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Yes, he made 'em laugh

September 29, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Last September at the sold-out 50th anniversary screening of what's considered the greatest movie musical -- "Singin' in the Rain" -- the crowd at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater cheered and applauded during Gene Kelly's romantic number set to the title tune. But if anything, the audience was even more enthusiastic about Donald O'Connor's acrobatic, gravity-defying novelty number, "Make 'Em Laugh."

During the panel discussion after the screening, the audience gasped when O'Connor related that the number, in which he famously back-flips off walls, leaps over a sofa and wrestles a fabric mannequin, was actually shot twice. The film was overexposed the first time O'Connor performed the whimsical routine. The good-natured O'Connor didn't see it as a major setback; he just went back a few days later and did it all over again.

"It was no sweat," O'Connor recalled in a 1997 interview with The Times. "I felt I did it better the second time."

The always modest O'Connor, who died Saturday of heart failure at 78, may not have achieved the superstardom of movie hoofers Fred Astaire and Kelly, but his accomplishments on screen were nevertheless extraordinary, and some of his best numbers -- particularly "Make 'Em Laugh" -- are among the greatest in movie history.

He was a movie star at a far younger age than Astaire and Kelly, who were both in their 30s when they came to Hollywood. O'Connor possessed a youthful exuberance, bountiful good humor, a rubber band for a body and a pleasant singing voice. O'Connor was born into a vaudeville family of former circus performers, and young Donald became a salaried member of the family's act when he was just 13 months old. "The first thing I did was dance and do acrobatic tricks," he said.

O'Connor made his movie debut in 1937's "Melody for Two" and got his big break the following year opposite Bing Crosby in "Sing You Sinners." By the early '40s O'Connor developed into a teen dream who sang and danced his way into young girls' hearts in a series of wholesome musicals for Universal.

He resumed his career at Universal after World War II and gave a preview of his "Make 'Em Laugh" routine in the 1947 Deanna Durbin musical "Something in the Wind," in which he did a frenetic acrobatic number.

Say what you will of the six Francis-the-talking-mule movies O'Connor made at Universal during the 1950s, these slapstick farces made a lot of money and showcased O'Connor's breezy comedic talents. It was while he was at Universal that he was offered the role of the wisecracking Cosmo Brown, the best friend of Kelly's Don Lockwood in MGM's "Singin' in the Rain."

The good news -- and bad news -- is that "Singin' in the Rain" was the best movie O'Connor ever made. It hit during a time when Hollywood was in a slump owing to the increasing popularity of television. O'Connor also was an early favorite on the new medium, winning an Emmy in 1954 as host of "The Colgate Comedy Hour," and the studios were slowing production of musicals.

So unlike Astaire and Kelly, who began in films during the heyday of musicals in the 1930s and '40s, the adult O'Connor made only a handful of musicals after "Singin'." One of the most underrated of those was the 1953 MGM musical "I Love Melvin," which reunited him with "Rain" co-star Debbie Reynolds. The charming little musical gave him the opportunity to play the leading man and showcase his remarkable talents, especially in the "I Want to Wander" number.

That same year, he went to Fox to appear in the movie version of the Irving Berlin hit "Call Me Madam," where he was given the rare chance to perform a more romantic, Astaire-like dance routine, "It's a Lovely Day Today," with Vera-Ellen.

After the ill-fated 1957 biopic "The Buster Keaton Story," O'Connor's film appearances slowed to a trickle. The actor concentrated on television, nightclub performances and stage musicals. He made the most of a small role as a dance instructor in 1981's "Ragtime," and in the 1997 Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau comedy "Out to Sea," he proved his dancing feet were just as nimble as they had been 40 years before in his role as a dance host on a cruise ship.

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