Why you should care

They don’t make musical numbers like this anymore, and for good reason.

When your mother is a tightrope walker and your father is an acrobat, chances are you will be pretty nimble on your feet. Donald O’Connor, American actor, clown and dancer extraordinaire, was that and much more, as audiences discovered in the smash hit musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952). O’Connor’s now legendary “Make ’Em Laugh” routine in that film was a vaudevillian tour de force. Like the Three Stooges meets Fred Astaire, and with no special effects, trick photography or CGI — just one 26-year-old performer’s aching body against whatever his own imagination and the prop guys at MGM could throw at him.

As the star and co-director of the film, Gene Kelly and his co-director Stanley Donen were eager to include a sequence that showcased the virtuousity of his young co-star, as Kelly’s pal Cosmo Brown. As Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar chronicle in Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece (2009), the performance was really a composite of all the clownish, acrobatic feats that O’Connor had done in vaudeville, choreographed on-the-fly in rehearsals, with input from Kelly and others. With a fictional movie set serving as the backdrop, O’Connor uncorks a dazzling display of gimmicks and pratfalls in the scene: dancing, fighting with a dummy, running on the floor and up walls, along with old stand-bys like “gurning” — facial distortions named after the gurnard fish.

He headed off to bed with aching muscles and carpet burns, and stayed there for three days after the shoot.

O’Connor’s inspirations were as varied as his early life and circus upbringing. He claimed, for example, that his interaction with the presumptuous dummy arose from a real-life encounter with a stranger on a Brooklyn subway who had put his hand on the actor’s knee and “then down to my crotch.” For the wall-climbing, O’Connor reprised an old vaudeville trick that he rehearsed in a harness with his brother. Finding a suitable ending for the escalating dance number became such a challenge that O’Connor joked, “I thought I’d have to commit suicide as a finale.” Thankfully, he came up with a scaled-back solution: He went through the wall.

O’Connor — who smoked four packs of cigarettes a day and wore only minimal padding during filming — headed off to bed with aching muscles and carpet burns, and stayed there for three days after the shoot. Hess and Dabholkar told OZY via email that perhaps O’Connor’s greatest gift as a performer was “his stamina in rehearsing and doing the entire routine over and over until it was perfectly captured on film.” As O’Connor reflected in a 1979 interview republished by DanceView Times after his death in 2003, “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.”

The scene helped land O’Connor a 1953 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical/Comedy.

When O’Connor eventually emerged from bed and returned to the set, Donen approached him with a request. “Do you think you could do it again?”

Apparently the camera aperture had been incorrectly set, and the entire scene was fogged out. Ever the consummate performer, O’Connor obliged and ran the gauntlet again. And by all accounts, it was even better on the next try.

Watch the entire film online at iTunes, Amazon or Google Play.

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