Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Late Great Stanley Donen

Every classic film buff has his or her favourite directors. Among mine numbers Stanley Donen. Both with Gene Kelly and on his own, Mr. Donen directed some of my favourite movies: Singin' in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Charade (1963), and Bedazzled (1967).  And while he directed some of the greatest movie musicals in film history, Stanley Donen was versatile. Over the years he directed everything from comedies (such as The Grass is Greener) to dramas (Two for the Road). Stanley Donen died on Feburary 21 2019 at the age of 94.

Stanley Donen was born on April 13 1924 in Columbia, South Carolina. Young Mr. Donen faced anti-Semitism growing up and found refuge in movie theatres. Among the films to have an impact on him in his childhood was Flying Down to Rio (1933) . In an interview he said that he must have seen it thirty or forty times. His love of the film would lead him to take dance lessons and he would even perform at the Town Theatre in Columbia. While on summer vacations he would visit New York City where he also took dance lessons and watched various Broadway musicals. Mr. Donen graduated high school when he was 16 and then enrolled at the University of South Carolina for a single, summer semester.

His mother encouraged him to pursue his dreams of being a dancer, and so he moved to New York City. There he made his Broadway debut in Pal Joey (1940) as one of the dancers. It was there that he met the man who would be his frequent collaborator, Gene Kelly. Stanley Donen then appeared in Best Foot Forward on Broadway, on which he served as assistant stage manager. MGM bought the rights to Best Foot Forward and Stanley Donen appeared in a small role in the 1943 film adaptation and served as an assistant to dance director Jack Donohue. Stanley Donen moved to Hollywood and it was there that he resumed his friendship with Gene Kelly. Over the next few years Stanley Donen would serve as assistant choreographer on Cover Girl (1944) and Hey, Rookie (1944), and as a choreographer on Jam Session (1944), Kansas City Kitty (1945),  Holiday in Mexico (1946), No Leave, No Love (1946), This Time for Keeps (1947), Killer McCoy (1947), Big City (1948), A Date with Judy (1948), The Kissing Bandit (1948), and Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949, with Gene Kelly). He was an assistant choreographer to Gene Kelly on Anchors Aweigh (1945). He made his directorial debut in 1949 with Anchors Aweigh, co-directing with Gene Kelly.

In the Fifties, as directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly would collaborate on the movies Singin' in the Rain (1952) and It's Always Fair Weather. Over time Messrs. Donen and Kelly's relationship deteriorated and It's Always Fair Weather would be their last collaboration. The first movie Stanley Donen directed on his own was the classic Royal Wedding (1951). He would also direct one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). In the Fifties, Mr. Donen would direct the films Love is Better Than Ever (1952), Fearless Fagan (1952), Give a Girl a Break (1953), Deep in My Heart (1954), Funny Face (1957), The Pajama Game (1957), Kiss Them for Me (1957), Indiscreet (1958), Damn Yankees (1958), Once More with Feeling! (1960), Surprise Package (1960), and The Grass is Greener (1960). 

Stanley Donen would continue to have a successful career into the Sixties as he expanded from musicals into other film genres. He directed the comedy thriller Charade (1963), the drama Two for the Road (1967), and the comedy Bedazzled (1967). He also directed the films Arabesque (1966) and Staircase (1969). The Seventies would see Mr. Donen direct the films The Little Prince (1974), Lucky Lady (1975), Movie Movie (1978), and Saturn 3 (1980). Mr. Donen directed a musical sequence for the 1986 Moonlighting episode "Big Man on Mulberry St." He also produced the 58th Annual Academy Awards in 1986. It was also in the Eighties that he taught a seminar on film musicals at the Sundance Institute. His last directorial work would be the made-for-TV film Love Letters in 1999.

Stanley Donen was one of the first director of whom I was actually aware. I saw both Singin' in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers while I was very young and I fell in love with both of them. Over time I would see the other films in his oeuvre. While I cannot say I love very film Mr. Donen ever directed (Saturn 3 is not a particularly good film), I love most of them. And there are many that I would count among the greatest films ever made, including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin' in the Rain, On the Town, Royal Wedding, Charade, and Bedazzled.

Of course, there have always been questions about how much Stanley Donen contributed to the films on which he collaborated with Gene Kelly. There are those who have diminished his contributions to those films. My own thought is that his contributions were probably far greater than many might realise. While I am a huge Gene Kelly fan, I think Stanley Donen's solo work was far superior to Gene Kelly's solo work. While Mr. Kelly directed many fine films, he directed nothing on his own to match the quality of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, let alone Royal Wedding or Charade. While I do not wish to diminish Gene Kelly's contributions to On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, and It's Always Fair Weather, given the respective solo work of the two men, I think Stanley Donen had considerable input into the films they made together.

Indeed, Stanley Donen made some very strong films. Regardless of the genre, most of his films are characterised by strong stories, strong performances, and some very solid direction. I think one would be hard put to find better movies than Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Charade. As to why Mr. Donen was such a good director, I think it comes down to the fact that he was a born entertainer.  His acceptance speech for his honorary Oscar in 1998 is my all time favourite Oscar moment. He did a soft shoe and delivered a speech filled with humour and wit. It actually makes me wonder how great Mr. Donen would have been had he chosen to pursue a career in front of the camera. Stanley Donen had a gift for knowing what people would find entertaining and for being able to create great films. He leaves behind a body of work that few directors could ever match.

1 comment:

Dennis Bedard said...

Thanks for the bio. Lucky Lady was a great movie with the comic tension between Reynolds and Hackman.