Second fiddlers take the honours

From the earliest days of my divorce, my daughter Rebecca, from the age of six, would spend alternate Sundays with me. I had few videos, but Bugsy Malone, The Wrong Box and above all Singin’ in the Rain were played time without end, so that even today I can exactly recall the dialogue, see in my mind the on-screen gaffes, and still wonder why a hilarious film so stuffed with stars as Box passed almost unnoticed by the British public. The recent death of Debbie Reynolds brought back those bittersweet days when I could be with my little girl for a few hours, when Singin’ in the Rain allowed me to explain how continuity works in films. Or rather how it doesn’t – look at the last few seconds of the Broadway Melody routine to see a real pancake.

I love the picture, corny as it is. Who doesn’t? But I love it for the dancing of one and for the acting of another. Donald O’Connor was as talented a hoofer as Gene Kelly, at least if this film is any proof. O'Connor 01The Good Mornin’ routine has him a mirror image of the maestro, with Debbie Reynolds, very much the newcomer, carefully static while the other two cascade their most intricate and sight-blurring footwork around her.  But it’s the Make ‘em Laugh number that convinces me that O’Connor was a truly great dancer. His style is under-described as athletic, a barely apt epithet for anyone who can frenetically run up a wall and do a backflip while still maintaining a grin. Twice in succession. Plus doing innumerable pratfalls and jumps, all of which saw him confined to bed for four days post shooting. In addition he was throughout a real comic with an amiable personality, unlike Kelly’s wooden wafer-thin veneer of oleaginous charm.

And so much of the draw of this film for me lies in the whining, Bronx-tuned words of the talentless Lina Lamont, played flawlessly by Jean Hagen. As a portrait of a clueless, spiteful, Jean Hagen 01dozy diva it’s unmatched. Yes, she was acting some scriptwriter’s words; but, without doing any singing or dancing in this now universally acclaimed Greatest-Ever Musical, she still contrived to turn this supporting role of an unpleasant character into a nomination for an Oscar. No other cast member achieved this. Nope, not Reynolds, not Kelly. You have to watch Hagen’s face while the other characters are talking as it so often and so unforcedly portrays total nervy, gawping incomprehension of what’s being said to her. Over thirty years later I still love to hear her wretched attempts in elocution classes as her tutor’s cut-glass phrases are repeated and destroyed in an accent like a cheesewire through my brain.  And, for me at least who knows who he was, her declaration that she makes “as much money as Calvin Coolidge. (Pause) Put together!!” is the finest example of a mere two words of script coming out as platinum gag.

The film itself was initially tepidly received. Neither of these two so disparate actors went on to much else. O’Connor was successful in a modest way with gently amusing films about a talking mule. Hagen did virtually nothing at all that anyone remembers, suffered long domestic abuse and died horribly at just 54. But Rain for whatever reason brought out a transitory genius, a moment of superlatives in each that still blazes till the film’s billboard ending. And though Kelly and Reynolds went on to deserved greatness, whenever I think of musicals and of the afternoons spent watching them with my little daughter, it’s O’Connor and Hagen who will always be my Lucky Stars.

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