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Still Dancing as Fast as He Can: “Singin’ in the Rain” Star Donald O’Connor

Fifty years after its release, you would think Donald O’Connor would get tired of talking about Singin’ in the Rain, the legendary 1952 musical that cast him alongside Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. We chatted with O’Connor on the eve of the special edition two-disc DVD release of the film.

‘It should be kept alive forever if possible,’ gushes O’Connor, who recently celebrated his 77th birthday. ‘…I think really with this kind of energy behind it, it’s like the very beginning of the movie when you’ve just previewed, and you go out and talk to various press around the country. It’s very exciting. It’s wonderful.’

O’Connor, who was thrust into his family’s circus act as a newborn and has been a veteran of television and movies for over 60 years, says he’s thrilled to still be associated with Singin’ in the Rain. And he’s more than happy to talk about his co-stars and some memorable behind the scene moments (though none of the romantic variety), including the memorable title sequence with Kelly.

‘When they started, he’s singing, so happy and he looks great, and the rain is coming down, and just at a perfect timing… each droplet seems to have its own beat,’ says O’Connor, in his grandfatherly cadence. ‘All of a sudden somebody takes a close look at Gene and he’s shrinking. The clothes are actually shrinking. No one took into account that the tweed material shrinks, so they’re going crazy trying to find cloth now to make him suits.’

O’Connor continues: ‘About every 30 minutes, they’d have to make another suit for him. Actually you’d be talking to him in between shots, and you’d actually see the material start to rise in his pants and his cuffs. It was really hysterical; it was funny. Gene was a dignified man, and particularly in his work. When all of this started to happen beyond his control, it got to him too. He was hysterical. That to me is about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.’

However, O’Connor was not immune from production goofs himself, which happened during the filming of his legendary, wall-climbing and mostly improvised ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ number. He recalls that the number was shot in one day due to time constraints and because the set’s concrete floors wreaked havoc on his body.

‘Now two days later I go in on the set, and I get applause from the guys with the lights way up high and the people on the floor, like the opening of a Broadway show,’ O’Connor recalls. ‘I said, ‘Isn’t this marvelous?’ [Director Stanley Donen] said, ‘That number is just great. It’s fantastic. Do you think you could do it again?’ I said, ‘Oh, sure, anytime.’ He said, ‘Well great, you’re going to do it again tomorrow.’

‘What had happened was the cinematographer or one of his assistants didn’t see that the aperture on the camera wasn’t correct,’ O’Connor says. ‘It was open and it stuck, so that whole number was fogged out. It looked like a ghost doing his thing. So I had to do it all over again.’

O’Connor says one of his unrequited loves is not doing a sequel to Singin’ In the Rain and it’s easy to understand why, judging from the compliments he offers to his two co-stars and director.

‘He wanted it, and if you could be better than he was, he loved it, because that was his persona, not only as a professional and his duty, but he loved it personally,’ O’Connor says of the late Kelly. ‘He loved the competition of somebody working hard in there and paying attention.’

Reynolds, who turned 20 in 1952, was a professional who learned quickly, O’Connor says. ‘When you tell me she’s never taken lessons at dance before, it would be very difficult for me to believe, but it seems to be true. She had to learn all that stuff with Gene, and I was pressing because there was a time span during which we had to put all this stuff together. The way she picked up on everything and worked strong; not too much like a girl, too feminine with Gene and myself. She was magnificent.’

And Donen ran everything as smoothly as the trio’s dance moves. ‘He was wonderful,’ O’Connor says. ‘There was never any friction on us to work harder or to stop being silly kids. He was most professional; we just went along like the raindrops.’

On the enduring success of Singin’ In the Rain, O’Connor attributes it partly to the movie being passed down as upbeat entertainment from generation to generation. He’s happy that movie musicals are making a comeback, and would even like to see a Singin’ in the Rain remake if the right people were involved.

‘I think you should make more movies, more musicals,’ he says. ‘I think the public deserves that. I think this country deserves to be able to get out and foster that talent. Give them an opportunity to become stars. I think the whole idea is wonderful.’

O’Connor, who makes his home in Sedona, Ariz. says he’s feeling fine after battling illness a few years back. He sounds mellow and amiable, which probably has to do with a lifetime of dancing. ‘It’s so wonderful… if your whole day is rotten, once they start the music, it seems to melt away,’ he says.

A lot of people feel the same way watching Singin’ in the Rain.

Donald O’Connor died on September 27, 2003. He was 78.

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