DanceView Times, New York edition
By Mindy Aloff
In 1979, Donald O’Connor visited Portland, Oregon, as the guest star in a lavish high-school production of The Music Man. It was my understanding at the time that he was beginning to ease his way back into stage performing after a hiatus of many years. As the dance critic for Fresh Weekly, the arts and entertainment section of Portland’s Willamette Week, I asked to interview him. I knew nothing whatsoever about his personal life then, and I know now only what I’ve read in the various obits that were published following his death last month, on September 27th. What I knew, partially, were his movies and his television work. I considered him then, and I still do, one of the finest all-around dancers ever to perform in front of a Hollywood camera. He had style, speed, lightness, elegance, rhythmic wit; he partnered his female co-stars with respect and charm; his line readings were understated and droll; and, unusual for many male Hollywood dancers apart from Fred Astaire, O’Connor learned to care about port de bras: during the 1940s and ‘50s, he visualized his entire dancing figure in the frame and paid attention to how his entire body would read on the screen. Gene Kelly, his collaborator and erstwhile nemesis, also cared about port de bras; however, despite Kelly’s many sterling qualities, he couldn’t surpass O’Connor in terms of allegro facility, offhanded elegance, or precision of stylistic detail in complex footwork. (For anyone who would like to check this evaluation, I’ve provided the O’Connor filmography that was published with the interview.)
now associate O’Connor with his clown number, “Make ‘Em
Laugh,” in Singin’ in the Rain; however, that was
really a one-off. In his vintage movie dances he performed with female
partners, weaving in ballroom and tap steps, and his craft was not a matter
of broad clowning and brute acrobatics but rather of dry irony and technique
sweated out in studio rehearsals. As you’ll see from the interview—whose
text, aside from the correction of one printer’s error, is republished
below exactly as it appeared in 1979 (complete with my original bracketed
editorial explanations and my misspelling of Lucile Bremer’s name)—O’Connor
was also a bright man with an admirable sense of the older entertainers
from whom he learned. And—whether one should say “God bless
him” or “God pity him” for it—he was honest. This
interview, with its intense focus on dance traditions and technique, could
never be published in a U.S. newspaper today. Looking back on it, I’m
astonished and grateful that O’Connor took the hour and a-half to
speak to a complete nobody, and also that the editors of Willamette
Week opened their pages to his words.
with Donald O’Connor
There ought to be a running club named after Donald O’Connor—a club with high hopes. O’Connor is the guy who ran straight up three walls, flipping backward to earth each time, in Singin’ in the Rain, and no matter how often you see the movie, the stunt still appears fresh, magical and completely surprising. “Make ‘Em Laugh,” O’Connor’s solo turn in that film, remains one of the treasures of American comic dancing on the screen.
O’Connor grew up in show business, the child of entertainers whose roots in the theater and the circus go back for “a couple centuries” in France (on his mother’s side) and Ireland (his father’s). The entire family seemed to toss off physical dangers lightly. His father, a strong man and an acrobat, had a well-known trampoline act in which he launched himself over the backs of four elephants. At 3 months of age, Donald was providing a hair-raising finale to the O’Connor vaudeville appearances as the weight his older brother pitched across the footlights, into another brother’s waiting arms.
In addition to making audiences gasp and laugh, O’Connor has delighted them with his dancing, on the stage, in films and on television. In Portland to star in the St. Mary’s Academy production of The Music Man on television (see Week’s Worth for details), O’Connor talked to us about this aspect of his career. Although his comic gifts, which kept us chortling throughout the conversation, carry over into print, his voice—breaking easily, surely and frequently into song—is unreproducible.
Fresh Weekly: How did vaudeville form you as a dancer?
Donald O’Connor: Well, my legs are the same size; I’m still 5-foot-10—that’s with heels. I started dancing when I was 13 months old. The first dance I did was the Black Bottom, and I did the same routine for years in the acts.
I’m basically a hoofer, a tap dancer. I was always very good from the waist down, moving with the feet, but I never had anything as far as line is concerned until I worked with Bob Alton [choreographer for I Love Melvin and Call Me Madam], Louis Da Pron [Walking My Baby Back Home] and Gene Kelly. Then I became what’s known as a total dancer, using the entire body in order to express what you want to express in tap dancing and line.
My brothers and my mother were all dancers, outside of whatever else they did, like acrobatics, high-wire, trapeze. I was born in a circus. The reason I saw more of vaudeville was that circuses were dying out at that time, starting to combine. They couldn’t support themselves.
I grew up in vaudeville. All the hoofers used to get together in a drugstore down the street from the theater, or what-have-you, and if they knew a new step they would teach it to you. I learned hoofing steps that way. But going into ballet didn’t come until I made those pictures with Kelly.
FW: Gene Kelly has said of you that you were a spontaneous artist who couldn’t do the same thing twice.
