April 13, 1924 – Stanley Donen:
“Sound was still a fairly new thing when I came into movies. And the reason musicals happened is because of sound. They could put music in the picture! That’s how it all began.”
Without a doubt, Singin’ In The Rain (1952) is in my Top 10 Films of All Time. I think it a perfect movie musical and one of the greatest films about making films.
Dancer/choreographer Stanley Donen was the co-director (along with Gene Kelly) of that classic film and other outstanding movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was a gigantic, if underappreciated talent.
On The Town (1949) was his first film (Kelly as co-director). It starred Kelly, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin and Frank Sinatra. His other film musicals include Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), Funny Face (1957), starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, and Take Me Out To The Ball Game, starring Kelly, Sinatra, and Esther Williams (1949).
Donen’s work is also associated with Cary Grant. They made four films together: Kiss Them For Me (1957), Indiscreet (1958), The Grass Is Greener (1960), plus Charade (1963), also starring Hepburn. His last film was the sex comedy Blame It On Rio (1984) with Michael Caine and Demi Moore, which flopped, but didn’t seem to kill anyone’s career but Donen’s.
Born in South Carolina in 1924, Donen said that he was inspired by the musicals of the 1930s, especially Flying Down To Rio (1933), which is not a prequel to Blame It On Rio. The breezy, sparkling, delightful Flying Down To Rio starred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He went on to direct Astaire in one of his greatest numbers, the one where he dances on the ceiling and walls in Royal Wedding (1951). It was only Donen’s second directorial offering.
His big break came when he was a teenager in New York City and cast in the chorus of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical Pal Joey in 1940, starring Kelly. He impressed Kelly, who hired Donen as his assistant choreographer on the Broadway musical Best Foot Forward (1941). He then took Donen with him to Hollywood when MGM bought the film rights to Best Foot Forward. Donen was just 19 years old. He continued to choreograph for MGM’s legendary Arthur Freed Unit, which produces most of the studio’s terrific musicals.
On The Town, about a trio of sailors who have a day of shore leave in New York City, is most famous now for the three days of actual location-shooting they did in Manhattan, including on the Empire State Building. This was an era when musicals were shot on sound stages. His direction was revolutionary.
Singin’ In The Rain (1952), a daydream that acts as a love letter, and zany satire of the awkward years when Hollywood transitioned from silent movies to talkies, stars Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor. It used classic 1920s-era songs written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, immortalized them in moments such as Kelly splashing around in puddles and jumping on street lamps in the title song. Don Lockwood (Kelly) is in love as no other person has ever been in love. He steps out the door and it’s raining but he’s oblivious to the rain. Who needs an umbrella when you’ve got wings on your feet and in your heart? It may be the single finest scene in the history of cinema. Leggy Cyd Charisse is featured. Before this film, Charisse had appeared in films as a “dance specialty” or as a supporting player since her arrival at MGM in 1944. Her torrid performance as a Louise Brooks-like vamp in the Broadway Ballet was so astonishing that producer Freed was moved to elevate her to star status.
Film technology is the hinge of the plot. The climax is decided by the advent of synchronized sound in the film industry. Studio head R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) demonstrates sound films at the party where Kelly sees Reynolds for the second time, providing two big turning points at once. There are sequences of actors with diction coaches, just as it happened in reality once sound was introduced in films, and some actor’s careers were jeopardized by having to suddenly master a new skill.
But Singin’ In The Rain is about technology on another level, too. Kelly and Donen go to great lengths to ensure that the film is an example of state-of-the-art film technology in 1952. The beautiful Technicolor cinematography is emphasized by the fabulously colorful costumes and production design–they’re showing off cutting edge color. The sound is as good as it could be in 1952, and the fact that this is a musical helps show that off. The sets and effects are complex and an attempt is made to show them off to best advantage also.
