“Make ’Em Laugh” is “100 percent plagiarism”—but the message holds up

“Make ’Em Laugh” is “100 percent plagiarism”—but the message holds up

In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in anticipation of Jersey Boys, we’re picking our favorite songs from musicals.

I shorted myself some of my go-to answers for this prompt in previous Hear This entries, but as I wrote in that “Suddenly Seymour” piece, I’m not one for original cast recordings or big, flashy PBS Broadway revues anyway. My childhood, however, was spent in constant contact with musicals: Soundtracks from The Little Mermaid and The Lion King were staples of afternoon car rides with my mom and younger brother, and my parents and grandparents all passed on an appreciation for the vintage musicals of Hollywood’s studio era. No musical garnered our appreciation like Singin’ In The Rain, which I caught at an early enough age to be both completely turned around by the plot (the transition into “Broadway Melody” was a touch too complicated for my young mind to process) and totally entranced by Donald O’Connor’s solo number, “Make ’Em Laugh.”

Of course, I didn’t know at the time that “Make ’Em Laugh” is a bald-faced copycat of Cole Porter’s “Be A Clown.” (“100 percent plagiarism,” Singin’ In The Rain co-director Stanley Donen reportedly called it.) The message cuts through nonetheless: There are a million things that can drag down a day, an existence, or a film-within-a-film. Learn to laugh some of that off, and the load gets exponentially lighter. On-screen, “Make ’Em Laugh” is most notable for the physically demanding stuff O’Connor does around the melody—slapstick pratfalls, wild mugging, and inventive pantomime with a headless dummy—but that stuff’s all in line with the song and its place in Singin In The Rain. With Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood consumed with finding the chorus girl who got away (Debbie Reynolds), O’Connor’s manic rendition of some re-heated Cole Porter comes in with the comic relief and lifts the film’s spirits. Not that one of the most effortlessly joyful movies ever made needs the lift, but “Make ’Em Laugh” is a toe-tapping reminder that there’s always comfort (and a little bit of Singin’ In The Rain’s favorite quantity, dignity) in a good chuckle. 


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