Was it really so bad?
By Don Stradley
THE BIG WHEEL – Directed by Edward Ludwig; screenplay by Robert Smith. Starring Mickey Rooney, Thomas Mitchell, Michael O’Shea.
By the time Mickey Rooney starred in The Big Wheel (1949), he had been in the movie business for 23 years and had another 60 or more years to go. It came out at a time when Rooney was at a crossroad. Though he'd appeared in a few dramatic roles already, he was still perceived as the singing and dancing boy next door. Here, though, as a racing driver with a massive chip on his shoulder, he swaggers like a real hard-case, a hell-bent for leather street pug. As if to prove there was more to him than those delightful Andy Hardy movies he made for MGM, he sneers and hollers and is cockier than a rooster. Though it wasn’t too far removed from some of Rooney’s other smart-aleck roles, the public wasn't quite ready for a tough Mickey with a bloody lip and a bad attitude. The movie failed to turn a profit for its backers, and though it became a favorite of racing enthusiasts, it did little to establish Rooney as an adult actor capable of adult roles. As a showcase for a new, grownup Mickey Rooney, it hit the wall and burned.
The Big Wheel deserved better. It is not an exceptional movie, but the racing scenes are intense, the cinematography by Ernest Laszlo is crisp, and Rooney is reasonably believable as a churlish young man who lives for speed. When he acted in this movie he was 29-years-old and at a career low point. Too old to play teens, and too small to play leading men, with a couple of divorces behind him that made for good tabloid fodder, he’d dropped way out of the Hollywood pecking order. It was also his first independent production after his MGM glory days. As he wanders around a garage asking car owners if they could use a new driver, it's hard to imagine the scene isn't informed by his own predicament — Rooney had been a top actor who once made four or five major features per year, and was now down to a single middling indy flick. “Am I washed up with you, too?” he asks one racing boss. Was screenwriter Robert Smith playing on Mickey’s dead career?
In the movie, Rooney is Billy Coy, the son of a famous driver, "Cannonball" Coy, who died in a crash. Unable to live up to the old man's reputation, the young Coy is a loudmouth, ready to swing on anybody who crosses him. The world seems against him, though there's one gal, played by Mary Hatcher, who stands by him. When she describes Coy as a bunch of famous actors rolled into one, her maid (Hattie McDaniel) asks, "What does he look like when you unroll him?" The irony is that even as the script pokes fun at Rooney's height and appearance, there are times in The Big Wheel where he surprises us with his looks. When he's alone in a shot, not surrounded by others who remind us how small he is, he looks hard and dangerous. In one early scene, where he walks away from his car after losing a race, he resembles no less than that ultimate cinema toughie, Sterling Hayden.
Yet the film doesn’t allow Rooney to ride that toughness all the way. As if trying to appease the customers, there’s still a bit of Andy Hardy in Billy Coy. He dances and clowns around, particularly in scenes with his mother (Spring Byington). There's a happy ending, too, but it feels arbitrary, as if the producers wanted the audience to think it had just seen Andy Hardy In The Grease Pits. Moreover, while Rooney had been telling the press that he wanted to play "Jimmy Cagney type roles from now on," the reality was that he wasn't in a hurry to squash his old character. He'd already agreed to appear in a syndicated radio series called The Hardy Family. Even though he'd soon star in some good films that went against his usual persona — Quicksand (1950), and the excellent Drive a Crooked Road (1954) — he was still connected to Andy Hardy and always would be.
When glancing through Rooney's memoirs and biographies, there's little to learn about The Big Wheel. We discover there were contract problems and difficulties in raising money to get this production off the ground. (The Big Wheel was partly bankrolled by former boxing champion Jack Dempsey.) We also learn that Rooney considered it a bust. “If you saw it,” Rooney wrote in his autobiography, “you were in a small, unselect minority.” Looking back on films such as Quicksand and The Big Wheel, Rooney usually said they were made against his will for his business manager/producer Sam Stiefel. Rooney and Stiefel had a contemptuous relationship, which probably soured the actor on films such as The Big Wheel, which is unfortunate.
Rooney eventually earned approval for his more serious work, in such features as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Baby Face Nelson (1957), The Big Operator (1959), and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), as well as a sizzling episode of Playhouse 90 called “The Comedian” (1957). It isn’t a stretch to view The Big Wheel as the real beginning of Rooney's second phase, when he became a reliable character actor who could play both serious and comic roles. Yet Rooney always viewed the movie as the sad result of some bad business decisions. When gossip columnist Hedda Hopper asked him about that year of his career, Rooney had nothing good to say. “I went down the sewer,” he said. “Sam Stiefel and I made some lousy pictures.”
Yet The Big Wheel isn’t so bad. It is worthy if only because it marked a new era for Rooney, one where he stuck his flag in the ground and declared he was a different sort of actor than audiences knew. In time, we’d see that he was right.
The Big Wheel is available to watch on our Youtube Channel here.