Remembering Stanley Donen
by Brandon Davis, FRN Film Historian
It’s hard to imagine a director that has provided me more joy than Stanley Donen. When thinking about my list of personal favorite films, Donen’s name permeates the tapestry. This is the man whose celluloid created images include Gene Kelly singing in the rain, Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling, Cary Grant & Audrey Hepburn strolling along the Seine and seven gruff mountain men courting their prospective brides in one of the most invigorating dance numbers ever seen on film.
These four examples only scratch the surface of Donen’s work. He was a master craftsman literally raised on the soundstages of the Hollywood studio system. An artist with a knowing eye and wit that resonated throughout all of work, Donen infused his films with impeccable grace and style that remain fresh up to the present day. His passing last week marked the end of an era, as he seemed to be the last living director from the Golden Age. Yet, the movies he created are good enough to last through the rest of this century and beyond.
Donen is, probably, best remembered for his output of musicals and rightly so. He began his career as a choreographer where he began a professional partnership with Gene Kelly. The two would collaborate on some of the most innovative musical numbers seen throughout the 40s. The highlight of that period for me is fantastic live action/animation mashup of Kelly and Jerry the mouse (of Tom and Jerry fame) in Anchors Aweigh. Filmed 19 years before Mary Poppins, the number incorporated state of the art technology, for the time, to elevate the movie musical.
His directorial debut finally came with On the Town in 1949. He and Kelly create an energetic, fun musical romp with a showcase opening number: New York, New York. It was the first movie musical number to be fully shot on location. The excitement of seeing Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin actually in the Big Apple lends a fresh energy not seen before in the film musical. On the Town would solidify Donen and Kelly as premier directing team, but their greatest success was still to come.
Singin’ in the Rain remains (in this writer’s opinion) the greatest movie musical. While the majority of the credit usually goes to Kelly, Donen’s contributions can’t be denied or undervalued. He keeps the camera moving at just the right times and he knows exactly when to allow the energy on screen just happen. One only has to look at the title number, quite possibly the single most joyous moment in film history. Kelly’s magical performance is made better due to Donen knowing exactly how to setup shots, cutting when he needs to and moving the camera into closeups at just the right moment. He also was able to get a competent and enchanting performance from a very young Debbie Reynolds in her first major movie role.
A year before Rain, Donen finally had an opportunity to make his solo directing debut. It was also an opportunity to direct his childhood idol, Fred Astaire, whom the director always referred to as, “a magical man”. The film was Royal Wedding and allowed Astaire to take chances with two iconic pieces of choreography. The first, being his cruise ship dance with a hat rack as his partner. The second finally confirmed all claims that Astaire could defy gravity when Donen rigged a camera to a rotating room that gives the amazing allusion of Fred dancing on the ceiling. The practical effect wowed audiences in 1951 and still doesn’t date.
Donen’s biggest box office success came in 1954. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was perceived to be a B movie by MGM and kept having its budget sliced in order to further finance the A production of Brigadoon. Donen had the vision to bring in Broadway’s Michael Kidd to choreograph and create one of Hollywood’ most joyful, rollicking musicals. The pure energy and originality of the barn dance sequence remains one of the true treasures of cinema history. Seven Brides ended up making a hefty profit considerably outgrossing Brigadoon and earned a Best Picture nomination at the 1954 Oscars.
By 1955, Donen was widely regarded as the one of the brightest young directors in Hollywood. His relationship with Gene Kelly had, sadly, hardened over the years and Donen was eager to break away from the partnership. Their last film together, the vastly underrated It’s Always Fair Weather, would be the final straw in the partnership and they would acrimonious go their separate ways. In later years, they would finally give each other the credit each deserved for their role in the creation of their films.
Donen would make one last great musical in 1957. Funny Face would reunite him with Fred Astaire and mark the first time he would work the Audrey Hepburn. The elegance of the two starts along with the setting of Paris and music of Gershwin would create one of the most charming and visually stunning Hollywood musicals of the decade. Yet, times were changing and the movie musical was going our of favor with the public. Donen would successfully move into an era of directing non-musical films. He created a production company with Cary Grant that produced two wonderful witty romantic comedies: Indiscreet with Grant and Ingrid Bergman and The Grass is Greener with Grant, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.
The Hitchcock style was the focus of Donen’s next project, Charade, one of my personal favorites. With a screenplay by Peter Stone and a score by Henry Mancini, the film features Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn at the center of a murder mystery in Paris. Donen fills the screen with romance, suspense, plot twists and plenty of witty dialogue that is still laugh-out-loud funny. For any film fan, this movie is a gem that must be experienced.
Donen’s later career was somewhat hit or miss. He had successes with projects like Bedazzled, Arabesque and Movie, Movie. The highlight would be 1967’s Two For the Road, one of the most original love stories ever to be seen on the screen. The story focuses on the relationship and travels between Audrey Hepburn and ,the recently departed, Albert Finney. It tracks their characters’ courtship and marriage in a non-linear, back and forth style that was jarring to audiences of the time but feels fresh-as-ever now.
In his later years, Donen became a sage advisor to the next generation of Hollywood directors and was a consistent guest at film festivals and ceremonies. In 1998, he stole the show at the 70th Annual Academy Awards when he was presented with an Honorary Oscar by Martin Scorsese. Donen sand and tapped to “Cheek to Cheek” during his acceptance speech which brought the house of Hollywood heavyweights down.
Stanley Donen never had as big of a name as Hitchcock, Ford, Wilder or Capra. Yet, his body of work speaks for itself and leaves a legacy of joy and artistry that few directors can match. Here's hoping the next generation of filmmakers will study and learn from his example and bring us films that will forever give us that glorious “glorious feeling“.
Brandon enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the founding members of the Front Row all the way back when it was just a mere blog. His intense love of classic cinema and film history made him the obvious choice to be named the official film historian of The Front Row.