Stanley Donen’s Movie Magic

On Film / The Daily — Feb 26, 2019
Stanley Donen, Cary Grant, and Ingrid Bergman wrap Indiscreet (1958)

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.”

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In Singin’ in the Rain (1952), widely regarded as the greatest of all Hollywood musicals, a silent film star (Kelly), his best friend (Donald O’Connor), and a chorus girl (Debbie Reynolds) save a troubled 1920s-era production by turning it into not just a talkie but—of course!—a Hollywood musical. Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold has pulled up an interview with Donen that appeared in the July/August 1973 issue. “All of us loved movies,” Donen told Stephen Harvey. “That’s the thing about Singin’ in the Rain that I still find nice, that we didn’t look back on the early talkies or silents and say that we were superior to them. We looked back on them with great affection and appreciation.”

For Noel Murray, writing at the Dissolve in 2013, the bittersweet It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), in which three G.I.s (Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd) who got along famously during the Second World War discover, ten years on, how far apart they’ve grown, is the richest of the undeclared trilogy. Musicals “are all about slipping past the part of the audience’s brains devoted to thoughtful analysis, and instead reaching the subconscious, where dreams, childhood memories, and the fundamentals of stimulus and response all mingle,” writes Murray. “The masterstroke of It’s Always Fair Weather is that it uses that particular quality of the musical—the ability to poke at viewers’ most primal instincts—to explore the subtle feeling of disappointment, rather than the broader strokes of joy or sorrow or lust.”

Between these productions, Donen was already striking out on his own. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw argues that he “had an instinctive grasp of how the musical worked when it was muscular and forthright and uninhibited, but also within its own world of mannered artifice. Maybe that was never truer than in Royal Wedding (1951) with Fred Astaire, whose own miraculous lighter-than-air style was different from Kelly’s more visceral approach. This was the movie with Astaire’s dancing-up-the-walls-and-on-to-ceiling scene, a trick shot achieved with a camera fixed into a set within a rotating drum: it was not Donen’s own idea, but he carried it off with aplomb.”

Donen got to work with his idol again on Funny Face (1957), which teamed Astaire, playing a fashion photographer, with Audrey Hepburn as a shy bookshop clerk turned model. Sheila O’Malley recalls the day years ago when Donen visited her class. “During his time with us, he was asked, ‘How do you direct Audrey Hepburn and not fall in love with her?’ He replied, ‘You don’t.’” Donen worked with Hepburn again on Charade (1963), a colorful amalgam of Hitchcockian thriller and screwball romance that pairs Hepburn with Cary Grant. And “they’re both so insanely beautiful,” writes O’Malley. “The film revels in it frankly and with no apology. Why deprive ourselves of enjoying their beauty, or pretend that that’s not what we’re doing? Donen knew what we wanted.” Audiences reciprocated by making Charade Donen’s biggest box-office hit, dethroning his popular 1954 musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

In all, Donen made four films with Cary Grant, including Indiscreet (1958), Grant’s second film with Ingrid Bergman after Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). He plays an American bachelor in London who falls for an actress but staves off commitment by pretending to be married. “Though tedious in its opening reels,” wrote Variety at the time, “the production warms up in direct relation to the heat of the love affair and, in the end, manages to fade out in a blaze of playful merriment.”

By the mid-1960s, Donen was embracing “new narrative styles as the Hollywood director most influenced by the French New Wave,” writes Carrie Rickey at RogerEbert.com. “The director’s third film with Hepburn, Two for the Road (1967), was the best of his career. This bittersweet mosaic of marriage jump-cuts back and forth among four time periods. Hepburn and co-star Albert Finney play the marrieds,” and the film’s “non-chronological narrative, surprising editing, and vulnerable performances still make it a standout in his incredible filmography.”

As a choreographer himself, Donen was an early admirer of Bob Fosse, whom he cast in Give a Girl a Break (1953), hired to choreograph The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees! (1958), and cast again in The Little Prince (1974), a musical adaptation of the beloved children’s tale by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Donen worked with British comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on Bedazzled (1967), “perhaps the nearest anyone came to capturing Cook’s comic inspiration on film,” as Peter Bradshaw suggests. Lucky Lady (1975), starring Liza Minnelli, Gene Hackman, and Burt Reynolds, ran over budget and then flopped, and Movie Movie (1978), a salute to Hollywood’s golden age and a double feature packed into 105 minutes, hardly fared better. In 1984, Donen directed his last feature, Blame It on Rio, in which Michael Caine falls for his friend’s teenage daughter.

Donen spent the following years directing television, theater, and the occasional music video, and in 1997, he received an honorary Academy Award presented by Martin Scorsese. Ever the professional entertainer, Donen meticulously rehearsed his acceptance speech, and even if you’ve seen it again recently, it always rewards another viewing:


Married and divorced five times, Donen settled in with the great comedian, filmmaker, and actress Elaine May in 1999. He liked to joke that he asked her to marry him “about 172 times,” and instead of a wedding ring, May gave him a silver dog tag he often proudly wore at public events. It bore the inscription: “Stanley Donen. If found, please return to Elaine May.”

As Justin Chang writes in his appreciation in the Los Angeles Times, Donen leaves us a filmography full of “boundless pleasures, of ebullient miracles casually and generously given, graced by a sophisticated lightness of touch and a delicate wit that seem to have all but vanished from American movies.”

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