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What do we have here? A film noir, a musical or a strange hybrid of the two? The Strip (1951) is actually all of the above and a representative sample of the types of roles Mickey Rooney was getting offered in the early fifties, when he was over 30 and no longer MGM's boy wonder. In The Strip, he plays a jazz drummer with gangster connections who relocates to Los Angeles and finds work at Fluff's, a nightclub run by William Demarest. Soon he's trying to make time with Demarest's daughter, Sally Forrest, a dancer and aspiring actress. Eventually, they become an item but then he makes the mistake of introducing her to James Craig, his racketeer friend who claims to have some studio pull. It won't spoil anything to tell you that Mickey doesn't get the girl. The movie lets you know that from the get-go; it's told in flashback, beginning with the aftermath of a double homicide. The real fascination of The Strip is watching Rooney play a more mature character part; that of the sad-sack loser, a role which stands in direct contrast to the actor's adrenalin-charged, hyperactive performance. Another reason to watch is for the incredible musical numbers featuring such jazz legends as Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden but more on that later.
According to Mickey Rooney in his autobiography, Life is Too Short (Villard Books), The Strip was made during a low point in his career and there were a lot of those. But he admitted, "it was work and I needed work. I played a drummer in a band who is falsely accused of murdering a racketeer. This was a low-budget musical with a low-budget story. But there was good music in it....The Strip made only a little more than it cost ($885,000) and I brought in just enough to pay a few outstanding bills. Then I was back where I started, waiting to see if MGM could use me again. When it was clear that Metro couldn't, or wouldn't, I signed a three-picture deal with Harry Cohn and Jonie Taps at Columbia at $75,000 a picture. But it wasn't the money that attracted me. It was the presence at Columbia of Dick Quine, who was being given one of his first chances to direct. And he was going to direct me, his old buddy. Cohn and Taps ordered Quine's friend, Blake Edwards, to do the script, a service movie called Sound Off." [It was released in 1952 but that's another story].
While The Strip might not be Rooney's finest hour or one of the more distinguished noirs produced by MGM, it certainly deserves a place in film history, if only for its unique showcasing of several jazz giants. How many other films can you name where Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard and Page Cavanaugh all appear together, playing themselves in a fictional nightclub setting? For jazz aficionados, the film is a total delight from Armstrong opening his act with "Shadrock" to Teagarden performing "Basin Street Blues." In addition, a very young Vic Damone warbles "Don't Blame Me" and "La Bota," an upbeat, Latin-influenced novelty, is sung by nightclub diva Monica Lewis. The song, "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," received an Oscar nomination for Best Song and is performed three times in the course of the film; first, as a duet between Rooney and William Demarest (yes, you read that right), then by the club's hat-check girl during a rehearsal, and finally by Armstrong who nails it for all time. There's also some frenetic dancing on display, showcasing Sally Forrest's athletic form and some hipster, finger-popping male dancers.
Rooney would go on to play other decent guys caught up in unfortunate circumstances in films like A Slight Case of Larceny (1953) and Drive a Crooked Road (1954) but The Strip has an existential tone these later films lack. Robert Porfirio said it best in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (Overlook Press) when he wrote, "Rooney's performance as the musician whose pain makes him withdraw into his music, looks backward to Tom Neal as Al Roberts in Detour  and forward to Charles Aznavour as Charlie Koeller in Shoot the Piano Player ."
Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Leslie Kardos
Screenplay: Allen Rivkin
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Leonid Vasian
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Editing: Albert Akst
Music: Oscar Hammerstein II, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, George Stoll
Cast: Mickey Rooney (Stanley Maxton), Sally Forrest (Jane Tafford), William Demarest (Fluff), James Craig (Delwyn "Sonny" Johnson), Kay Brown (Edna), Tommy Rettig (Artie), Tom Powers (Detective Bonnabel).
BW-86m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford