The Girl Without Hands
What he does best is create a palpable sense of dread without pushing, without tilting into melodrama.
To commemorate the anniversary of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s 1952 masterpiece, “Singin’ in the Rain,” which was released in U.S. theaters 65 years ago today, we are publishing the lightly edited transcript of Roger Ebert’s onstage conversation with the film’s star, Donald O'Connor. The interview was held after a screening of the film at Ebertfest on Sunday, April 27th, 2003. O’Connor received multiple ovations from the crowd and brought down the house with his uproarious wit and impeccable timing. He passed away a month after his 78th birthday in September of that year. His presence at the festival was an extraordinary gift, and the comedic chemistry he forged with Ebert remains as entertaining as ever. The video of their full conversation, as well as Ebert’s introduction to the film, is available here. This year’s installment of Ebertfest runs Wednesday, April 19th through Sunday, April 23rd at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois.
Donald O’Connor (DO): I’ll trade this [microphone] in for some water.
Roger Ebert (RE): We’ll bring you some water. Do you have some water back there? Oh there it is.
DO: [picks up water bottle] Thank you. Every time I hold one of these things, I think of Esther Williams.
RE: What did they say—“Wet she was a star.”
DO: [laughs] That’s funny.
RE: This is the greatest moment in the history of our film festival, to have you here.
[Crowd breaks into ovation]
DO: It was nothing.
RE: Somebody told me that you did the “Make ‘Em” Laugh” number, and you went to the hospital for three days. You came back and they said it was overexposed, and you had to do it again. Is that true?
DO: Yeah, they made that up.
DO: Gene needed some time to go over and film “An American in Paris,” so we were waiting around. I was under contract at Universal, I wasn’t a contract player at MGM. But for this movie, I got paid. You usually don’t get paid. They have it in your contract that all the money goes to your home studio. So you could become the biggest star walking on your heels.
RE: In other words, MGM would’ve paid the money to Universal instead of to you. But they did pay you for this.
DO: They did, because it was the first time I ever rebelled in my life. I said, “It’s wonderful, but I’m not going to do it if I don’t get paid. It’s ridiculous.”
RE: Now MGM had so many stars, but they needed you for this. There was nobody on the MGM lot that could do what you did.
DO: No. Esther Williams, certainly…
RE: I thought of her last week when they closed Cypress Gardens. As I said in my introduction, “American in Paris” was supposed to be the big deal, and “Singin’ in the Rain” was thought to be a smaller film at the time. But it is now immortal. It is, I think, the greatest musical, but it must’ve been fun because it was a movie about movies.
DO: Oh, it was so much fun. Of course, we did nothing but laugh when we first got on the set. Then we left all the laughter behind the scenes, we went to work and made the movie. It was such a great pleasure and a thrill to be associated with this movie, because it’s great.
RE: There’s one shot where the three of you are dancing down a flight of stairs.
DO: Yeah—wait a minute. [coughs] I want to hear every word.
RE: The three of you are dancing down a flight of stairs, and just that shot made me think of all the opportunities in this film to get hurt.
DO: Oh there were several places you could get hurt in this movie.
RE: Were there injuries? There must’ve been because you guys are doing these incredibly difficult physical stunts, really, in addition to the fact that you are dancing.
[Donald starts talking into water bottle, Roger replaces it with the microphone]
RE: I want to hear every word!
DO: [laughs] That’s funny! Yeah, there were a couple of scrapes there. Anytime you get up on top of a trolley and jump into a moving car at around 15 to 20 miles per hour, you’ve gotta be kind of careful.
RE: On the DVD, they have an outtake where Gene Kelly missed the car, and landed on the street.
DO: Yeah, that’s true. Russ Saunders was doing a lot of Gene’s work at that time in this picture and other pictures. He was the stuntman. If a stunt was too difficult, they thought I would get hurt or Gene would get hurt, so they would call in Russ. And 90 times out of 100, he would get hurt and we’d have to go in and do it.
RE: It’s obvious though that no stuntman was involved in “Make ‘Em Laugh.”
RE: That’s you.
RE: Where did that choreography come from?
DO: Well this picture was a collaboration. If I thought of eight bars or sixteen bars that would fit in what we were doing, then we did it. Gene was wonderful and amenable. He was known up until that time as kind of temperamental, but with this picture, he was just great. I think that’s because he really enjoyed it. He was working with two pros that could keep up with him.
RE: Debbie Reynolds was 18?
DO: No, she wasn’t 18 yet. About 17.
RE: She had been in four little roles, and this was a starring role for her with Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly, two of the biggest stars of that time. Did you have to kind of encourage her? How did she feel when she saw herself on the set with these two big co-stars?
DO: She came to me and she said, “Donald, it’s been very difficult for me to do this picture because it’s overwhelming.” We did the scene where she kisses Gene Kelly and she told me, “I don’t know how to handle this, but he’s been sticking his tongue down my throat.”
[Crowd shrieks and applauds]
RE: What advice did you give?
DO: I didn’t have to give her any advice. I said, “Just like it.”
RE: Did you guys rehearse a whole lot? In many of those numbers where the three of you are together or where you and Kelly are together—every movement is perfectly timed. For example, in the opening sequence, “Fit as a Fiddle,” it must’ve taken days, weeks, to get that so good.
DO: It didn’t take weeks. We did all those snippets in one day.
RE: You’re kidding me!
RE: All of that stuff in the “Dignity” [montage]?
DO: When you’re working with a team, you’ve rehearsed, you’ve laid out the chalk marks, you know where you’re going—camera, choreography—and you shoot pretty fast, even at MGM.
RE: I’ve been told by your wife, Gloria, that your favorite moment of the movie is you playing the fiddle while dancing on your knees.
DO: I think that was it because I got hit in the head at the end.
RE: We should introduce Mrs. O’Connor, who’s right back there.
RE: You know, it’s a funny thing. I’m on this stage with this big audience, and when I went like that [points finger], I wanted to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, stop that girl! That’s Kathy Selden!”
DO: [laughs and applauds] That’s lovely. Keep that in. It got a big laugh. Keep at it.
RE: Thank you, I need this encouragement. I’m a downstate boy, I’m from Urbana, so I need all the help I can get. And you’re from Danville.
DO: Danville, Illinois. Let’s hear it for Danville!
DO: That’s right. Well, I was really born in Chicago. My Aunt Josie was still in Danville and she had—I don’t know—10, 11 kids. So if we got laid off and had no place to go, we’d go right to Danville. It was great for me because I had these kids to play with.
RE: I heard that you all had the same high school drama teacher. I think her name was Mary Miller?
DO: I never had her. I’ll be honest with you. I came right from vaudeville with my family.
RE: So you started as a child in vaudeville.
DO: Right. I was born on the stage. [pauses] It was quite a sight.
DO: I mean, how much money do you make for that?
RE: And what do you do for an encore?
DO: Thank you, I’ll pass on that.
RE: You told me yesterday that you believe that you had actually performed on this stage.
DO: Well I came on the stage as soon as I was born. Mother was in the hospital for two or three days. She had me way back in the act, and then I’d come onstage in her arms, and I’d get the biggest applause. That’s what being a kid does for you. I come from a circus family and a vaudeville family, and I think with this training behind me, it wasn’t that hard. After a while, I felt more sure of what I was doing so that I could really go to town. Here I’m working with the greatest dancer in the world, Gene Kelly, and it was a thrilling experience. I wish I could tell you a couple little things that happened.
RE: You can.
DO: I can’t them of ‘em.
RE: Can you tell us something about the family vaudeville act?
DO: Yeah, there were six of us. Before I was born, my father passed away. He dropped dead backstage when he was waiting to go on. Right from the beginning, I was on the stage, and I did a little circus also with the family. We were on the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, and they wanted to have some vaudeville because things were changing. It was so much fun in those days because you could take your time, be creative and get immediate applause. It was quite different from today.
RE: You know, the Marx Brothers had that mother, Minnie Marx, who kind of ran their act.
DO: Oh, they were fabulous.
RE: I bet your mom was kind of the same with the O’Connors.
DO: Well she was in the act. Mother did a dance in the act until she had me, then she retired.[pauses] I’m taking too much time.
RE: No you’re not.
DO: Well alright.
RE: That’s funny.
DO: [laughs] That’s timing.
RE: Well you were a child star in the movies because you played, for example, [Huckleberry Finn].
DO: Yes, in “Tom Sawyer, Detective.”
RE: You would make a great [Huckleberry Finn]. I can just see that irrepressible imp in you when I look at you.
DO: I think we did another film where Tom Sawyer creates Francis…
RE: Francis was invented by Tom Sawyer. I’m not surprised to hear that.
DO: [laughs] That’s right!
RE: The Francis pictures, for years—late 40s and 50s—were number one at the box office, isn’t that true?
DO: Yes they were. “Francis” was made for a couple hundred thousand and it grossed in the millions.
RE: Those are real dollars.
DO: It was fun because they took their time then. They enjoyed what they were doing and if something was funny, they stopped to laugh. So I was a sucker for ‘em. They had a great time with me because I was making them laugh by what was not on the screen. I was ad-libbing a lot of stuff, and how lucky I was to get directors who would put up with this. Most directors don’t want anybody up on that screen to be directing as well. So you have to be very, very careful.
RE: You must’ve gotten into Hollywood when you were very, very young.
DO: Oh yeah.
RE: And everybody who made this movie was young. The director, Stanley Donen, was 27. I believe he had been working with Gene Kelly since he was 17, and he likes to sing and dance too, doesn’t he?
DO: Sure, he’s a wonderful dancer. He and Gene really hit it off. They thought about something and then they did it. What more can you have going for you?
RE: Yesterday morning, we showed some silent comedies, and one of them starred Buster Keaton. I know that you not only played Buster Keaton, but you knew him and admired him and were friends with him.
DO: We were very, very good friends. I hadn’t seen him for years. I went inside the house, and I saw his wife. I said, “Is Buster around? I’m going to do his life story. I’d like to know a little bit about his background.” She said, “He’s out in the back doing something. Don’t smoke around him, he’s given up smoking.” So I went out in the garage, and here’s Buster with a train running all the way around the inside of the garage. And there was a cigarette on the train.
DO: This was his way of giving up smoking.
RE: You mean he could only smoke every time the train came past?
DO: Every time it came past.
RE: Would you agree to take a couple of questions from your fans here?
RE: Good, are there microphones?
Q1: You’ve always been my favorite dancer and not just because I’m from Danville.
DO: Of course not.
Q1: But that certainly helps. Did you have any formal dance training at all, or did it all just come through your family?
DO: I didn’t learn any new steps until I went into movies. There was a picture called “Sing, You Sinners,” and the director wanted me to do a little dance. So I did what I did on the stage in the act, just a quick little dance, and they left that in. It’s a great thrill to be able to have autonomy and move the camera and everything. It’s thrilling enough when you’re old, but when you’re young, it’s a little boy’s dream come true. But I was in vaudeville, that’s it. Vaudeville was great. This theater was always a fantastic place to work. There were my two brothers, my niece Patsy and myself. She quit and she didn’t want to dance anymore, so we cut the act down.
RE: This was the big vaudeville theater in this area. My dad saw the Marx Brothers here and Harry Houdini…
DO: I think I might’ve met the Marx Brothers here in the 30s. They have all the dressing rooms downstairs.
RE: Oh yeah, yeah. Pretty crummy, though.
DO: Well after 70 years…
[Crowd laughs and applauds]
DO: I know how I feel.
RE: Another question?
Q2: My name is Greg Linder. My friends call me Turbo, and I’m holding in my left hand my pair of tap shoes. I first saw “Singin’ in the Rain” when I was in first grade, and my mom now has a whole video collection of embarrassing videos of me on the stage in elementary school. I was wondering if you could autograph one of these shoes for me.
RE: Another question. Here’s one down there, yes?
Q3: In the scene, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” how did you walk up the wall?
DO: I could do it—I can’t anymore. I thought I could one night and I…
[Crowd laughs and applauds]
DO: I think everyone can identify with “Singin’ in the Rain.” Even though all of this money went into it and it was made at the biggest studio there was, they let us go and do whatever we thought of. “Make ‘Em Laugh” is really a throwaway. I’ll tell you, it was wonderful. Cole Porter was walking into a soundstage with Roger Eden, and Roger came to me and said, “I’ve got a great number for you.” They were going to do a picture together, and he said, “Come on, I’ll play it for you.” So he played “Make ‘Em Laugh,” and right away, it writes itself.
RE: But how did you climb the wall?
[Crowd laughs and applauds]
RE: You have your answer. Next question.
Q4: This was such a joyful film. It has to be one of the most joyful films ever made. I was smiling ear to ear throughout the whole thing. Thank you so much for this performance.
DO: Thank you. People go right along with the flow of laughter. That’s a good title for a book. The Flow of Laughter.
Q4: A couple years ago, there was a commercial that showed Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil.
DO: What is that?
RE: A vacuum cleaner.
DO: Well, why not?
DO: Was it a Hoover?
RE: A Dirt Devil.
Q4: There’s a commercial out now and it takes footage from “Singin’ in the Rain” and dubs someone in to Gene Kelly’s part. I just wondered, had you seen that, does it offend you?
DO: I didn’t see it.
RE: Does that offend you?
DO: Doing a commercial with a voice-over? No.
Q5: I grew up in Chicago and one of the first movies my dad took me to at the Uptown Theatre was one of the Francis films, and I just loved it. My question is, how do you feel playing the straightman to a mule?
DO: Well, you see, I’ve had a lot of practice with jackasses.
[Crowd laughs and applauds]
RE: And that probably helped you with your other pictures too.
DO: Definitely. Oh listen, my cousin is here, Lois, and her husband, Henry.
