Slight Case of Larceny, A (DVD Review)12 May, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Mickey Rooney, Eddie Bracken, Marilyn Erskine, Elaine Stewart.
On the old laserdisc commentary to Rod Serling’s “Playhouse 90” teleplay The Comedian, its director (John Frankenheimer) said that the just deceased Mickey Rooney was the most talented person he ever worked with — a not insignificant huzzah given that Frankenheimer directed Burt Lancaster several times, also Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate plus wall-to-wall heavyweights in The Iceman Cometh. But by the ’50s, one of the previous decade’s biggest box office champs fell on hard times: working for Republic Pictures (though The Atomic Kid is a slice of screen dementia one never forgets); a one-season TV series; and a lot of alimony. The Private Lives of Adam and Eve and Platinum High School were still a way’s off.
Larceny, from 1954, is the kind of picture that might have played second billed to a 2D version of the Gig Young shot-in-3D rodeo drama Arena — and, in fact, it did at one of my downtown movie palaces about a week before my 6th birthday. Co-starring here with Rooney is Eddie Bracken, whose own big-screen career had fallen off as well — and, indeed, this would be his last Hollywood feature until he made a sweet return in 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation. This is a minor comedy with a short running time, and yet the two play so professionally off one another that their nicely synchronized teaming is a pleasure to watch, even though their styles were not dissimilar. This said, one can imagine Rooney playing some of Bracken’s best roles though perhaps not the other way around. (If you ever get a chance to catch 1956’s hard-to-see infantry drama The Bold and the Brave, check out how Rooney got a supporting Oscar nomination for basically a single scene: a craps game amid combat — an amazer).
In this case, married Bracken and wannabe wheeler-dealer Rooney open up a service station that almost immediately gets in a price war with a rival (Douglas Fowley, coming off Singin’ in the Rain) who operates a chain and can afford a loss-leader if that’s what it takes to run the guys just across the highway into the ground. And for a while, he does a capable job of this until Rooney discovers that he and his less-willing partner can tap into a gas line that runs under their station for all the illegally gratis petrol their pumps can slurp up. Somehow fitting into this is a Fowley babe-employee played by Elaine Stewart, who is enough of a knockout here to stop not just traffic but likely air traffic if put to the test. Rooney has designs on her, and in male-fantasy fashion, she eventually comes around — though, actually, Rooney was married to enough babes in real life that maybe her acquiescence isn’t purely an in-your-dreams conceit. Director Don Weis even gives Stewart a beach scene, thank you, though a lot of it is devoted to the humiliation of Rooney on a trampoline to the amusement of some Central Casting beach boys.
Weis picked up a (very) small cult around this time via some MGM “youth” musicals with Debbie Reynolds: a serviceable The Affairs of Dobie Gillis and the very easy-to-take I Love Melvin. And some of his following probably came courtesy of the following year’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba, some head-poundingly campy 2.55-to-1 Walter Wanger nonsense also with Stewart — a movie I wish would rate a home market or even TV CinemaScope rendering (I understand that even the Spanish DVD import is in widescreen only during the lengthy opening credits sequence). Like everyone else in Hajji, Stewart fails to escape with her dignity, though where else are you going to get a movie that combines Islam, John Derek, a pre-"Gunsmoke" Amanda Blake, Dimitri Tiomkin, Gene Allen production design and Nat King Cole? Larceny is far more modest than all that, but you can make the case that it’s a smoother ride on cheaper gas, and it has a final gag that should find a willing audience even today.