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Monday, January 5, 2015

THE REEL REALS: Donald O'Connor

Donald O'Connor
Donald O'Connor was a wiry, rubber-faced, exuberant motherfu... Fudge. Fudger... Motherfudger. You know what I mean. This guy wasn't human. He was like a super-jolt of positivity personified, a wholesome humdinger, a jitterbuggin' razzmatazz madman! Like his fellow cinematic, dancing legends-- Astaire, Kelly, Charisse, Rogers-- he had a talent that was hypnotic in its effect. However, while Astaire & Rogers led with romance and Kelly & Charisse led with sex, O'Connor led with humor. He did the most heavenly and obscene things with his body, stretching and projecting himself like both a slingshot and its missile across the screen-- a trick he'd learned on the vaudeville stage, where he'd gotten his start. What he created looked natural, and even painful, but it was always flawlessly executed. His work and craftsmanship, the dedication to his artistry as the physical buffoon, are often still underappreciated. No Gods are born; they are made. Respect.

Descended from a family of circus performers-- acrobats and bareback riders-- Donald grew up with the same daredevil masochism that made fellow clowns like
Chaplin and Keaton greats. The game from day one was "entertainment." He'd go as far as you can to "Make 'Em Laugh," even if he needed several days of recuperation afterward-- which was indeed the case in the infamous Singin' in the Rain sequence. Equal to these comics, his hilarity was born of his tragedy. He survived the car crash that claimed his sister and also witnessed his father die from a heart attack while the elder man was dancing on stage. The ceaseless inner motor that churned was one of escapism, pushing the pain of circumstance outward to overcome it. However, the result of such constant, vigorous exorcism certainly took its toll, especially after Paramount and later Universal-- his main home-- began using him as one of its most trusted workhorses. Starting his career at the age of 12, he barely stopped to breathe for the next 40 years of his career. The constant stress led to alcoholism-- another trend among his peers, including good friend Judy Garland who shared a similar energizer-actor frustration. Eventually, Donald was fortunately able to overcome this disease and come out swinging, as he always did.

Needless to say, audiences never saw these demons on the screen, though they were witnessing their energy-- the buoyancy with which Donald tried to out-act, out-dance, out-sing, and out-maneuver them. His filmography is nothing to sniff at: Beau Geste, Mister Big, Francis (and its sequels), Anything Goes, There's No Business Like Show Business, and, of course, Singin' in the Rain. In addition, he performed on his own briefly lived television series, made quest appearances on everything from "The Love Boat" to "Tales from the Crypt," and had a brief cinematic re-emergence in the '90s in Toys among other films. He would pass away at the age of 78 in 2003 leaving those that loved him with a song in their hearts and an indescribable fondness for a one of a kind character. A fascinating figure with his own particular and admirable touch, he kept things interesting on the screen and took audiences to places they had never been before. But hey, ya' know... Anything for a laugh.

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