Stanley Donen (13 April 1924 – 23 February 2019)
Though Stanley Donen decided at a young age to be an atheist, his Jewish heritage often led to his being bullied by anti-Semites when he was a child. To escape this unwanted attention he went to the movies, and though he liked Westerns, comedies and thrillers, it was Flying Down to Rio (1935) that had the most effect on him. He took dance lessons soon after, and though he had a brief flirtation with studying psychology, he moved from his home town of Columbia, South Carolina to New York City in 1940 to pursue a career as a dancer. He soon secured a role in the original stage production of Pal Joey; the star was a talented dancer and actor called Gene Kelly. It wasn’t long before Kelly asked Donen to be his assistant choreographer, and when both men wound up in Hollywood in the early Forties, Donen worked as a choreographer, often on the movies Kelly was making. It was during this period that Donen came up with two dance sequences that helped cement Kelly’s reputation, and Donen’s own: the dance routine in Cover Girl (1944) where Kelly’s reflection jumps out of a mirror and dances with him, and perhaps one of the most famous dance routines of all, when Kelly dances with the cartoon mouse, Jerry, in Anchors Aweigh (1945).
Donen continued to perfect his knowledge of music and sound and photography, and in 1949 he was given the chance to co-direct a movie with Kelly. The result was an instant classic, On the Town. The movie was innovative in its use of location photography in a musical, and for the way in which its New York, New York sequence was edited. The movie won that year’s Best Picture award at the Oscars, and Donen’s reputation (as a director now) was secured. The Fifties saw Donen work on a number of high profile musicals, and in 1952 he reunited with Kelly for another instant classic, Singin’ in the Rain (though it didn’t receive the best notices at the time). Further success with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers actually placed Donen on a better footing within Hollywood than Kelly, and though they worked again on It’s Always Fair Weather, their relationship deteriorated, and working together was described by Donen as a “one hundred percent nightmare”. The movie was the last production he worked on exclusively under his contract with MGM, and in 1957 he became an independent director and producer, and formed Grandon Productions along with Cary Grant.
The Sixties saw Donen working and living in the UK, and switching from musicals, which were waning in terms of public popularity, to comedies and romantic comedy thrillers. Donen continued to be successful, both with audiences and critics, and he found working away from Hollywood to be something of a relief, so much so that his work during this period, particularly on Two for the Road, showed a director displaying supreme confidence in the materiel he was working with. He returned to Hollywood in 1970, but that decade saw him release just three movies, none of which were successful, and as time went on he worked less and less, until he made his last theatrical movie in 1984, Blame It on Rio. Donen’s career as a director spanned fifty years in total, but it will be the musicals he made in the Fifties and the comedies he made in the Sixties that he will be remembered for chiefly. His contributions to the movie musical form were invaluable in terms of what musicals could achieve by breaking away from the stagebound environment that had been the norm until On the Town. Innovative, ground-breaking, breathtaking – his work during the Fifties was all this and more, but it was the way in which he “re-invented” his career in the Sixties that was just as remarkable. If he fell out of favour later in his career, he wouldn’t be the first. But what he gave us will always endure, because what he gave us was a new way of looking at musicals that continues to inspire movie makers today – and the world over.
1 – On the Town (1949)
2 – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
3 – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
4 – It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
5 – The Pajama Game (1957)
6 – Funny Face (1957)
7 – Charade (1963)
8 – Arabesque (1966)
9 – Two for the Road (1967)
10 – Bedazzled (1967)