The Studio System


Singin’ in the Rain

Everyone knows about Singin’ in the Rain. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly fought for a dancer in the role of Cosmo and Donen requested O’Connor. One can’t imagine this movie without O’Connor as that cheeky but endearing wisecracker Cosmo. He has the knack of selling the number whether he’s making faces at the camera or eye contact with Kelly – it’s an invitation to join the fun. Of course, “Make ‘Em Laugh” is a masterpiece, and it does represent the essence of the O’Connor fusion of singing, dancing and physical comedy in one incredibly dynamic number. One reviewer on the web extolled, “…he performs the entire scene including running up and back-flipping off a wall…in fewer than ten long “takes” or cuts.” [Bourne, DVD Journal Review] Filming dancers full figure became de rigeur after Astaire first insisted upon it; presenting dance as a masculine atheletic art form was Kelly’s mantra. A dancer who needed cosmetic editing would not have been hired. The fact that Donen and Kelly went after O’Connor for the role says much for their expectation that he could deliver the goods.


The process for creating musical production numbers could start out with choreography to which the vocal adapted, or the other way around. Gloria Jean said she usually prerecorded the vocal, then lip-synched when filming. From his description of “Make ‘Em Laugh,” O’Connor choreographed the number with a piano player before singing it to work with his anticipated antics. Once choreographed, the dance moved out onto the set where it was blocked including all the camera tracking and close-up shots. Finally, Foley artists (named for Jack Foley of Universal who developed the technique of playing back a film and adding the background noises) would add the appropriate sound effects and either the star or another dancer would dub in the taps in a dubbing room.

No wonder so few movie musicals are made today. It took a small army to get it right. Sometimes even then it didn’t go right as when the cinematographer overexposed the first take of “Make ‘Em Laugh,” filmed on a concrete soundstage. Why the studios didn’t invest in a decent dance floor for their highly paid talent is a mystery, but when O’Connor returned after a three days of recuperation from this punishing routine, the Kelly and the crew buttered him up before revealing he’d have to do it all over again. One can imagine a few choice words on O’Connor’s part before he repeated his performance. Luckily, he felt the second take was even better. Keeping all this in mind only intensifies one’s appreciation of “Make ‘Em Laugh” as the funniest dance number ever filmed. Recalling the backflips, O’Connor confessed:

I was never an acrobat. I was a hand balancer. All the acrobatic tricks I learned for the movies, my brother Jack had to come in and teach me. He was one of the world’s greatest acrobats. He put me in a harness, and I practiced the back somersault. Finally, I tried it without it. It was scary” [Aloff].

Originally slated to team with Kelly and Reynolds for the big finale, Donald had to leave to complete Francis Goes to West Point (evidenced by his changing haircut). Originally the finale was to be a trek across the prairie in a covered wagon… Interesting choice. Rethinking the concept after O’Connor’s departure, they came up with “Gotta Dance” featuring the incomparable Cyd Charisse [Singin’ in the Rain Two Disc Special Edition]. Many books and scholarly articles have dissected each frame of this film. But is that really necessary? O’Connor received a Golden Globe for his irreverent performance.

MGM noticed Debbie Reynolds and Donald shared kid-next-door looks and decided to feature them in the “B” musical, I Love Melvin. O’Connor
was not enchanted by this film and rarely mentioned it although it’s clear he and Reynolds could have done much better with a better script. O’Connor must have wearied of adorable bumbler roles; it was not up to MGM standards.

20th Century Fox

Twentieth Century Fox offered him a more substantial role in the film version of Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam and the chance to partner
Vera-Ellen. Seen now this period piece is a slice of the ’50s with references to the abortive show business career of Mary Margaret
Truman and to the days when Washington’s Marshall Plan apparently handed out largesse to impoverished European nations by the fistful. Ethel Merman reprised her Broadway role as the wealthy Washington matron (based on Pearl Mesta) whose political patronage earns her an Ambassadorship to one such impoverished nation. O’Connor was cast as a dancing, singing, politically savvy Press Attache. Robert Alton choreographed O’Connor’s favorite onscreen pas de deux with Vera-Ellen in the castle garden. Had they been pairs skaters, the synchronization couldn’t have been more perfect. “They worked so well together because each was…capable of total sensitivity to the other’s performance” [Soren 126]. Said O’Connor of the rehearsal experience:

