I didn't catch the press screening for Night at the Museum (321 screens) in December. I was busy with my San Francisco Film Critics Circle duties, seeing more "important" films that were worthy of awards consideration. After Christmas, I was assigned to catch up with it, and so I hauled myself down to the local multiplex and sat through a matinee. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it. So did the rest of America; it was the number 1 box office attraction from December 22 through January 7.

I have to admit, there was something of a perverse thrill about this hit movie. It gave us the opportunity to say -- without lying -- that the new Mickey Rooney movie was the biggest hit in the country. Rooney plays one of three aged janitors in the film (along with Dick Van Dyke and Bill Cobbs) who loses his job to the younger Larry Daley (Ben Stiller). Many people may not know this, or even believe it, but Rooney was the biggest box office star in the country for three years running, 1939-1941. (He surpassed Shirley Temple, and was later surpassed by Abbott and Costello!)

Born to showbiz parents, the 86 year-old Rooney first took the stage as a baby. At age 7, he began starring as "Mickey McGuire" in a series of silent-era short comedies that continued well into the sound era. As a teenager, he starred as "Puck" in Warner Bros' blue ribbon production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), alongside James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland and Dick Powell. In 1937, he starred in A Family Affair, which cast him as Andy Hardy, his most popular role. He repeated it more than a dozen times. Its comforting formula of American family life, in which everything fell into a proper order, apparently soothed an uncertain country.

A young, beautiful Judy Garland appeared in some of those films, and Garland and Rooney became a team in a series of "let's put on a show" musicals, like Busby Berkeley's Babes in Arms (1939). His filmography lists over 300 movies, shorts and TV shows. He has appeared in all kinds of things, including Don Siegel's Baby Face Nelson (1957), Blake Edwards' Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) -- his slapstick performance as a stereotypical Japanese landlord still raises hackles -- Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Roger Corman's The Secret Invasion (1964), Otto Preminger's Skidoo (1968), Mike Hodges' Pulp (1972), and as a magnificent silent clown in George Miller's Babe: Pig in the City (1998).

He has racked up four Oscar nominations (Babes in Arms, The Human Comedy, The Bold and the Brave and The Black Stallion) and has two Oscars on his shelf, one "Juvenile" award from 1939 and an honorary Oscar from 1983. He has directed movies, written songs, done voice work for cartoons, sung and danced, and just about everything else. But here's the odd thing: in his prime, he was 5'3" and looked a bit like a teddy bear with a bulgy nose and awkward teeth. He was like a happy-go-lucky boxer, with size but no definition. (His first role was as a midget!) He was never handsome, nor exceedingly talented in any one area. You'd never put him on any list of the greatest dramatic or comedic actors, although he was acceptable and likable in both.

Yet he was beloved by millions, and adored by women. He even married Ava Gardner, one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood history! If anyone has a secret worth knowing, it's Rooney. How did he do it? What does he know? I think it's a simple combination of contradictions. He looked non-threatening, and yet he could probably out-box most people. He was goofy and boyish, and yet manly. Most of all, he was confident. He probably walked right up to women, disarmed them, got them laughing, and then built them up to his more dangerous, aggressive side. The dizzying combo probably caught them off guard and kept them guessing.

All of this is on display in Rooney's hilarious performance in Night at the Museum. He barely has any lines, but each time he speaks, he glares at Stiller's character and calls him by a series of non-threatening names that suddenly sound threatening: "Listen up, Lunch Box," "Look here, Hop Scotch," "Step back, Butterscotch" or "Not so fast, Hot Dog!" He's genuinely funny and genuinely intimidating at the same time. Like a schizophrenic magnet, he simultaneously draws and repels us. And he's been doing it brilliantly for literally nine decades.

Speaking of things gone by, if you're lucky enough to live somewhere near a theater that's playing Max Ophuls' 1953 masterpiece The Earrings of Madame de... (1 screen), don't miss it. Rooney and Ophuls never worked together, but Ophuls worked with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in The Exile (1947) and Fairbanks worked with Rooney in The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933). Which means that Night at the Museum is connected with just about everything. Look out, lunch box.