O’Connor: That’s true. That’s why I’m not a good choreographer: I can’t remember what I put down. Kelly had two great people working with him—Jeannie Coyne, who later became his wife, and Carol Haney, who was absolutely magnificent. They helped him out.
I can picture things, like a painter would, though I’m not good at painting, either. But in terms of framing people, the basic idea for a routine, the continuity—that I can do.
FW: Kelly also said that it was difficult to set “Make ‘Em Laugh” on you, because of your spontaneity.
O’Connor: Through the years everyone takes credit for that number, and now I feel that I had nothing to do with it. I don’t think I even performed it. But this is how it actually came about.
Everyone had a solo dance [in Singin’ in the Rain] but me. Kelly thought we’d have to wind up the picture with a number similar to “Moses Supposes” [a kind of challenge dance for Kelly and O’Connor]. Then Roger Edens came in one day with this song, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” a steal from Cole Porter’s “Be A Clown,” from another picture with The Nicholas Brothers called The Pirate [1948, co-choreographed by, and starring, Kelly]. Kelly gave me the lead sheet and said, “Why don’t you take Jeannie and Carol into the small rehearsal hall and see what you can do with the number.”
Jeannie and Carol, they were great laughers. And I had the funny bone. I’d say hello in the morning and they’d break up. So we went in the rehearsal hall, and I asked for a lot of props, and whatever they laughed at the most, we wrote down. Kelly says he has his notes, that he’s the one that put this thing together. Well, if he has notes they’re Jeannie’s and Carol’s notes.
A friend of mine, Phil Garris, saw this cockamamie dummy, without head, hands and feet, and said, “Why don’t you use that?” I started playing with it. The section with the dummy that you see came from an actual experience in the subway where a guy tried to pick me up and put his hand on my knee. So I used it: put the dummy’s hand on my knee, and knock it away. Finally we start fighting in back of the couch.
Carol, Jeannie and I started putting things into slots—this goes here, this goes there. We made the number a traveling thing. If you recall, it’s a traveling shot: the old silent-movie technique where they used to go from one set to the other. In the old days, you might have four or five different pictures being shot at the same time [in adjacent sets]. We used that idea, traveling until the end where I run up one wall, do a back somersault, run up another wall, do a back somersault and go through a third wall. I had done that in two different pictures: Feudin’, Fussin’ and A Fightin’, where I ran up a board in a barn, and a pirate picture—incidentally, one of the worst pictures ever made (I forget the name)—where I ran up a wall.
That’s how the number came about. Kelly’s main contribution was his ability to see something very good and to utilize it. And his only other contribution was where I hit the wall and screw up my face. He thought that was very funny. I didn’t. But he liked it and they kept it in. And it is funny on the screen.
FW: How long did it take you to block “Make ‘Em Laugh”?
O’Connor: A day, maybe a day and a half. Going up the walls doing somersaults, that trick took a couple of days. I had to practice that in a harness.
FW: You said a moment ago that you were most pleased with your dancing in Call Me Madam. Why?
O’Connor: We did some beautiful numbers. The one with the castle all broken down, and around the water, was beautiful music beautifully choreographed. Working with Vera Ellen was such a joy. And there’s one they cut out [when the movie is shown] on television. It had everything: a very fast two-person number, tap dancing. If you see the picture in its entirety, you’ll see it. That was, for me, my best dancing. As far as the best picture is concerned, There’s No Business Like Show Business. For crazy dancing, it’s interesting to see the old pictures I made with Peggy Ryan before I went into the service. With the Jivin’ Jacks and Jills. Bob Fosse was one of them, and Tommy Rall—I think the greatest dancers living.
FW: Above Astaire?
O’Connor: Yes. And Kelly. You see, as far as the man’s personality goes, there’s no one who can touch Fred Astaire. He’s unique. But for the work he does, I would say Tommy can do it, Fosse can do it. Or at least they’re able to fake it and come across with great charm. I’m talking about overall dancers, who can do everything. And they’re great choreographers, too.
FW: Do you see any dancers of that ilk coming up in movies?
O’Connor: I don’t get around that much any more. I saw a girl I think is just fabulous in Movie Movie. But I haven’t seen pictures with a lot of dancers: West Side Story, Saturday Night Fever, Grease.
FW: In general, do you think there’s a correlation between the way people dance and what they expect to see on the screen or in the theater?
O’Connor: Yes. What they’re doing now with disco is combining a lot of the old steps and movements, like we did in the ‘40s. They’re going back to the Shuffle, the Lindy, rhumbas, a little bit of Afro-Cuban. It’s marvelous. Unfortunately, my body won’t move that way. I’d love to do it myself; I get out and fake it. But it’s pretty rotten.
FW: You’ve had some fine partners in movies. How would you adjust your dancing in those various partnerships?
