In this week’s Ann Blyth Quiz, we mentioned that she made her mark at Universal studios in tandem with Donald O’Connor, who became a longtime personal friend. There they are below as costars of 1957’s The Buster Keaton Story, which suited O’Connor’s athletic dancing capabilities to a T.
Born into vaudeville — actually his parents were circus performers, his father an acrobat and his mother rode horses bareback — O’Connor grew up in show biz, and made his movie debut at age 12. In all, he rolled up some 88 movie and tv credits over a 60-year span. (He died in 2003 at the age of 78.)
The most remembered of his appearances, of course, is his second banana role under Gene Kelly in 1952’s Hollywood valentine to itself, MGM’s Singing in the Rain. His “Make ‘Em Laugh” number remains a classic. It was so physically strenuous that O’Connor said after the scene was in the can that he required a few days of bed rest to recuperate. His specialty: back flips off walls.
Still, the role was not O’Connor’s favorite. His came opposite Vera-Ellen in 1953’s Call Me Madam (See below). Said the actor: My favorite number is in there…the number I do out in the garden with her to “It’s A Lovely Day.” It’s a beautifully lyric number. I think she was the best dancer outside of Peggy Ryan I ever danced with. (Ryan and O’Connor appeared in seven films together.)
O’Connor was also a pretty good straight man in comedies.
As he profitably discovered, not all four legged Hollywood stars were canines. In the 1950’s one of the biggest stars on the Universal lot was Francis — the talking mule.
Francis originated in the mind of a bored Army officer candidate in charge of a service publication, stationed in Hawaii. To pass the time I wrote four pages of dialogue between a second lieutenant and an Army mule, wrote David Stern.
I had no intention of writing more. But that little runt of a mule kept bothering me. With memories of (Officer’s Candidate School) fresh in my mind I thought I might rid myself of the creature by shipping him off to become a second lieutenant. Francis outwitted me. He refused to go.
The son of a newspaper publisher, Stern (under the nom de plume Peter Stirling) wrote several short stories about his amiable Army mule creation, and tied them together in a 1946 novel, Francis. Hollywood took notice with the idea that the mule might be teamed with Mickey Rooney in the first Francis feature, but the project never took off.
Instead Universal stepped in, buying the rights to the property — this time as a vehicle for O’Connor as the young soldier (named Peter Stirling) who befriends our mule in 1950’s Francis. (There’s O’Connor pictured in character above with Patricia Medina).
The picture was a hit and six sequels followed: 1951’s Francis Goes To The Races, 1952’s Francis Goes to West Point, 1953’s Francis Covers the Big Town, 1954’s Francis Joins the WACS, 1955’s Francis in the Navy, and 1956’s Francis in the Haunted House.
The Haunted House, ironically, starred Mickey Rooney replacing O’Connor who is famously quoted as saying, When you’ve made six pictures and the mule still gets more fan mail than you do…