The Big Operator (1959)
Directed by Charles F. Haas
Starring: Mickey Rooney, Steve Cochran, Mamie Van Doren
* Published specifically for The Mickey Rooney Belated Centenary Blogathon hosted by Kristen at KN Winiarski Writes *
“Little Joe” Braun (Mickey Rooney) is a union boss who heads the International Union of Precision Toolers local n°8 in Los Angeles. He is under criminal investigation by the U.S. Senate Committee over accusations of racketeering. The night before he is supposed to testify, he calls a meeting at local n°8 to try and rouse up support from some of the dues paying members. The meeting is not the only thing that Little Joe had on his schedule that evening, however. Earlier on he had three of his men perform a hit on the union’s treasurer, William Tragg, who was going to supply the prosecution with official records as evidence to be used against Little Joe. One of the operatives, Oscar “The Executioner” Wetzel (Ray Danton), is shortly thereafter seen giving Tragg’s documents to Little Joe by two witnesses: Bill Gibson (Steve Cochran) and Fred McAfee (Mel Tormé), employees of Earl Y. Carleton & Son Precision Equipment factory.
Gibson and McAfee’s involvement in this dilemma immediately concerns Little Joe who had a disastrous appearance in front of the Senate Committee. He tries to bribe the two men with promotions and big salaries but neither will take the bait. What Little Joe fails to understand is that the men do not consider what they saw that night as anything out of the ordinary although Gibson intuitively believes him to be a dangerous character. It is Little Joe’s own paranoia that is making him blindly react to the situation. The next day, Little Joe forces a picket line of strikers to block entry to the factory even though there was never a vote to do so. McAfee becomes enraged and verbally attacks Little Joe at a union meeting, making a mockery of him in front of the other workers. Not one to be upstaged, Little Joe has McAfee kidnapped, tortured, and dumped in front of his house – in flames. This is the final straw for Gibson who realises that he must go to the authorities to disclose what he saw between Wetzel and Little Joe that evening.
The fight is on between Gibson and Little Joe who with the help of his goons try to brutally force their way into silencing him. It is a race against the clock to the next Senate hearing and to Gibson protecting his wife (Mamie Van Doren) and son from their evil grasp.
This is a film that pleasantly surprised me. Knowing that a movie is a B-picture has never deterred me from giving it a fair chance. In fact, I have come to enjoy these “cheap” films as much, and sometimes more than, big budget studio productions. From the jazzy, almost kinky music to the obvious re-use of sets, there is much to appreciate in simple techniques. Something that did stand out to me was certain filming techniques used that I found to be quite inventive. For instance, Gibson is a leaving a room and walks directly into the camera which then fades into the courtroom. I thought that was a very clever transition.
Everyone gives very admirable performances. The only complaint I have is that Mamie Van Doren’s character did not show much variation aside from being a typical, perfect housewife who seemingly lived in the kitchen. This was a waste of her talent although her beauty was indeed on full display. I was not used to seeing Steve Cochran playing a non-gangster role so it was a nice change.
A Character Medley
If The Big Operator is remembered for anything in particular, it would certainly be for its diverse cast. It was made up of thespians that had their heydays during the days of Vaudeville and the Golden Age of Hollywood as well as actors who appeared in mostly B pictures and those who would go on to have thriving careers in television. You get a bit of everything here! Not only that, most of the actors in this film previously worked with one another, so linking their projects is similar to completing a puzzle.
Director Charles Haas filmed The Beat Generation a few months before he started filming on The Big Operator. The two leads in that film were Steve Cochran and Mamie Van Doren, while five other supporting players from The Big Operator also starred: Ray Danton, Jackie Coogan, Ray Anthony, Charles Chaplin Jr., and Vampira.
(Above) Jim Backus in Gilligan’s Island and posing with a Mr. Magoo toy.
(Below) Jay North as michevious youngster Dennis the Menace. Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester with niece Wednesday in The Addams Family.
The cast also included Jim Backus and Jay North. Backus voiced the animated Mr. Magoo and was best known as millionaire Thurston Howell II on Gilligan’s Island. North played the title role in Dennis the Menace. Jackie Coogan, who soared to prominence starring opposite Charlie Chaplin in The Kid, celebrated late career success as Fester Addams on The Addams Family.
Ray Anthony & Mamie Van Doren
Ray and Mamie were married but had recently separated at the time of filming both The Beat Generation and The Big Operator. A few months later, they shot Girls Town which also co-starred Mel Tormé and was directed by Charles Haas. The year before in 1958, they appeared together in High School Confidential. Mamie was first and foremost an actress while Ray was an orchestral bandleader and trumpeter who had played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra before forming his own band. He landed his first acting role in 1955’s Daddy Long Legs and according to Mamie, “continue(d) to try to land another part as an actor” because it “had become increasingly difficult for him to land bookings for the band.”*
Although Mamie does not talk much about their joint projects, it is my assumption that she had a heavy hand in getting Ray the small roles in these four films. Their break-up was not an easy one but they have always remained united to some degree for the sake of their son. I can imagine that it was a little uncomfortable at times on the sets of The Beat Generation and The Big Operator due to the fact that Mamie and Steve Cochran were deeply involved with one another during both films. The Anthony’s eventually finalised their divorce in 1961.
Mickey Rooney spent a good part of his career playing good guy types who had a knack for humour and physical feats. You could not really call him the boy-next-door because he was always far too interested in the opposite sex for it to be considered innocent lust. The shadow of Andy Hardy would follow him around for most of his young adult life and it was hard for him to break out into other genres because he was instantly identifiable as Carvel’s favourite heartthrob. The regular film series ended in 1946 with Love Laughs at Andy Hardy. He was going on 26-years-old at the time of filming, was on his second marriage, and was a father of a son with another baby on the way. It is hardly surprising that he was ready to let go of playing a still wet behind the ears teenager.
The first shot that Mickey took at film noir was in 1950’s Quicksand, a B-picture that failed to impress critics and audiences when it was released. It has since garnered more praise and appreciation. He then starred in a slew of film noirs throughout the 1950’s: The Strip, Drive a Crooked Road, Baby Face Nelson, and The Last Mile. The Big Operator was the next-to-last film noir in which Mickey would star before with The Big Bankroll in 1961.
Film noir was a genre that suited Mickey very well. He excelled at portraying hardened personas with corrupt minds as much as he played nice guys caught in booby traps. His small stature did not prevent him from commanding respect or asserting his authority. Little Joe Braun was a classic example of this avouchment. Here is a pint size gangster who fears nothing and keeps everyone on their toes as if they were face-to-face with a tooth baring guard dog. He even gets under the skin of a top government prosecutor who would do anything to have Little Joe say something incriminating. While he does show his exasperation in a private fashion, he never loses face in a public setting. It is highly believable that Little Joe was able to keep up a racketeering front for so long because he had the ability and connections to do so. One of the reasons that Gibson is able to prevail is because he never underestimated Little Joe.
Despite roles in film noir and crime pictures drying up post-1960, Mickey continued to grab dramatic parts in the coming decades. His knack for song and dance was never extinguished, much to our benefit. 🙂
* Playing the Field: My Story by Mamie Van Doren, 1987, pgs. 116-117.