O’Connor: I don’t have very high extension. Vera Ellen would have to adjust to my extension, if we wanted to be together in a particular step. If she wanted to kick higher she could when it was called for, but she would have to make adjustments to my line. Now, Mitzi Gaynor is the type of dancer who must dance strong all the time. She’s great with a partner, but she’s strong—more of a single dancer. You have to go the other extreme and dance down a little bit in order to be cohesive. Let her take it.
FW: Is there one partner who stands out for you?
O’Connor: Peggy Ryan, in those pictures of the old days. Then Vera and Mitzi. And Janet Leigh. We made a picture called Walking My Baby Back Home. She hadn’t danced in years but was a real trouper. Nine times out of 10 we’d do all those beautiful dance routines on cement, and she got very tired, started falling a lot on her knees. And her knees started to swell three times their normal size. It was very painful. On the screen you can’t tell how she was suffering in that darn thing.
I would have liked to have worked with Lucille Bremer, who did a couple of the greatest numbers that’ve ever been on the screen, both with Astaire: “Limehouse Blues” from Ziegfeld Follies  and Yolanda and the Thief , where they worked on a turntable for “This Heart of Mine.” She was totally with her partner. She complemented the man, even though she was a solo dancer; it looked like a great romance. And she was a very beautiful girl. And of course I never had the chance to work with Carol Haney, one of the finest dancers I’ve ever seen, and the sexiest.
FW: Did you dub your own taps in your pictures?
O’Connor: Yes, and if I was too busy, Louis Da Pron would put them in. There’s a distinct difference. You can tell, at least I can. He’s a heavier dancer. Everyone has his own distinctive sound.
FW: While you were growing up, did you get to see any of the well-known black hoofers in the vaudeville circuit?
O’Connor: Sure. Bert Williams; John Bubbles, of Buck and Bubbles; Hal Leroy, who had the fastest feet in the world. Veloz and Yolanda did tricks that were unbelievable. Will Mahoney, who danced on a xylophone. Pegleg Bates. I understand he’s still dancing, and I think he’s in his 80s. He had a tap put on his crutch. I know it sounds kooky, but it really is magnificent to see him work. He uses the crutch for a beat, and offbeats and syncopation. A very physical dancer. Now, Bill Robinson, who used to dance up and down stairs, didn’t work like other dancers—the Condos Brothers and so forth—with little stairs. He used stairs that were four and a half, five feet high. Another very physical dancer, with wonderful rhythm.
Many things impressed me about these dancers: the timing, the endurance, the way they put it over, the audience response, the style, the grace—the selling of the dance.
We used to work in two great black houses: Chicago’s Regal Theater, and the Apollo Theater on 125th Street in New York.
FW: What is a great house?
O’Connor: You have a feeling that everybody wants to be entertained. They don’t go in as critics. They have an open mind, a willingness to accept. They generate enthusiasm; it permeates the place. Once you get those vibes you put out so much more. Remember, if you do the same act for 20, 30 years it gets a little boring unless you’ve got something else going for you.
And the orchestra really kept you going. They’d laugh at all your jokes, even if they’d been hearing them for the last 30 years. They’d get in there and work right with you: you’d show them your music, they’d sniff it and they could play it. They used to make you come alive. Even if you fell down they’d bring you up. And if you had a good audience, they’d bring you up more. And if your act was any good, and you worked hard, everything was working then.
It was so ingrained, being in front of an audience, that if something was inherently funny in a movie scene, I’d automatically wait for a laugh.
FW: What makes dancing funny?
O’Connor: Legomania, the way a person moves his legs like a chicken to music. Pratfalls are always funny. A performer has to answer to himself. If you think something’s funny, you’ve got to go out there and try. It’s only by trial and error that you find out.
That is the godawful thing about television today. Performers don’t have any place to hit and miss. You’re either in or you’re out; you don’t have a chance to become good at your craft. If you make three pictures in a row and they don’t go over, you’re out of the business. On television, I’ll give it twice.
But it’s the ability to make mistakes that makes a tried-and-true performer. When I was on The Colgate Comedy Hour [in the early 1950s], I worked with Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn—one of the greatest comedians and actors that ever lived—and Jimmy Durante. You can’t ask for better than that. And it was great format. We had three and a half weeks to work on a show. It was a family-style thing. We used to walk on when someone was doing a handstand, crazy; we’d break them up. And it was great because it was live. They couldn’t cut out the mistakes. And that’s what audiences love.
One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen was a TV show with Joseph Cotten, Ethel Barrymore—Hallmark Hall of Fame, I believe. A highly dramatic show in which they shoot this guy and cover him with a rug. They got the wrong camera, and you saw the corpse get up with the rug over his head and walk off. In a bent position. It was marvelous. To hell with what the show said; that was funny.
You Sinners 1938
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