Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part II of III)

Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part II of III) September 2, 2014
“I was born and raised to entertain other people. I’ve heard laughter and applause and known a lot of sorrow. Everything about me is based on show business. I think it will bring me happiness. I hope so.” — Donald O’Connor, Parade, 1954

Read Part I here.

Gene Kelly knew what he was doing when he hand-picked Donald O’Connor as his right-hand man in Singin’ In the Rain. His own ballet training was perfectly complemented by O’Connor’s raw hoofing talent. O’Connor later credited Kelly with teaching him to be a “total dancer,” from the waist up. Each borrowed motifs from the other to create their iconic synchronized routine “Moses Supposes.”  But working with Kelly had its tense moments. In this rare interview clip (edited by yours truly), O’Connor shares a priceless anecdote about the legend’s famously short temper on the set of their number “Fit as a Fiddle”:

The memories of Debbie Reynolds also offer some insight into O’Connor’s gentle, professional personality. When Gene became frustrated with Debbie, he would take it out on Donald. But Donald bore it with perpetual good humor. In one instance, as all three practiced a step in “Good Morning,” Kelly himself was unknowingly repeating an error while blaming O’Connor for it. Reynolds expected O’Connor to retaliate at any minute, but all he said was “I’m sorry.” Finally, Kelly stopped and announced, “I’m doing it wrong! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Yet for all his abrasiveness, Gene recognized a professional when he saw one: “Nobody else in the business could have taken the beating I gave Donald O’Connor in Singin’ In the Rain… Donald comes from vaudeville. He’s disciplined. I’ve seen him rehearse a step a thousand times.” Looking back on it all, O’Connor could only laugh and say “Working with him? Yeah, he was miserable. No, we had a great time together… I was never offended by Gene, I love the guy too much.”

Of course, “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the number that everyone remembers from O’Connor’s work in the picture. When MGM released its compilation That’s Entertainment, this was the one that could still make listless audiences break into spontaneous applause in the theaters. Mark Steyn has described it as “the essence of entertainment,” adding “Its only purpose is to delight. Which is a lot harder than it sounds.”

The song, a rather unsubtle rip-off of Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” was thrown together at the last minute. The routine was completely improvised by O’Connor. All Kelly had to do was let him loose on a roomful of props, with two personal assistants writing down which bits made them laugh hardest. Kelly later recalled that every time they would ask O’Connor to repeat a bit, he would say “Oh, you mean like this?” and do something different yet again. Like all improvisational geniuses, he couldn’t do the same thing twice. It was like catching lightning in a bottle.

The routine took a heavy toll on O’Connor’s body. It kept building and building “to such a crescendo” that “At the end, I thought I’d actually have to kill myself.” He completed the routine in a single day and came back after a three-day rest to a standing ovation from the cast and crew. Then Kelly broke the news to Donald that he had to do it all over again, because the footage had been ruined through a camera goof. Working on a concrete floor, he asked if the crew could provide anything to break his numerous falls. “They brought me those little Oriental rugs—wouldn’t absorb a sponge.” He consulted with his brother Jack on running up the wall, an old trick from his circus days. Many years later, he recalled this touch with a fond twinkle: “It was perfect. It was just right for that moment. Quite simple to do… rather spectacular.”

O’Connor’s work in the film has fallen into Kelly’s shadow over the years, but the critics favored him at the time, and he stole the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy right from under Kelly’s nose. Not that Kelly minded. He hoped the break would launch Donald to greater heights of A-list stardom. Unfortunately, as the song-and-dance musical itself faded out of style, this was not to be. His talent was once again relegated to small roles and brilliant one-offs in forgettable pictures. Yet he could never bring himself to give less than 100%, “even when it was junk.” He and Debbie Reynolds were cast together in a dud called I Love Melvin, which both actors roundly panned, but he still delivered an unforgettable tap dance on roller skates. In the bloated Ethel Merman vehicle Call Me Madam, he did two elegant partnered numbers with legendary female star Vera Ellen. He often singled these out as his best work and praised Ellen warmly, recalling that “every move we did meant something.”

Donald barely missed another chance to star opposite Ellen, as Bing Crosby’s pal in White Christmas. Danny Kaye’s plum sidekick role was originally conceived for and pitched to him. But Donald contracted a rare fever from Francis the mule just as production began, and he was still too weak to take the job even after they had postponed the shoot for months. It took an extra specialty dancer to help cover all the numbers. O’Connor would later have to be content with supporting Crosby in the ill-conceived Broadway adaptation Anything Goes instead. (Asked how that turkey got made, he replied bluntly, “Because they had the money, and they couldn’t think of anything else to do.”)

Television was kinder to him, and he netted an Emmy for his versatile work on the Colgate Comedy Hour. His entire first episode from 1952 is happily available on Youtube. The whole hour is pure gold. Just watching him in this skit with a French charm consultant is like watching the beta version of Mork from Ork.

But a sad reality was unfolding behind the scenes: His marriage to Gwen Carter was falling apart. Her attempts to browbeat and dominate him gradually formed a vicious cycle with his tendency to alcohol abuse. He began to spend long nights playing cards and getting fights at the club. In an attempt to bring his family together, he wrote her and Donna into some of his Colgate material. One bit at the end of this show is achingly poignant. Breathless and sweating from a strenuous dance number, he brings little Donna on stage for the closing sketch. She’s clearly very shy, and he gets down at her level to run through some jokes. She has good timing and a puckish grin. They finish with a song, but she forgets her one line. He instantly picks it up and embraces her with a kiss. “You forgot didn’t you?” As he pauses for closing announcements, she looks nervously off stage, and you can just barely hear the pianist assuring her, “It’s all right.”

