Stanley Donen, 1924–2019

In the clip above, from the 1998 Oscars, Martin Scorsese presents that year’s winner of the Honorary Academy Award, Stanley Donen. There’s a lovely montage featuring some of the best scenes from Donen’s movies and then the man himself steps out, receives his Oscar and goes on to sing and dance! One of the best acceptance speeches you can get for sure. A few days ago he passed away at the age of 94. 

Born in South Carolina, Stanley Donen grew up on movies and fell in love with Flying Down to Rio (1933), a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical that became his escape, a “happy place”, away from bullies. He started making his own movies at home as a kid and took dancing lessons, even taking instructions in New York from the man who once  taught Astaire how to dance. Eventually, Donen became a chorus dancer on Broadway and that’s where he met the man who would become his most important partner in work – Gene Kelly.

Donen became a choreographer, first on Broadway, then in Hollywood, signing up for MGM. That’s where he started working with Kelly again and they collaborated on the choreography for Cover Girl (1944). The clip above shows the famous “Alter Ego” sequence, which helped make Kelly a huge star and made sure Donen would find more work in musicals. This was the birth of what later critics would call “cine-dance”, meaning musicals that weren’t stage-bound but depended on the cinematic art.

In 1949 the chance to direct a film together came up for Donen and Kelly. The result became a true Hollywood classic, On the Town, that features vivid musical numbers, some of them shot on the streets of New York rather than on a stage. Donen thought he and Kelly complemented each other well (Kelly was responsible for the dance sequences, Donen for dramatic and musical scenes) and the film was a huge hit. After that, Donen was given the chance to direct none other than Fred Astaire, most memorably in Royal Wedding (1951).

In 1952, Donen and Kelly reunited for what would become their most famous movie together, and an immortal classic. That was Singin’ in the Rain, but it wasn’t a huge commercial or critical hit at the time, its reputation growing first after a decade or so. It’s hard to imagine failing to see how brilliant the movie is, the title number above being just one of many outstanding moments. 

In the following years, Donen made another musical that has become a very popular classic, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and his last directorial collaboration with Gene Kelly would be the musical It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). He left MGM in the mid-1950s, went to work for other studios and became an independent producer, making primarily lush comedies and musicals. One of his most talked about films at this time was Indiscreet (1958) where he came up with a clever way to film Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in bed together, even though the Production Code wouldn’t allow it. Take a look at the split-screen solution above.

Stanley Donen spent his 1960s in England; he was getting a bit tired of Hollywood and found Europe an inspiring place. He made mostly comedies and his most famous film from this era was Charade (1963), a Hitchcock homage starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn (watch the clip above). Elegant, fun and exciting, with a great music score, the film inspired many other romantic comedy-thrillers. His other memorable film from the 1960s was Two for the Road (1967), a comedy-drama starring Hepburn and Albert Finney, that was praised for its editing and perhaps reflected a more personal touch from a director who went through five marriages in his life.

Donen moved back to Hollywood in 1970, but the films he made after that were all critical and commercial flops. His last theatrical film was Blame It on Rio (1984), starring Michael Caine. It wasn’t very good, but at least made some money. 

Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen would later in life disagree on the merits of what they did together, and many critics also discussed it. Were they equals? What exactly was Donen’s contribution? But considering how many filmmakers have expressed admiration for Donen’s craft, from Chaplin to Scorsese, there’s no doubt that Stanley Donen made an immortal impact on the history of screen musicals.

After the news of Donen’s death, Steven Spielberg called him a “friend and early mentor” in a statement. Guillermo del Toro praised him on Twitter:

And so did Mitzi Gaynor, who worked with Donen:

What do you think?

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