The great, the glorious, the one and only.
There are so many cliches about dazzling performances: sometimes these ideas become self-perpetuating, to the point that one feels out of step with the world at large if one finds Brando in Last Tango or Nicholson in The Shining fail to dazzle.
O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t looking to produce one of those grandiose turns. A self-proclaimed jobbing hoofer, he was a product of a mid-century Hollywood/MGM culture where fierce physical perfectionism teamed with unbridled screwball charisma were the tools of an altogether rather humble trade.
It’s easy to wax lyrical about the sheer virtuosity of Gene Kelly both as a star and co-director, or the charming ingenue qualities of a baby-faced Debbie Reynolds, or the glorious histrionics of the peerless Jean Hagen. They’re all exquisite.
Yet in a film packed with perfect performances (count them: everyone from Don Lockwood to Roscoe Dexter to that guy who screams “Zelda, oh Zelda!!” is flawlessly cast), Donald O’Connor still manages to stand out.
It’s often been said that Kelly’s titular dance sequence is the great beating, joyful heart of the movie: I agree, and yet the first scene I think of when I think of this movie isn’t Singin’ in the Rain. It’s Make ‘Em Laugh (on the choreography of that sequence, O’Connor noted with characteristic nonchalance “it was my brother who taught me how to run up the walls. It ended up being perfect: very simple to do, and rather spectacular.”)The second scene I think of is the Moses Supposes sequence.*What other musical can get away scott-free with a song so utterly gratuitous?
What’s french for joie de vivre? O’Connor is the perfect match for Kelly: easily as clean and beautiful to watch, his contrasting physical personality was brilliantly absorbed and facilitated by Kelly’s masterful choreography, resulting in an fizzling, witty, frenetic onscreen chemistry between the two. The incalculable perfections of their numbers together can’t really be compared to any other male partnership of the era.
All this to say: O’Connor, you’re my Brando.
*NB. The third scene I think about involves a serpentine Cyd Charisse, but that’s another post on another day.