Wednesday, July 8, 2009

O'Connor: the song and dance ends

Following Michael Jackson's recent death, many tributes noted his dance expertise. Among a handful of all-time great dancers who preceded Michael is Donald O'Connor. When O'Connor died six years ago, I wrote a loving tribute to him, reprinted below. O'Connor could act, sing and tell jokes for sure, but it was dancing that made him special.

By Steve Crum

Think about the most famous dance number in movie history, and Gene Kelly’s splashy Singin’ in the Rain from the musical of like title is immediately visualized. The next most known movie dance number? Certainly Fred Astaire, arguably film’s greatest dancer, had dozens of brilliant set pieces.

But it is the dynamic Donald O’Connor, whose 78 year-old heart failed Sept. 27 [2003], we think of after Kelly. In fact, many place O’Connor’s Make ‘Em Laugh solo dance classic equal to or above Kelly’s number. Funny that they were both featured in the same movie--no doubt elevating the 1952 film to its regard as Hollywood’s best musical ever. O’Connor was a taskmaster throughout rehearsals and shooting days of Make ‘Em Laugh. His tumbling, pratfalls, and body slams still appear maniacal, hilarious, and tour de force. O’Connor’s runs up walls, backflips, boards to head, floor twists, and facial contortions have elicited the same audience joy for over half a century.

Film critic Roger Ebert recently wrote of O’Connor’s appearance earlier this year at a University of Illinois showing of Singin’ in the Rain. No surprise that Make ‘Em Laugh still astounded and entertained. A young girl asked O’Connor how he ran up that wall. His deadpan reply: “Experience.” O’Connor spent three days in bed recuperating after the sequence was filmed. Fellow cast member Debbie Reynolds said he was undoubtedly covered in bruises.

Like his vaudevillian parents, Donald O’Connor was always the show-must-go-on trouper. He considered himself a song and dance man throughout his career despite numerous awards and star status. Among those awards was an Emmy back in TV’s truly goldie-oldie days for his star stint on 1954’s Colgate Comedy Hour. That is primarily the reason for his two Hollywood Walk of Fame stars: TV and motion pictures. Although O’Connor danced, sang, and acted on TV through 1983 in guest spots on Frasier, Murder She Wrote and others, he is best showcased in movies. Singin’ in the Rain brought him the Golden Globe as Best Motion Picture Actor in a Musical-Comedy, beating out Gene Kelly. Other career highlights include an 11 year-old Donald singing Small Fry with Bing Crosby in 1937’s Sing You Sinners, and the next year portraying Gary Cooper’s title character as a child in Beau Geste.

There were O’Connor’s low budget, Universal teen musicals during the 1940’s in which he paired with slapstick dancer Peggy Ryan. Then the mule. His co-starring with Francis the Talking Mule (voiced by Chill Wills) began with 1950’s Francis, and continuing in five more highly popular flicks until 1955’s Francis Joins the Navy. O’Connor always claimed he quit the series when the mule got more fan mail than he did. The movie musical was in full step during the 1950’s, and O’Connor tapped and spun in some of the biggest of the era: Call Me Madam (1953) opposite Ethel Merman, and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), also with The Merm as well as hoofer Dan Dailey; and 1956’s Anything Goes with Bing Crosby.

His one career disappointment was starring in The Buster Keaton Story (1957), which everyone, including O’Connor and Keaton himself, considered a script travesty that focused almost solely on Keaton’s alcoholism. Year after year, failed efforts to get O’Connor to sppear at the annual Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas, were attributed to O’Connor demanding too much money. Maybe he did. But my guess is he declined because of the his embarrassment over The Buster Keaton Story.

A real plus of 1997’s Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau starrer Out to Sea was O’Connor’s inspired casting as Jonathan, a cruise ship dance host. By this time, O’Connor rarely performed, and had ongoing health problems. It was his last movie.

On his deathbed, Donald O’Connor the vaudevillian still made ‘em laugh: “I’d like to thank the Academy for my Lifetime Achievement Award that I will eventually get.”
Donald O’Connor Trivia Nuggets:
•Played Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer, Detective (1938)
•Co-starred with Jimmy Durante in The Milkman (1950)
•Replaced by Mickey Rooney in the final talking mule movie
•Featured opposite Robin Williams in 1992’s Toys
•Directed a Petticoat Junction TV episode (1963)
•Produced The Milton Berle Show (1948-53)
•Married twice; four children
•Birth name: Donald David Dixon Ronald O’Connor
Enjoy Donald O'Connor performing Make 'Em Laugh by following this link:

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