The chart below was compiled from various sources including books listed in the bibliography, as well as the AFI (American Film Insitute) database, the Turner Classic Films website and the Internet Movie database. Organized by production dates rather than release dates, it shows the grueling schedule imposed by the studios on their players and also gives a better picture of O’Connor’s development as a performer. It also notes, where possible, O’Connor’s close friends, family members or any special circumstances associated an individual film. The unwavering support O’Connor shared with Peggy Ryan, Sidney Miller and Louis DaPron forged in the Universal years continued all their lives.
Donald O’Connor started with Paramount at the age of 12 (April 1938) and made 11 pictures in the space of a little over a year. By the time he finished Death of a Champion, his voice was changing and he had grown nearly a foot. He was still “cute,” but obviously not a child anymore. It appears his contract was dropped sometime in July of 1939, just shy of his 14th birthday. At Paramount, attention to plots, dialogue, and production values, resulted in films that merit repeated viewing.
Universal’s priority of quantity over quality pushed its teen stars to the limit. The typical film took 6-8 weeks with the actors simultaneously filming one movie while dubbing taps and filming retakes of scenes for the movie they just finished, AND rehearsing and prerecording for the film they were about to make. Between O’Connor’s signing with Universal around January of 1941 and leaving for Army boot camp 7 February 1944, he made 14 films, and as his star rose, he began carrying more scenes, dance numbers, and songs. These programmers hardly aspired to art. Wholesome escapism targeted to an uncritical teen audience did not require cogent plots or elaborate scenery. Peggy Ryan, Gloria Jean and Donald O’Connor in When Johnny Comes Marching Home But the sheer dynamism of the teen unit, seeded with a few fine character actors couldn’t help leaving the audience wanting more. Enjoyed as they were meant to be enjoyed, they may not be art, but they are definitely great fun.
Back at Universal after the war, O’Connor again gave his all to a string of light-weight comedies and musicals. His boyish charm was a sure-fire seller whether he was playing smart, dumb, innocent or mischievous. Frustrated with the lack of quality projects, he bought out his Universal contract after Francis Joins the Navy. Starting with the mid-50s, O’Connor chose to make fewer films – only 11 between 1956 and his last film Out to Sea in 1997. He turned toward television and live theater, nightclub and casinos dates. He never worked under a long-term contract again.