…in that number I twirl her around and she goes under my arms a couple of times. Once I hit her solidly in the back. I thought I killed her and she was a person you would never ever want to hurt. But she never said a thing and went back to rehearsing. But she paid me back later. Her dress had little plastic sea shells and every once in awhile she’d give me an elbow and a shell would go up my nose! She got even! [Soren 126]

For her part, Vera-Ellen considered their number in the wine cellar “Something to Dance About” one of her all time favorites [Soren 127]. They loved working with each other, possibly because they shared a serious streak of perfectionism. Two more O’Connor/Vera-Ellen vehicles had been planned; a biopic of the turn-of-the-Century dance team Gaby Deslys and Henry Pilcer, and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. The first apparently never made it to development, but the shooting schedule for White Christmas was delayed for a couple of months while O’Connor recovered from Q Fever (transmitted to O’Connor by his co-star Francis or one of his stand-ins). Debilitated by antibiotic therapy, O’Connor could not regain the stamina required for the dance numbers in time to meet the filming deadline and Danny Kaye inherited the part.

As the small screen threatened the big screen, the big screen got bigger. Much bigger. With “technicolor, cinemascope and stereophonic sound” [Silk Stockings]. To virtually guarantee big box office for its next musical venture, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Fox went to extremes. Big names, gigantic production numbers, super colossal sets and Carmen Miranda costumes. Fox cast Marilyn Monroe as O’Connor’s love interest. He did his best despite the incongruity of the match and the fact that Marilyn, he and Dan Dailey were bringing marital tensions to the set. The contrived plot wasted a lot of terrific talent with its rehash of old Irving Berlin tunes and Busby Berkley spectacle. O’Connor did lay down some great taps in “A Man Chases a Girl,” and had some nice, if brief, dramatic scenes, but Marilyn’s performance shows she wasn’t invested in the project. She came to the set late and unprepared. Ethel Merman and the other professionals had no time for temperament. Even O’Connor thought she needed “a little more rehearsal” [Make ‘Em Laugh, A&E Biography]. Later, O’Connor remarked that Monroe felt insecure and camera-shy in her role. Mitzi Gaynor felt Marilyn was intimidated by the musical talent surrounding her. Merman’s stagy acting missed the rest of the cast’s reading by a mile especially when, as she’s singing the title song and she glimpses her prodigal son’s abashed return. Gasp!

The Tinpantithesis of Melody

As the Cold War and youth culture steamrollered over Hollywood, realism came in and musicals were out. Hollywood made a few more big musicals, and a lot of imposing Biblical epics, but the studio era had ended. No more stable of stars, no more conveyer belt production. Each film was individually contracted for funding, directors, actors, producers, marketing, etc. Independents shopped scripts to the studios who cut deals for specific stars to appear in specific films. Warner Bros. and other film studios began producing television series for the networks as a way of keeping their back lots busy. Donald O’Connor made Anything Goes with Mitzi Gaynor and Bing Crosby (Bing’s last film for Paramount). Donald and Mitzi created a plausable romantic attraction in a short scene of dialogue and a wonderful rendition of “It’s De-lovely.” Beautifully staged and choreographed by Nick Castle to fit the candid characters of Patsy and Ted, the number works on all levels. Zizi Jeanmarie shows acting ability, but has serious issues with non-balletic dance. (Like many classically trained dancers and musicians, she had trouble loosening up.)

Produced by Sidney Sheldon, Anything Goes may have helped convince O’Connor that Sheldon’s vision for The Buster Keaton Story would be a perfect vehicle for his talents. It should have been. Much has been written about Keaton and O’Connor’s disillusionment over the project. O’Connor called the script “damned dishonest” and while Keaton served as a never-consulted consultant.

I wanted to do that picture because the idea of playing Buster Keaton was thrilling. He grew up in vaudeville, and our lives paralleled each other so I found it an honor to be doing his life story. I got into all kinds of trouble because I thought the picture should not be made if it wasn’t absolutely true to his personality and the facts of his life. Nevertheless, I was committed to the project and I had to finish it, which I did under duress…Keaton himself had little input. They just hired him to be on the set
[Vaughan 96].

Still, O’Connor could be justly proud of the stunts he perfected with Buster’s help and they remained lifelong friends after their ordeal. Donald mentions in an interview for Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow that just having Buster nearby made him feel nothing could go wrong even though some of the stunts were quite dangerous. It was the end of O’Connor’s patience with moviemaking and he turned his talents elsewhere.