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Boxing is in such disrepute these days that Killer McCoy (1947) comes as something of a guilty pleasure. It shouldn't be as enjoyable to watch as it is, given its uneasy dtente between sentimental formula and hard-hitting subject matter. But so solid is its craftsmanship, and so unstoppable is the energy pouring forth from Mickey Rooney in the title role, that you'll walk away satisfied. The amazingly durable Rooney was 26 when he filmed it. Behind him were the silents in which he played Mickey McGuire, from which he leapfrogged into the Andy Hardy series that made him a star. And of course there are the musicals in which he sang and danced alongside Judy Garland, at times even more pugnaciously than as the up-from-the-slums boxer he plays in this film with which he hoped to reboot his career, act his age and transition into character roles.
There has always been in his earlier performances something of the human firecracker. It's tempered here, despite his come-out-punching role as Tommy McCoy, who acquires his unwanted nickname when, on his way up, he knocks out his comeback-minded but out-of-shape friend and mentor, who never regains consciousness. What may have played a part as well is Rooney having to reassess and remake his film career after military service in World War II. He now was too old to play boys, no matter how boyish he may have looked. The thoughtful expressions on his face convince as the real thing. Good thing, because this remake of the Robert Taylor boxing movie The Crowd Roars (1938) casts Rooney's young boxer as something of a paragon - undeniably scrappy, but kind, caring, sensitive, loyal, good-hearted, bristling with integrity and even dignity.
The character defects are assigned to others, starting with Tommy's father, played by James Dunn (like Rooney an ex-vaudevillian), who agreeably recycles his much-acclaimed performance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), as the good-hearted ne'er-do-well alcoholic albatross of a father. The film eases into the boxing sequences by way of a cane-and-boater song and dance number a kindly parish priest hires the McCoy father-son duo to perform at a neighborhood association charity benefit that includes a boxing match. In no time, the younger McCoy climbs into the ring against the bout's winner, and never looks back. Or wouldn't, if his old man's drinking and gambling didn't keep pulling him into difficulty.
Things get serious when the old man finds himself deep in the hole to Brian Donlevy's shady gambler and the latter's enforcers. To bail his father out, Tommy lets the old man sell his contract to Donlevy's string-puller, who retains the old man as Tommy's nominal manager to avoid scrutiny of his own role in maximizing the profit to be harvested from manipulating bets on Tommy. His strategy is simple, involving Tommy's victories seeming to be the result of lucky knockout punches, which in fact had simply been delayed. This may be the place to point out not for the first time the depth and dependability of the so-called MGM stock company, Donlevy being an example.
Taciturn ruggedness was Donlevy's stock in trade. His was a reassuring presence, with a certain dignity co-existing alongside a toughness kept under wraps. A soft side, too. Here, he leaves no doubt of his ability to handle himself in the company of mobsters beneath his carefully cultivated exterior of a well-mannered, conservatively dressed stockbroker in his tailored suits complete with flower in lapel. Just as Dunn makes old man McCoy likable through his projection of warm-heartedness, Donlevy makes the gambling kingpin human by revealing a soft side when it comes to his only daughter, Sheila (Ann Blyth), stashed in a Connecticut finishing school. She and Tommy meet when the gambler's Connecticut estate is pressed into service as Tommy's training camp.
Blyth was trained in opera and the concert stage, which made her seem a bit different than the usual Hollywood romantic lead in her late teens. The air of gravity and apartness -- which peaked when she played Joan Crawford' daughter in Mildred Pierce (1945) -- sits well in a story that can use all the escape routes it can find from melodramatic clich. Scenes between Tommy and Sheila are redeemed by a sensitivity and intelligence he's allowed to reveal - although a scene in which she walks in on him playing Chopin on a piano in her living room is a bit much! -- and by her later apology for snobbishly judging him. Not that Donlevy's shady big shot is in the least receptive to the idea of viewing Tommy as a son-in-law. But then the protective father's own profession, so carefully concealed from his daughter (although not really), is something of a social equalizer.
It all comes to a head when Tom Tully's thuggish high roller gets wind of Donlevy's plan to sucker him into a big losing bet, and kidnaps Donlevy's daughter (and Tommy's father) to force Tommy to throw the fight. Tully, who mostly played tough but kind-hearted cops, is as close as the film comes to having a real heavy, and he gets the job done with a display of wiseguy brutishness. The brutishness, by the way, does not extend to the other boxers in the film. Mickey Knox is saintly as the veteran boxer who takes Tommy under his wing and whom Tommy unintentionally kills when he kayos him a few years later, earning him his unwanted nickname. And Bob Steele makes his mark as the loser of a vicious bout against Tommy, only to turn up oozing good nature and a professional's fatalism when he and his wife meet Tommy later in a nightclub.
Killer McCoy would almost remind you of Louis B. Mayer's insistence on movies about nice people with nice problems if it weren't about boxing and rigged matches. The boxing sequences, incidentally, are brilliantly directed and edited by Roy Rowland. They are efficient and high-impact, with adroitly alternating camera angles and the savagery amplified by being intercut with bloodthirsty crowd reaction, including one fat chap who keeps yelling what was to become one of the comic punch lines of the postwar period: "Hit him in the midsection!" Also worth noting in the small role of Tommy's trainer is Sam Levene, whose own breakout a few years later as gambler Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls is presaged by the garish postwar men's fashions, with their wide-lapeled sport jackets and even wider vividly patterned ties. Finally, speaking of subsequent reincarnations, Rooney, who seems in retrospect like one of those sand-bottomed inflatable figures who keeps getting punched, but keeps popping upright again, resurfaced with star billing in the boxing classic, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), in the corner of washed-up pug Anthony Quinn.
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Director: Roy Rowland
Screenplay: Frederick Hazlitt Brennan; George Bruce, Thomas Lennon, George Oppenheimer (story)
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Eddie Imazu
Music: David Snell
Film Editing: Ralph E. Winters
Cast: Mickey Rooney (Tommy McCoy/Killer McCoy), Brian Donlevy (Jim Caighn), Ann Blyth (Sheila Carrson), James Dunn (Brian McCoy), Tom Tully (Cecil Y. Walsh), Sam Levene (Happy), Walter Sande (Bill Thorne), Mickey Knox (Johnny Martin), James Bell (Father Patrick Ryan), Gloria Holden (Mrs. Laura McCoy), Eve March (Mrs. Martin), June Storey (Arlene - Waitress), Douglas Croft (Danny Burns, Newsboy), Bob Steele (Sailor Graves), David Clarke (Pete Mariola).
by Jay Carr
Life Is Too Short, by Mickey Rooney, Villard, 1991
The MGM Story, by John Douglas Eames, Crown, 1982
The MGM Stock Company: The Golden Era, by James Robert Parrish and Ronald L. Bowers, Arlington House, 1972
A Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson, William Morrow, 1980
The Film Encyclopedia, by Ephraim Katz, Macmillan, 2001
Mickey Rooney: Essay by Jeanine Basinger, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmaking 3 - Actors and Actresses
Variety, Oct. 29, 1947
The New York Times, Feb. 12, 1948