It’s 1942, and one of MGM’s go-to stars is 22-year-old Mickey Rooney. There’s a war on, but that isn’t stopping MGM from making schmaltzy pictures about plucky teenagers, and no one played plucky better than Rooney. Breaking their mold just a bit, they took all-American Rooney and set him smack dab in a fish-out-of-water tale at Eton College.
Now, growing up, my first encounter with Mickey Rooney was when he was quite a bit older, in the original Pete’s Dragon, alongside Helen Reddy and Jim Dale. I got into his movies with Judy Garland later, and of course there was National Velvet. I really enjoy watching him onscreen, so when he was the star of the day for TCM’s Summer Under the Stars, I hit record for just about every movie on that day, including this one. A Yank at Eton stars an already well-seasoned Rooney, pairing him with up-and-comer Freddie Bartholomew, newcomer Peter Lawford, and a bevy of Brits with familiar faces.
Right off the bat, before I could even get into the plot, what stood out was Mickey Rooney looking quite exhausted, his make-up clearly not hiding what MGM would have wanted it to. Off screen, Rooney had just married Ava Gardner; he was doing his usual work for MGM, which we can assume included the never-ending publicity work, and he had not yet started doing shows for the troops overseas.
Mickey Rooney’s best years at MGM had just concluded at this point; it’s easy to see why, when put in context. MGM’s modus operandi during the Great Depression was to charm and distract audiences. This is the era of the Busby Berkeley musical and the aw-shucks family pictures. Rooney during this time did a small handful of dramas, but musical comedy and family movies were his wheelhouse, and he was the studio’s biggest attraction from 1939-1941. Viewed in that context, especially if you’re familiar with Rooney’s movies with Judy Garland and the Andy Hardy series, A Yank at Eton reads as a shot in the bow of Rooney’s career. It is definitely an awkward entrance in his canon, a picture that feels like work.
MGM wasn’t oblivious to what was happening around the world, and this movie, while it does feel awkward, has the aura of propaganda about it. A great many movies produced during the war were ultimately about fostering fellow-feeling among Americans for our allies in Britain. This one is no different. Rooney’s character is planning to go to Notre Dame to follow in his late father’s footsteps, but his mother remarries and he is carted off to England and enrolled at Eton. It’s billed as comedy-drama, and I thought it leaned more heavily into drama than most of Rooney’s pictures in this era did. The comedy didn’t land for me, likely due to Rooney’s obvious exhaustion and my own awareness that when this film was made, many of the male stars involved were of an age to wear a uniform, not fighting over girls and dormitory glory.
Ultimately, this is a movie for completists and it isn’t one I’d say you have to go out of your way to watch. There are many better Mickey Rooney films, you can get your fill of Peter Lawford later in his career, and even if you’re there for Edmund Gwenn, he plays a similar role in 1938’s A Yank at Oxford (a British film with a similar plot and better fleshed-out cast).
I should note, too, that while this isn’t Rooney’s best movie, and he’s considered to have peaked at MGM prior to making it, there are more Andy Hardy pictures after this one, and it’s a few years before his turn as a jaded jockey in National Velvet. He was typecast due to his height and his film career swings wildly between brilliant and mediocre, but he does carve out a better niche for himself as time goes on.
A Yank at Eton is available on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.