KICK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (14)

By: Peggy Nelson
February 17, 2022

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of a favorite sidekick — whether real-life or fictional.

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COSMO

Donald O’Connor puts the kick into sidekick in the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain. As Cosmo Brown, he tag-teams with Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) as a song-and-dance duo who have come up through the ranks in vaudeville and landed in Hollywood, where Don has become a movie star while Cosmo stays behind the scenes with sound, playing piano to accompany the silent screens.

Singin’ in the Rain may be best known for Kelly’s splashing under a streetlight, but in terms of sheer dance prowess, the musical really takes off when both O’Connor and Kelly share the stage. First up, “Fit as a Fiddle” is an acrobatic vaudeville flashback that defies the laws of both music and physics. Then there’s the tap dancing expostulation – or is it exasperation – of elocution lessons in “Moses Supposes,” until finally we reach the effervescent optimism of “Good Morning,” where they’re accompanied by Debbie Reynolds as Kathy.

Kelly never dances so well as when he’s got O’Connor by his side, with O’Connor more athletic and Kelly more lithe. But it’s Don’s picture, in the movie within the movie; and they’re Don’s troubles. Through it all, Cosmo acts as comic foil to Don’s moody romantic lead. Insisting that the purpose of entertainment is to entertain, Cosmo walks the walk with “Make ’Em Laugh,” his solo ode to the LOL. Incorporating an entire oeuvre of slapstick shticks and inventing a few more along the way, he seamlessly dodges stagehands, scenery, and stodginess with a backflip or two (or three). For without humor, Cosmo reminds Don (and us), romance is misery, movies don’t move, and stage dance risks straying into [shudder] ballet. “Make ’Em Laugh” could be the theme song for sidekicks everywhere.

But crucially, this is a solo number within an ensemble performance. Sidekicks must have someone to be beside, someone to kick at, someone to echo or mock or encourage, or all three at once. Someone charismatic, someone serious — someone like a protagonist. A protagonist declares; a sidekick adapts. Cosmo’s physical flexibility literalizes this essential adaptability, while his mental agility saves the movie within the movie when he lands on lipsyncing as a way to disguise the fact that Don’s leading lady has the voice of a screech owl.

Cosmo had his own story in Hollywood: during the film he receives two promotions, and innovates new directions in sound design, as well as saving (Don’s) show. (O’Connor of course had a full career both before and after Singin’.) Between the two of them, the sidekick and the protagonist often make up a single complete character in comedy… but that’s a characteristic of stories, not life. And what’s life without a little song and dance?

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KICK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Annie Nocenti on RATSO | Barbara Bogaev on TRIXIE | Sara Ryan on SWIFT WIND | Carlo Rotella on BELT BEARERS | Adam McGovern on JACKIE McGEE | Josh Glenn on RAWHIDE | Gabriela Pedranti on KUILL | Douglas Wolk on VOLSTAGG | Serdar Paktin on CATO | Deirdre Day on TRAMPAS | Dean Haspiel on TIN MAN | Flourish Klink on THE APOSTLE PETER | Miranda Mellis on FAMILIAR | Peggy Nelson on COSMO | Beth Lisick on MARTHA BROOKS | Bishakh Som on CAPTAIN HADDOCK | Stephanie Burt on SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE | Greg Rowland on SPOCK | Adam Netburn on SENKETSU | Mimi Lipson on ROBIN QUIVERS | Jonathan Pinchera on GUTS | Tom Nealon on TWIKI | Mandy Keifetz on DR. EINSTEIN | Judith Zissman on IGNATZ MOUSE | Anthony Miller on DOCTOR GONZO.

MORE ENTHUSIASM at HILOBROW

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Enthusiasms