Donald O'Connor: total dancer and confident comedian

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Thirty-five years after he starred with Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Jean Hagen in MGM's ``Singin' in the Rain,'' comedian-dancer Donald O'Connor is still a major stockholder in Self-Winding Energy. Sure, the rhythmic sound of his tap shoes, the width of his smile, and the appeal of his delivery all help. But it's the total O'Connor package that sells.

Watching Mr. O'Connor talk with (not necessarily to) a standing-room-only student-body audience at California Polytechnic University made the generation gap seem obsolete. Even before O'Connor had cracked his first joke, the kids had made him one of their own.

``What makes people laugh most, I think, is the downfall of dignity,'' O'Connor explained. ``When a rich and pompous man, maybe someone who looks like a banker, slips and falls on a banana peel, that's funny. But if you were to try this with a bag lady, it wouldn't work, because the context is all wrong.

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``The sense of comedy that people like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Cary Grant had, you can't teach and you can't buy,'' O'Connor continued. ``I don't think Cary Grant ever knew just how great he was - how much the public admired him personally and professionally.

``Of course, if you can read lines well, writers can make you sound funny with the proper material. But only the truly great ones have that marvelous God-given sense of timing. For example, people are still laughing and enjoying stuff that Chaplin and Keaton did years ago.''

O'Connor thinks that maybe the toughest obstacle for young talent trying to get started in show business today is the absence of vaudeville - a medium where those on the way up could make mistakes while learning their trade. Now everything has to be done so much more quickly. Fail the first time, especially if you're a comedian, and you might not get another chance.

``Almost from the first I knew I could do a lot of things well on a stage,'' O'Connor told me. ``But at the same time it was the people who were already in the business who trained me, encouraged me, helped me, and polished me until I was ready for the big time. I owe them a lot. But I was always willing to work. I never thought I knew it all, and I listened.

``I remember when I was four years old, wore a custom-made white tuxedo, and was on the same bill in New York with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra,'' he continued. ``Whiteman had a huge baton [his trademark] that was almost as tall as I was and I was fascinated by the way he waved it around. I used to watch him from the wings and memorized his every move.

``One night he walked off the stage after a number, handed me his baton, and told me to take over. I was thrilled and I didn't have any trouble, because I had already led that band so many times in my head.''

Asked to put a label on the dancing style of Kelly and Fred Astaire, O'Connor replied: ``They were opposites as dancers, yet both were great. Kelly was totally regimented in what he did. Once Gene settled on a routine, he never changed.

``On the other hand, Astaire never stayed with the same steps for more than eight bars of music. Fred was always improvising, always making up new stuff as he went along.

``Yet those guys were so great that when MGM finally put them into a number together, they faked each other's styles so well that they blended perfectly. Audiences loved them.''

O'Connor also admitted that he would sometimes borrow a step or two from Astaire, but it wasn't until he met Kelly that he progressed from hoofer (meaning a guy who only danced from his waist down) to total dancer, using his upper body as well.

When asked to confirm the following incident involving himself, Kelly, and Debbie Reynolds during the filming of ``Singin' in the Rain,'' O'Connor vouched for its accuracy.

It seems that Miss Reynolds liked to chew gum during rehearsals, because she thought it relaxed her. The stagehands had just finished setting things up for the musical number ``You Were Meant for Me'' when the director suddenly said: ``Let's make this a take.''

Reynolds, caught on stage with her gum, looked around for a place to stash it and quickly decided to hide it about halfway up the side of a ladder that was part of the scene.

While Kelly was dancing, he happened to brush the back of his head against the ladder where the gum was. The tiny hairpiece that Gene was wearing stuck to the gum and hung there.

Unaware of what had happened, Kelly kept right on dancing until a sudden right turn brought him face-to-hairpiece with reality!

Still considered one of the cleverest bits of on-screen comedy ever filmed was the scene in ``Singin' in the Rain'' where O'Connor vocalizes ``Make 'Em Laugh'' while performing his dance routines.

``Maybe that scene looked rehearsed, but mostly I was told to just get out there and ad-lib anything funny that I could think of,'' O'Connor said. ``Sure, I had some idea of what I wanted to do; in fact, we had settled on a beginning and an ending. However, once I got going, people on the set were throwing me pillows and anything else that seemed to be hanging around loose.

``I also did a couple of turns near the end of the number where I'd take one step up a wall with my right foot, do a 180-degree turn, and then come back down on my left foot; something I learned from watching George M. Cohan.

``But the part at the very end, where I use a break-through wall to exit the set - well, that was my own idea.''

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