, the kind of kid who comes up with big ideas, and persuades the other kids to carry them out. A born C.E.O., you might say. He's multi-talented, practically fearless, and absolutely self-assured at all times. Sure sounds like an ideal role for Mickey Rooney, doesn't it? The series served as young Mick's movie apprenticeship.
I haven't seen many of the Mickey McGuire films, but the ones I've watched look a lot like Hal Roach's Our Gang series, which was already well under way when producer Darmour first hired Rooney to play the lead. The main difference seems to be that while the Our Gang shorts were usually ensemble efforts, the McGuire comedies are focused largely on the central character. Rooney dominates the proceedings, while the other kids don't register all that strongly as individuals. Mickey's Tent Show is one of the last entries, a talkie short produced when the star was a pre-teen, though he looked younger. It's the best Mickey McGuire comedy I've seen to date, at least in part because the other kids -- especially Billy Barty, as Mickey's kid brother -- are given some opportunities of their own. Barty, a midget who was eight years old when this film was made but could pass for an infant (which he did, elsewhere), makes a strong impression in several scenes, and was even allowed to perform the final comic bit, solo, before the fadeout.
The premise is simple, and amusingly enough it's a forerunner to the musicals Rooney would make (again and again) with Judy Garland later on. Mickey and his gang are earning money by helping an auctioneer deliver purchases to buyers. When the auction ends, the man pays them twenty-five cents to haul away the unsold stuff, which turns out to be leftover material from a defunct circus. So, for twenty-five cents the kids find themselves in possession of a full-sized canvas tent, costumes, and a cannon! Naturally, Mickey decides to put on a show, starring himself and his gang. And here's where young Mr. Rooney gets his first experience with one of those shoestring productions he would one day stage with Judy. All the neighborhood kids show up for the event, and find Mickey acting as barker in front of the big top. But there's also a villain on hand, a mean rich kid appropriately named Stinky Davis. Viewers who've seen other McGuire comedies know that Stinky's function in the series is to oppose Mickey at every turn. He distinguishes himself here by trying to shut down the show, first by falsely accusing Mickey and his gang of having stolen the tent they're using. When he's unable to make the charge stick, Davis employs his own gang of kids to disrupt the performance. It's a pleasure when Stinky eventually gets his comeuppance in the finale.
Meanwhile, the show itself is a hoot. First there's a barber shop quartet, followed by a cowboy act featuring two guys in a horse costume. Most memorable of all, there's a sketch that pokes fun at Mae West, then at the peak of her popularity. Believe it or not, our 12 year-old star impersonates the lady in full Diamond Lil regalia. Mickey-as-Mae slinks onto the stage, hand on hip, and addresses a cop with the startling line: "Hello there, dark and handsome. Why doncha come 'round some rainy afternoon, and I'll kinda shine your badge for ya." Then he's joined by Billy Barty and a black kid called Hambone, each dressed as Mae West, for a rendition of the song "Frankie and Johnny." You have to wonder how Rooney felt about this routine in later years, though he did dress up as Carmen Miranda for another drag routine in Babes on Broadway, at the peak of his own popularity in 1941.
At any rate, Mickey's Tent Show is a well paced, agreeable short, which offers a steady supply of moderately amusing gags. Not quite up to the Our Gang level of quality, perhaps, but not far below it, either. At this writing, Mickey Rooney is one of the last living stars of the silent era, and for that matter one of the last stars from the '30s. He comes off quite well in this short. And you haven't lived until you've seen his Mae West impression!
P.S. April 2014: RIP, Mickey (Himself) McGuire.
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