My latest entry into our stroll down Thirst Trap Lane takes us deep into my cinematic nostalgic core. While there were a few classic Hollywood era crushes in my deep formative years, it was my first sitting through Singin’ in the Rain and in turn, Donald O’Connor, who rocked my little ten year old world.
I’ve mentioned before that it was Singin’ in the Rain which marks my true entry into the classic Hollywood fandom. I’d watched my fair share of movies from the era before; however, the 1952 musical pulled me in, and didn’t let me go. Yes, Gene Kelly, what can you say? I absolutely adore Debbie Reynolds. However, it was Donald O’Connor who truly won me over.
Take a look at his main number from the movie below…
I started a Donald O’Connor binge. I Love Melvin, There’s No Business Like Show Business and even Out to Sea… I watched as many as I could get my greedy little hands on. Keep in mind, this was also pre “Easily find everything you want” internet. There were lots of trips to Hollywood video… and even more rental fees. We even had birthday parties! Don’t worry, if one of my partners-in-crime are reading this… I’ll keep your identities secret. Keep in mind, this was also pre “Easily find everything you want” internet. There were lots of trips to Hollywood video… and even more rental fees.
Was it the pretty eyes? Probably. Was it the undeniable sense of humor? Yup. Could he talk with Francis the Talking Mule and not crawl into a hole? Yuppers. How about the dynamic dancing ability? Uh-huh. In fact, just watch any of his filmed dance numbers and Donald O’Connor demonstrates a dynamic dancing skill which rivals Kelly and Astaire as the greats. It’s unfortunate that O’Conor never broke out of his usual second banana slot.
O’Connor came to Hollywood as a relative youngster, making his screen debut in 1937 at the age of 12. In fact, I wish there were more written about O’Connor. He seems to have been raised for a life as an actor, as he was born into a vaudeville family during the tail end of the medium’s popularity. Believe it or not, I’ve romanticized Vaudeville (kids, ask your great-great-… just look it up on Wikipedia). It’s an absolutely adorable backstory and makes me love him more.
O’Connor proved to be a mainstay throughout most of the 1940s and 1950s in Hollywood, enjoying the hey day of MGM’s musical proweress. He partnered particularly well with some of the stronger female dancers, especially Mitzi Gaynor and Vera-Ellen. However, he also shared some adorable chemistry with Debbie Reynolds. Check out the performance below with Gaynor in the 1956 version of Anything Goes.
O’Connor’s career slowed into the 1960s (downfall of the studio system, duh). Throughout the next few years, he kept busy on the small screen for much of the next 30 years. His final screen role came in 1997’s Out to Sea, coming shortly before his death in 2003.
It seems a shame that O’Connor’s career declined the way it did. While he seems to have been largely typecast in similiar roles… b-list leads, second bananas… he showed some noted skill for dramatic roles when he had the chance. A great example is 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business where he plays Tim Donahue, the roguish youngest son of vaudevillian couple Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey. While the character begins the film as a typical O’Connor role, he quickly branches out to demonstrates depth and struggles which the he was rarely able to explore. The movie features a dynamic cast (including peak Marilyn Monroe). Classic film fans who haven’t checked this one out should most certainly add it to their lists.
All in all, Donald O’Connor was an often under-utilized talent during the peak of the MGM musical era. While he stood on par with contemporary Gene Kelly, O’Connor’s acting acting ability remained largely hidden behind many of the same roles. He could play a best friend or a B-list romantic lead as good as any dancer in town. However, he showed some definite dramatic ability which remained unexplored.
Still, Donald O’Connor leaves behind a dynamic filmography as a triple threat during the brightest era of the Hollywood musical.