The absence of Stanley Donen from the In Memoriam reel during Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony has roused more than the usual round of tsk-tsking that always follows each year’s telecast. It’s one thing, albeit a sad thing, to leave out Jonas Mekas,Carol Channing, or Dick Miller. But Donen, who directed or codirected some of the greatest Hollywood musicals ever made and followed up with sophisticated comedies, heart-wrenching romances, and cleverly self-aware thrillers, did as much as anyone to build the dream factory that the Academy was founded to celebrate. He even produced the Oscars broadcast in 1986. Granted, Donen’s passing on Thursday wasn’t officially confirmed until Saturday morning, the day before the awards, but for many, including the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, that’s no excuse. “Ask Steven Spielberg to swing by on Saturday and do a quick cut-and-paste job, and you wouldn’t notice the joins,” he writes. “Forget the target audience, the ratings wobble, the market research: do your duty. Donen was one of the gods, and, if you don’t give thanks when you ought to, you shouldn’t be running the temple.”
Before he was a god, Donen was a kid who spotted a way out of Columbia, South Carolina, when at the age of nine, he saw Flying Down to Rio (1933), featuring the first onscreen pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or be, or be around, or be with, or relate to, or anything,” Donen once recalled. “I just knew that there was something about the magic of the movies and, in particular, Fred Astaire and music that galvanized me.” That quote is pulled from a remembrance in the Guardian by David Thomson, who notes that by the time Donen was sixteen, he was in New York, dancing in the chorus in a production of Pal Joey with Gene Kelly playing the lead.
Donen and Kelly struck up a volatile friendship and a working partnership that led to a few memorable numbers, such as Kelly’s dance with himself in Cover Girl (1944) and his sequence with Jerry, the animated mouse, in Anchors Aweigh (1945), and three unassailable classics. The jubilant On the Town (1949), which follows three sailors (Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin) determined to make the most of their twenty-four-hour leave in New York, actually began as Fancy Free, a 1944 Jerome Robbins ballet with music by Leonard Bernstein. Betty Comden and Adolph Green turned it into a musical, and Donen and Kelly took it out to the streets, making On the Town one of the first musicals shot on real-life—and in this case, exhilaratingly photogenic—locations. In 2012, Victoria Large, writing for Not Coming to a Theater Near You, noted that the sailors’ “love interests are played by some of the most likable and underrated women of MGM’s storied Freed unit: Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, and Betty Garrett. The result is a high-spirited and remarkably fast-paced musical.”