Rooney (then in his late fifties) played grizzled horse trainer Henry Dailey, and he was a big part of making Walter Farley’s formulaic horse-racing plot feel real. He could overact like no one else, especially in movies for kids. (Check out Pete’s Dragon from two years before and Odyssey of the Pacific from three years after.) But when Ballard asked Rooney to provide an understated, naturalistic performance, he did a terrific job.
As Bruce Coville noted on Facebook, The Black Stallion also offers a bookend with one of Rooney’s best films from his MGM stardom, in National Velvet. A still from the earlier film even appears in the later as a photo from his character’s past.
In the following years Rooney reprised the role as Dailey in a TV show, and his later filmography is dotted with other, lesser “Stallion” films. He needed to work, and he was fine with letting projects sag into formula if he got work. But when pushed, there was nothing Mickey Rooney couldn’t do.