RE: Lois and Henry, stand up!
RE: Looks like the whole family!
DO: My Aunt Josie had eleven kids—a big family. Well, in those days they didn’t have television…
RE: I feel like a great straight man here. Who’s on first?
DO: What’s on second?
RE: Who’s next?
Q6: I am. My name is Blanche and I’ve been a fan of your’s forever. I know you are a great dancer and great singer, but you’re also a great dramatic actor, and I think everyone here will agree with me if they saw “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
RE: My dad took me to see that movie in this theater.
DO: Isn’t that marvelous?
[Roger takes out paper]
RE: I have a list here of your films. 59 major motion pictures on here.
DO: I’ve made close to 100 at least.
RE: They wouldn’t have them all here. “Melody for Two.”
DO: That was the first picture I made. It was with James Melton.
RE: “It Can’t Last Forever.”
DO: I don’t know who made that.
RE: “Sing, You Sinners.”
DO: Oh, that was my first picture.
RE: The first big picture.
DO: With Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray.
RE: “Tom Sawyer, Detective,” “Sons of the Legion,” “Men with Wings”…
DO: I played Fred MacMurray as a boy.
RE: At the age of 10. The character you played was 10 years old.
DO: I was 12.
RE: That’s acting. In the very same year, in “Unmarried,” you played a 12-year-old.
RE: That’s Method acting. “Million Dollar Legs,” “Beau Geste” …
DO: I played Gary Cooper as a boy.
RE: At the age of 12. “On Your Toes”…
DO: That’s the strange thing. Nobody really knows I was in that movie, because I don’t think I got any billing.
RE: Well you’re on the internet now. I’m not going to list every one of these, but gosh… “What’s Cookin’?”, “Private Buckaroo”…
DO: Those are all the war pictures.
RE: “Get Hep to Love,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Mister Big”…
DO: That’s what put me over in movies for the second time. The first time I became known was after we did “Sing You Sinners.” “Mr. Big” was the second picture I did where I got some notice.
RE: And you played a character named Donald O’Connor.
DO: Yeah. Strange.
RE: “Chip Off the Old Block,” “This is the Life,” “They Merry Monahans,” “Bowery to Broadway,” with your great specialty number in that film.
DO: Yeah, it’s a cute number.
RE: “Patrick the Great.” It was the title role, you played Patrick the Great. “Something in the Wind,” “Feudin’, Fussin’ and A-Fightin’,” “Are You With It?” [sings] “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.”
DO: You’ve got it, kid.
RE: “Francis” came in 1950. “Curtain Call AT Cactus Creek,” “The Milkman,” “Double Crossbones,” “Francis Goes to the Races,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Francis Goes to West Point,” “Call Me Madam,” “Francis Covers the Big Town”…
DO: And often he did.
RE: With what?
DO: Thank you, thank you. Let’s hear it for Roger!
RE: And of course you were in that really overlooked movie, “Out to Sea,” in 1997. You were all on the cruise ship together. It was a sweet movie.
DO: Yeah, it didn’t hurt anybody.
RE: It was a great picture. Maybe one or two more questions, please.
Q7: What is your personal favorite dance number that you have on film?
DO: That would be difficult because anything I did with Kelly topped each other and it was natural because he was a hoofer and a teacher in Pennsylvania. They had a dancing school there with his brother. I wish you could see his brother dance. He was fantastic. I’d say he was a better dancer than Gene. Gene leaned more toward the ballet and his brother liked the hoofing.
Q8: I’d like to know what film you would like to see at this film festival.
DO: Well, something with me in it.
DO: Ego, ego, always ego.
RE: I said that was going to be the last question, but I’d hate to stop. Let’s take one more.
DO: It’s alright. I’m enjoying this.
Q9: I want to thank you for so many wonderful hours of inspiration and of song and dance. When I was 30 years old, I had the courage by your inspiration to go take some tap lessons, and recently I found your “Let’s Tap” video. I’d like you to autograph it for me. My question is, am I too old at almost 60 to pick up this “Let’s Tap” video and get into it again?
DO: Well, I’m 75 and I’m still quite active, so you’re never too old, particularly in dancing. The only hard step in tap dancing is the time step, and that gets you started because as you learn the other things, they become less difficult.
RE: So, “Gotta Dance.”
Q10: I hate to interrupt two talented and good-looking men, but Donald, this is Lois. I want everybody to know, and my voice will crack, that everybody in our family loves Donald and Gloria. He’s always been a special cousin, and as a matter of fact, he’s the last cousin we have, so we’re hanging onto him. We love you, Don!
RE: Well Lois, I want you to know that we love him too.
DO: Thank you. See you later.Reveal Comments comments powered by Disqus