We were supposed to be sitting in the Dominion Cinema in Morningside watching the new release of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. The ticket man looked duly downcast on our behalf when he told us he had no record of our online booking and that it was a full house. “Shall we go for coffee?” A. suggested. Too cold; I told her I just needed to go somewhere warm and cosy. “Home, so,” she announced, “we’ll find something on Netflix.”
Half an hour later we were drinking tea, eating Green & Blacks, and sharing the TV blanket, happy as worms in a compost heap, while we watched ‘La La Land’. “He’s no Gene Kelly,” A. said as they danced that lovely scene looking over the L.A. valley at sunset. “Never mind Gene Kelly, he’s no Donald O’Connor!” “Donald O’Connor? Remind me?” said A., pausing the film. Ah, the beauty of watching at home, we would not be pausing for chats in the Dominion! I reminded her. Donald O’Connor was Gene Kelly’s sidekick in the film, ‘Singing In The Rain’. He was the one who sang the number ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ – appearing to have springs in his feet and an elastic face. We all know the iconic scene in the movie when Gene Kelly dances through puddles, pirouettes with his brolly, giggles under a flooding downpipe, and is finally chastised by a surly policeman and hastened home. For me, though, the stand out scene in ‘Singing In The Rain’ has always been Donald O’Connor’s magical slapstick in ‘Make ’em Laugh’. There’s a set piece where he gets tangled up with his own feet and cannot stand up – it is mesmerizing to watch, and if it doesn’t make you laugh, it’ll make you smile. So if you’re wasting time watching cute cat videos on YouTube, you could do worse than give Donald O’Connor four minutes of your Monday. Eclipsed by Gene Kelly’s routine, Donald O’Connor played a solid second fiddle to the big star of the day, but he did so magnificently.
Consider how difficult it must be to be either of the Yorkshire Brownlee brothers – Alistair and Jonny? They won gold and silver in the 2016 Olympic Games. Famous triathletes, and famously competitive, one must always play second fiddle to the other. However, never were the brothers so prized and bathed in public acclaim as on the occasion when one helped the other over the finish line. Alistair forfeited his chance of winning the world triathlon series in Mexico last year as he propped up Jonny, whose legs had turned to jelly with 20 metres to go. This act of brotherly comradeship flew in the face of blind competition and they made more headlines, and created a bigger fanbase than ever before.
Playing second fiddle doesn’t mean you’re destined to play the role forever, though. In 1963, The Beatles were a support act for Roy Orbison. That second billing didn’t last for long. Take Betty Ford, the supporting First Lady to her husband, Gerald Ford, President of the United States (1974-1977). She has now, arguably, left a more lasting legacy that of her (at the time) much more important husband. She was forthright in talking about illness (cancer) and addiction (alcohol) at a time when public figures didn’t go anywhere near such taboo issues. Her name is now synonymous with positive alcohol and drug treatment.
And then there are those, no matter what, who refuse to play second fiddle. I once attended a large dinner party where the Professor’s wife had managed to roll out a spectacular feast for 24 people. Her cooking and hospitality were phenomenal. At the end of the meal, the Prof. stood up with a flourish, took coffee orders, and, without a shred of shame or conscience, told his guests, “it is getting the coffee orders right at the end of dinner that’s the most difficult and important element of a dinner party.” I’m quite sure it wasn’t just me who squirmed awkwardly at his wife’s bowed head.
Back in ‘La La Land’, it turned there was a gap in the orchestra, and nobody was playing second fiddle. The main characters decided to sacrifice love in order to pursue their respective and divergent paths to success. There is a beautifully inconclusive and non-didactic ending that allows the viewer to decide whether or not dropping the role of second fiddle was the right decision for them.
Don’t worry about playing second fiddle – your day will come. Even if it doesn’t, you can be sure people are noticing your very marvellous support act.