Donna recalled that it all culminated at the breakfast table one morning, when Donald asked Gwen, “What would you like to do today?” She answered, “I want a divorce.” He swallowed the pain and asked, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go to a movie?” “No, I want a divorce.” She fought for and won custody of Donna, leaving Donald with the dog.

Gwen didn’t even wait until it was finalized to begin an affair with the actor Dan Dailey. Adding insult to injury, Donald had to play the son of her new lover in the garish monstrosity There’s No Business Like Show Business. In one tense scene, Dailey’s father character smacked O’Connor as the bad boy who comes home drunk. The crew let out a collective gasp, worried that the men would come to blows. But co-star Mitzi Gaynor recalls that instead, “The two Irishmen went off and had a beer.” (Ironically, Gwen would later divorce Dailey as well, citing among other cruelties that he “snubbed her friends.”)

In a baffling move, this film also paired O’Connor with none other than Marilyn Monroe. Their obligatory kiss was the ultimate anti-climax for both stars. “My lips were shaking all over and I couldn’t find Marilyn’s lips and she couldn’t find mine…I got it over with as quickly as possible…it was like kissing the sidewalk.” When the director asked Donald to stand on a box so they would be the same height, O’Connor rebelled. He approached Monroe himself: “Would you mind taking off your shoes? It’s emasculating, and I feel a little silly. But the director is too scared to ask you.” “Oh for crying out loud!” she exclaimed, and threw off her shoes. Monroe herself was intimidated by the show biz pros dancing around her, sometimes fumbling dozens of takes per scene. But the closest Donald ever came to losing his cool was a day when he threw his hat on the floor, composed himself, then whispered to Mitzi Gaynor, “I think she needs a little more rehearsal.” Meanwhile, O’Connor lent his usual classy solo touch to the production, performing Irving Berlin’s “A Man Chases a Girl” to perfection. Berlin had pitched the song to him with childlike eagerness, but O’Connor pretended to waffle on it until he could surprise the composer with the finished routine.

It was around this time that Donald gave his most revealing and heart-wrenching interview. Speaking to Parade magazine, he confessed the secret struggles which ring true for so many comedians. “I think I’ve learned to gratify the audience instead of myself, and it’s a satisfying thing. A real entertainer would rather give than receive.” Everybody loved the clown, but nobody knew who the real Donald O’Connor was—not even himself. “I’ve still got to find a place in life as a human being, not a machine… I’m no angel. I’m the same as everyone else… I’m subject to fever and headaches and bad temper just like anybody else.” Yet show business was all he knew. “I think it will bring me happiness. I hope so.” Like Robin Williams leaving a standing audience to tell Dick Cavett off-stage, “I wish I could make myself feel that good,” O’Connor longed for a fraction of the joy he gave away so freely.

He re-married in 1956, to Gloria Noble. It was a hopeful year. He was finally free from the clutches of Universal Pictures, having refused to make one more Francis picture until they released him. A composer and conductor, he was able to enjoy the fruits of a hidden talent for music when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the premiere of his own symphony. And his acting career seemed to be getting a second wind when he was approached for the title role in a biopic of silent screen legend Buster Keaton. Keaton’s ground-breaking physical comedy was a major influence on O’Connor’s own work, and he jumped at the chance to pay tribute to a long-time idol.

Disillusionment came swiftly. He arrived on set to discover that the rushed-draft script freely sacrificed fact for cliched fiction, and nobody seemed to care. Despite Keaton’s credit as a “technical advisor,” O’Connor watched the legend’s input on his own life story “go in one ear and out the other.” “So damned dishonest,” he would later recall with disgust. Keaton himself chose not to complain out loud and bought a nice retirement spot with the studio’s $50,000 rights check. But privately, the two masters understood each other well and commiserated over the generic flop.

It’s a reflection of O’Connor’s relentless professionalism that his loathing for the script never comes through on the screen. He trained hard with Keaton and threw himself into the role with perhaps even more dedication than usual, literally risking his life to recreate some of Keaton’s most daring stunts. These included going down with a sinking boat and launching himself head-first into a dangerously narrow wall niche for a disappearing act. (He explains the latter trick in this clip.) O’Connor still recalled these stunts with pride decades later, even calling up a good friend late one night to offer running phone commentary for a TV showing.

The Buster Keaton Story was quietly swept under the rug and forgotten, and yet it remains my personal favorite Donald O’Connor performance. For 90 minutes, the full measure of his comic genius is on display, combining inspired innovation with an uncannily accurate reproduction of Keaton’s technique and mannerisms. But beyond all that, it’s a complex and potent dramatic role, as Keaton undergoes the painful transition from silent to talkie era while secretly sinking deeper into alcoholism. It’s one of the only times in O’Connor’s career that he peels off the jester’s mask for a glimpse of the vulnerable soul underneath. Granted, he is still acting, but there’s no question that he was drawing on the pain behind his own life’s work to convey the depth of Keaton’s pent-up sorrow. In retrospect, the film might have been more fittingly titled “The Donald O’Connor Story,” as it eerily foreshadowed the actor’s own future.

In the wake of this career setback, O’Connor was hit with another tragic personal blow in the death of his only surviving brother, Jack. Cause of death: alcoholism.

This concludes Part II. Tune in tomorrow for the third and final chapter in the Donald O’Connor story.

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