Without a doubt, Singin’ In The Rain (1952) is in my Top 10 Films of All Time. 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) and 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 is also associated with Cary Grant, the made four films together: Kiss Them For Me (1957), Indiscreet (1958), The Grass Is Greener (1960) and Charade, also starring Hepburn (1963). 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. Flying Down To Rio starred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, ironic because 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 only second directorial offering.
His big break came when he was a teenager in New York City and cast in the chorus of the Rodgers and 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. He was just 19-years-old. He continued to choreograph for MGM’s legendary Arthur Freed Unit, which specialized in 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.
Singin’ In The Rain (1952), is the perfect movie musical, a daydream that acts as a love letter and zany satire of the awkward years when Hollywood transitioned from silent movies to talkies. Starring 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.
Donen’s relationship with Kelly deteriorated in 1955 during their final collaboration on It’s Always Fair Weather.
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers had nothing to do with Kelly. Produced by the Freed Unit and were both 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 Michael 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 influential comedic thriller Charade (1963) and the bitter romance Two For The Road (1967) with the late Albert Finney. Charade with Grant and 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 on 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 his 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 on Saturday.