Donen and Kelly play up the artificiality of the sets and effects to emphasize artistry and technology. This is clearly shown in the Make ‘Em Laugh sequence and the extended scene with Charisse. Showing off this artistry is very subtle in the rain sequence. Even today, rain machines are frequently employed in a way that it appears to be raining on film, but in reality, it’s just enough coverage to produce the illusion. In Singin’ In The Rain sequence, Donen made sure that you can see the whole area is getting flooded, and they use Kelly’s umbrella, as torrents of water bounce off of it, to emphasize that no matter where he goes, rain is pouring down on him.
Donen’s relationship with Kelly deteriorated in 1955 during their final collaboration on It’s Always Fair Weather. The picture was a financial disappointment. Probably the original Hollywood musical had begun to lose its box-office clout around 1955. It’s Always Fair Weather grossed $1,380,000, resulting in a net loss of $1,675,000 for MGM. The studio did not release it with its usual publicity blitz. It was inexplicably released as a drive-in double feature with Bad Day At Black Rock (1955). Audiences were not expecting a MGM musical with such a downbeat theme.
The story is a rather dark one of three GI’s coming home from the war, vowing a loyal, buddy-buddy reunion, then, upon reuniting years later, realizing they have outgrown one another and have virtually nothing in common.
This film should be seen for Kelly’s dance on roller skates to I Like Me a terrific song written by André Previn, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Kelly had been searching for just the right opportunity to dance on skates in a film for years. Comden wrote she lived close to Kelly in Beverly Hills and that he had purchased skates at a hardware store near-by and that she’d watched Kelly take his daughter skating many times. It’s not a stretch that Kelly spent a lot of hours imagining just where and when he’d do a roller skating number. To demonstrate that the skates were authentic, Kelly swaps flawlessly from “tap” to “glide” at the end of each take.
It’s Always Fair Weather is worth seeing for being one of the last studio movie musicals of its kind. There is also a very robust and creative “trash can lids” number featuring Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd. With a trash can lid stuck to one foot, the trio bounce up and down a street while still in uniform. Watching Kelly teamed with Dailey and Kidd, the only time the three great dancers appeared together, is enjoyable. It remains underrated and serves as one of the final signs of the demise of the great original movie musical.
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers had nothing to do with Kelly. Produced by the Freed Unit, both films were directed by Donen. It was a movie he didn’t even want to make, and then insisted if he did there would be very little dancing. Instead he wound up helping Kidd choreograph and shoot the greatest dance scene in history.
After directing Hepburn in her first musical, Funny Face, he directed her in two of the best films of her career, the thriller/comedy Charade (1963) and the bitter romance Two For The Road (1967) with the late Albert Finney. Charade, with Grant, is about the un-grieving widow of a dead man whose old business partners stalk Hepburn for some hidden treasure before they all start dying themselves. Through nonlinear storytelling, Two For The Road is a love story about two drifters who deal with cynicism, suspicion, and adultery during one of their annual road trips around Europe.
Donen’s success started to slip in the 1970s. He directed Bob Fosse in The Little Prince (1974), which inspired Michael Jackson‘s own choreography.
Donen never received an Academy Award nomination, a shame only slightly righted when he received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1998. The award was presented to him by Donen fan Martin Scorsese. In his speech, Donen quoted Irving Berlin‘s Cheek To Cheek, which Astaire sang in Top Hat (1935):
“Heaven, I’m in in Heaven, any my heart beats so that I can hardly speak.“
“Once upon a time, a lonely boy in South Carolina was sparked by the wonder of movies, captivated by everything from cowboys to comedians to movie monsters. And then I saw Flying Down To Rio, and it changed my life. It just seemed wonderful, and my life wasn’t wonderful. The joy of dancing to music! And Fred was so amazing, and Ginger – Oh, God! Ginger!“
After Donen’s first marriage ended in divorce, Kelly married Donen’s ex-wife, Jeanne Coyne. Donen was married five times and had an affair with Elizabeth Taylor. In later years he was “happily unmarried” to the great actor/director/writer Elaine May.
Donen was 94 years old when his final credits rolled in February 2019.