Possessed of a natural charm that made human fallibility into a strength, the dictionary-definition character actor Arthur O’Connell (1908-1981) was a reliable screen presence for more than 35 years, and the latter half of that period gave him dozens of opportunities to shine in comedy (Bus Stop, The Great Race), sci-fi/fantasy (7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Fantastic Voyage) and all-star spectaculars (Cimarron, The Great Race, The Poseidon Adventure). He would justifiably earn Academy Award® nominations for his humble, unexciting but reliable small-town tradesman Howard Bevans in Picnic (1955), a role he created in the original Broadway staging, and his Parnell McCarthy, the regularly drunken but again, ultimately reliable, investigator friend of a wily attorney in the scorching murder trial drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959). To mark what would have been his 110th birthday today, three Twilight Time titles graced with his presence are offered as proof of his winning way with a juicy supporting elder-generation role.
Two of them, oddly enough, are nonsinging parts in musicals. O’Connell’s Jed Bruce owns the Kentucky horse farm where visiting big-city juvie nephew Pat Boone and coltish neighbor lady Shirley Jones handle most of the fancy vocalizing in the folksy, outdoorsy Americana yarn April Love (1957). It’s a reluctant arrangement, as the crusty old man is still mourning a son killed in the Korean War, and the initially surly, equine-averse Boone isn’t enthusiastic about his countrified probation. But as his defensiveness lessens with time, O’Connell, along with co-star Jeanette Nolan as his sensible and sensitive spouse, help Boone reach his manly potential with the help of fresh air, a more selfless outlook, the romantic attentions of lovely Jones and Dolores Michaels, and the adrenaline rush of competitive sulky-racing, with expert coaching in its finer points by a reinvigorated Uncle Jed. O’Connell steps out of the pages of Mark Twain as the courtly Missouri gentleman farmer Col. Saul Grangerford, stern father, landowner and slave-holder, who briefly welcomes the fugitive title character to his countryside manor in the Richard B. and Robert M. Sherman’s 1974 musicalization of Huckleberry Finn (the follow-up to the team’s popular Tom Sawyer of the year before). In fact, you might take him for an upstanding pillar of the community until members of a nearby rival clan choose to invade his Sunday sociable (where a few minutes prior, the gathering was raised in holy song with the Shermans’ spiritually-flavored A Rose in a Bible), and prickly patriarch O’Connell brings out the artillery and announces to his young guest (played by Jeff East), “I think you’re man enough to watch me kill some of those Shepherdsons. I think you’re going to enjoy it.” The dandified redneck, with a pistol in one hand and a glass of punch in the other, then proceeds to unleash his inner hillbilly to defend the family honor over an inciting years-ago incident he can’t quite remember. Family stability is also the goal of O’Connell’s harried but loving Southern California father Russell Lawrence, but that’s not an easy proposition because his tomboyish daughter is the inquisitive, surfing-obsessed teenager who’s “the little girl with big ideas” nicknamed Gidget (1959), played by effervescent Sandra Dee. Constantly baffled, befuddled and bewildered by the myriad ways in which his adolescent offspring pursues her dreams of growing up adventurously and learning the tubular skills of the Malibu surf-bum crowd (which includes potential swains James Darren and Cliff Robertson), O’Connell is in his sweet spot as the concerned dad who can’t understand her regular refusals to meet the nice, respectable boy he wants for her. Of course, the young man’s identity is the film’s winning, not-so-surprising reveal. Totally unsurprising are the charm and good humor that birthday honoree O’Connell brings to the widescreen delights April Love, Gidget and the Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn musical double feature discs on TT hi-def Blu-ray.