This month I want to talk to you about my favorite musical performer, Donald O'Connor.
I believe I first saw Donald O'Connor in the Francis series of movies, though I don’t remember which ones I watched as a child, or in what order. The series contained six movies, with the first film released in 1950 and the series ending in 1955. The films included Francis, Francis Goes to the Races, Francis Goes to West Point, Francis Covers the Big Town, Francis Joins the WACS, and Francis in the Navy. Francis the Talking Mule, was, of course, the star, but the films also stared O’Connor as Peter Stirling. The films are basically what you would expect. Francis talks to O’Connor’s Stirling, and everyone thinks Stirling is either crazy for talking to a mule or up to something nefarious. The films shared similar ideas and situations to that of the series Mister Ed which came out a few years later, also directed by Arthur Lubin.
Though the Francis series was my first encounter with O’Connor, it would not be my favorite one for long. A few years later I was introduced to Singin' in the Rain, a favorite of mine in high school. This starred the best of the best; O’Connor played Cosmo Brown, Gene Kelly played Don Lockwood, and Debbie Reynolds played Kathy Selden. These three stars were at the top of their game, and were amazing. If somehow you have missed this classic (which I have highly recommended), the story takes places at the time when sound films were just starting. Don Lockwood is a silent film star, with his friend Cosmo on set to play music to set the mood for scenes. But Lockwood’s silent movie co-star Lina Lamont (played brilliantly by Jean Hagen) has a voice that will not survive talking pictures. Kathy Selden is the love interest of Lockwood in the film, eventually replacing the voice of Lamont. The film is one of the beautiful MGM musical masterpieces of the 1950’s.
This movie also has one of my favorite sequences in any film: O’Connor’s musical number "Make 'Em Laugh." It’s funny, it’s fast, and it has all the pratfalls or flips you could want in one scene. Apparently, this took so much out of the actor that, unfortunately, he spent the next three days on bed rest.
He also was in several other popular musicals, including Anything Goes, Call Me Madam, and There's No Business Like Show Business. O’Connor often played the funny man for more well-respected actors, like Bing Crosby (Anything Goes) and Gene Kelly (Singin' in the Rain). But, thankfully, he did get times to shine as the male lead with some of the biggest female stars in Hollywood like Ethel Merman and Debbie Reynolds.
O’Connor also performed in two adaptations of Alice in Wonderland in the 1980s. The first was a 1983 adaption done by Great Performances, in which he played the Mock Turtle. Then, in 1985, he did a TV movie where he played the Lory bird. To be honest, I have never been a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland, but the cast in the 1985 production is unforgettable, and worth a watch if you enjoy these stories.
O’Connor didn’t do much in the way of horror, but he did do an episode of Tales from the Crypt, “Strung Along.” O’Connor plays an aging puppeteer Joseph Renfield. This is a very different role then I am used to from O'Connor; Joseph Renfield is a much sadder and more uncertain character. Also, he is very mistrustful and suspicious of his wife. This is not the O’Connor charmer that I was used to. The episode also features Zach Galligan of Gremlins. After being typecast for so long as the nice guy (something he had grown very tired of), I wonder how he felt playing such a role so late in life.
One of this last performances was in an episode of Frasier, “Crane vs. Crane.” In the episode, he played another aging man, Harlow Safford, of whom the Crane brothers take opposite views during his capacity hearing. Again, he was charming and very funny; it was an enjoyable role to watch, and a far happier sendoff than Tales from the Crypt.
Sadly, he never got the recognition that some of his contemporaries had. He was never seen as being as good of a dancer as the likes of Gene Kelly, nor is he given the prestige that Danny Kaye has been given, though they had very similar roles throughout much of his carer. I had recently read that Kaye had to take over a role meant for O’Connor in White Christmas; this would have been an amazing role for him, but due to sickness, this was not to be.
Donald O’Connor was a very active star throughout the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, but never got the recognition he was due in his lifetime. According to his family, he tried to make people laugh right to the end. They reported he had said shortly before his death, “I'd like to thank the Academy for my lifetime achievement award that I will eventually get.” He never got that award, and that’s a shame, as he deserved that award.
I leave you with him at his best, making the world laugh.