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April 07, 2014

The Bold and the Brave

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Lewis R. Foster - 1956
Optimum Releasing Region 2 DVD

The Bold and the Brave is a film that use to appear on late night broadcast television every Veterans' Day. It was made back at a time when war films, and this usually meant taking place during World War II, were a Hollywood staple, much like those other almost extinct genres, the western and the smaller scale musical. The title belies a much more intimate film here. The first hour is devoted to establishing the shifting friendships and conflicts between three soldiers. Opening titles proclaim how man's biggest battles are those within himself rather than those in war. It might have been those philosophical moments that earned the screenplay an Oscar nomination. Until his nod for The Black Stallion in 1979, The Bold and the Brave was Mickey Rooney's last bid for Oscar glory.

Rooney plays a soldier who loves to eat and gamble. Even when playing with the available girls in a small Italian town, his dream is to gather enough cash to open his own restaurant in New Jersey. Rooney's Oscar competition that year included Robert Stack, Anthony Perkins, Don Murray and Anthony Quinn, the winner for Lust for Life. Considering that Rooney's film was a more modest production from the nearly on the ropes RKO, he was something of a long shot. Say what you want to about Mickey Rooney, he did great death scenes.

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My own viewing of Rooney's output has been scattershot, but his work in the Fifties and early Sixties has struck me as being the most interesting. The guy went straight from MGM to much lower budget, and less prestigious independent productions. It's appropriate that one of Rooney's earliest films after leaving MGM was titled Quicksand. More clearly in that film is the sense of sadness and not a little desperation, befitting someone who once was the top star of the top studio, now fighting to keep a small place as a constantly working actor rather than a former child star. Rooney's most interesting appearances for me were in dramas, the title role in Baby Face Nelson, and supporting turns in King of the Roaring 20s and Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Robert Lewin's screenplay reportedly has autobiographical elements. I know that you can't expect more than some broad strokes in creating even a few characters in a film that runs less than ninety minutes. And while it's great to watch Wendell Corey take on a German tank all by himself, his change from a guy whose sense of humanity overwhelms his ability to shoot a rifle seems inspired by the vaguest of motivations. More detailed is Don Taylor's performance as a soldier known as Preacher, whose world view has been determined by fundamentalist Christianity. What little Lewin seems to be saying is that survival is best served by compromise and flexibility, with Rooney killed and Taylor almost killed by their respective rigidity and sense of purpose.

Credited to journeyman director Lewis R. Foster, IMDb lists Rooney as having also served as director of The Bold and the Brave. Rooney did have a credited hand in writing the title song with Ross Bagdasarian. Just a couple of years away from introducing his novelty act, The Chipmunks, it should be noted that Bagdasarian was the cousin to William Saroyan, author of the play, The Human Comedy, which was made into a film starring, yes, Mickey Rooney, in, yes again, an Oscar nominated performance. What control Rooney may have had off screen, he generously cedes much of the movie to Corey and Taylor. Even if The Bold and the Brave might not be good enough to be accorded classic status, it's worth seeing as a high point in a very long career. In the best of his performances, Mickey Rooney conveyed his own experiences as someone who knew well both the pinnacle of success and the depth of failure.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 7, 2014 07:47 AM