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Book: Sounding Funny

Chapter: ‘Be a Clown’ and ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’: Comic Timing, Rhythm, and Donald O’Connor’s Face

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.24493


Comedic dance is not an easy effort—though it is designed to look more natural and spontaneous than most “dramatic” movement. Singin’ in the Rain (1951) contains a variety of dance numbers, some of which combine elements of a plethora of styles and approaches. “Make ‘Em Laugh,” however, is solely a vehicle for the comedic talents of Donald O’Connor, combining an ultra-physical dance with an up-beat, full-orchestral score. What makes the number work brilliantly is O’Connor’s aspects of his physical presence put into (and out of) sync with the music, challenging the comedian to keep the whole number both a dance and funny. The success of the final product depends on this interplay between performer and non-diegetic orchestra, made even more interesting with the dubbed-in sounds added after the scene was filmed. This article compares the musical/physical relationships established in the three filmed versions of this song (The Pirate—as “Be A Clown,” Singin’ in the Rain, and De-lovely) demonstrating the ways in which the human body interacts with its accompaniment for comedic effect. It is necessary to understand the visual language of film as well as the details of the musical support to explore the ways in which the performers are successful (as O’Connor is) or simply do not work (Kevin Kline’s turn as Porter in De-lovely). The result is a fascinating lineage between three very different ideas of music, comedy, and the body’s relationship with the two.

Chapter Contributors

  • Jonas Westover ( - jwestover) 'City University, New York '