In Memoriam: Stanley Donen, the Man With the Dancing Camera, 1924-2019

by Yoram Kahana February 25, 2019
Director and producer Stanley Donen

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Stanley Donen, a prolific and popular filmmaker, was never nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe, even though six of the movies he directed (and four of these he has also produced ) were nominated in the Best Motion Picture categories.  Donen was also never nominated for an Oscar, but the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences made amends in 1998, awarding him a lifetime achievement award for “a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation".  Donen stole the show doing a tap routine, and singing "Cheek to Cheek" to his statuette, before delivering an acceptance speech, saying candidly and humorously, what was the essence of his work as  a director: 

"I'm going to let you in on the secret of being a good director," he said. "For the script, you get Larry Gelbart, or Peter Stone, like that. If it's a musical, you get George and Ira Gershwin...or Leonard Bernstein..or Alan Lerner and Fritz Loewe- like that. Then you cast Cary Grant, or Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Rex Harrison, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor or Frank Sinatra- like that. When filming starts, you show up and you stay the hell out of the way".

Donen was born in 1924 to middle-class Jewish parents in Columbia, S.C. where he encountered antisemitism and resented the provincialism. He told a biographer: "It was sleepy. It was awful. I hated growing up there and couldn't wait to get out". As a boy, he studied tap dancing and dabbled in filming. "(My) camera was like a constant companion. It allowed me to withdraw into myself” he said. Donen also collected and studied movies, including, he later said, Fred Astaire's. He spent summers in New York, where his father had an office, attending a dance school and frequenting Broadway shows and musicals. As soon as he graduated high school at 16, Donen got out, moved to New York, landing a job in the chorus of a production of Pal Joey, and started a life long personal and professional association with Gene Kelly, who was the show's star.

Three years later the pair went to Hollywood. Donen started as a $65-a-week dancer and assistant choreographer at MGM on Best Foot Forward (1943). Next Donen and Kelly worked in Columbia Pictures' Cover Girl (1944) and staged the musical numbers in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), which starred Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, and Kelly. Busby Berkeley directed the movie, but Donen and Kelly handled the musical numbers. The success of the film led MGM to give the pair their first directing assignment for the musical On the Town (1949) the story of three sailors on leave in N.Y. (Kelly, Sinatra and Jules Munshin), with music by Leonard Bernstein. It was the first major musical to shoot on location, in New York, away from the Hollywood studio stages and back lots. Its bold location filming techniques wowed audiences and influenced the French New Wave a decade later.

An impressed MGM production chief signed Donen to a seven-year directing contract. His first solo directing job was Royal Wedding (1951) starring Donen's childhood idol, Fred Astaire, and featuring one of the most iconic solo dance numbers in film history, with Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling of his room.

Filmes directed by Stanley Donen

A life in pictures: (left) Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, 1951; (center, from top) directing On The Town, 1949; Charade, 1963 Donen directing Cary Grant on location in Paris; 1967, directing Audrey Hepburn in Two For the Road; (right) Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, Singin' in the Rain, 1952.

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The next year started the string of six movies directed by Donen and nominated for Best Motion Picture Golden Globes:

Singin' in the Rain (1952).  Arguably the best musical ever, and number one on AFI's Best Musicals list, Singin' in the Rain teamed Kelly in the lead as a movie star transitioning from silent films to talkies and Donen directing his friend in perhaps the most famous solo dance routine, with an umbrella on a rainy street. The energetic, optimistic romp fit the zeitgeist, as the American public was getting tired of wars, and peace talks started to wind down the Korean Conflict. Singin' indeed was in order.

Indiscreet (1958) starred Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, in a romantic comedy which Donen also produced. All three - movie, actor and actress- were nominated for Golden Globes but did not win.

Damn Yankees (1958) A musical based on a Broadway play, Yankees is a modern take on the Faust legend, set in the world of American baseball, featuring a fan willing to sell his soul to have his losing team win. The New York Times wrote that Donen's direction had "class, imagination, and verve". Co-directed and co-produced by Donen, it was nominated only for Best Motion Picture-Musical Golden Globe.

The Grass is Greener (1960) was a comedy set and filmed in the U.K., directed and co-produced by Donen. A love triangle involving an English Earl (Cary Grant), a Countess (Deborah Kerr) and an American oil Tycoon who enters their life and castle (Robert Mitchum). It was Donen's first movie to bomb in the domestic box office, yet it was nominated for Best Comedy Golden Globe, and Grant was nominated for his acting.

The Little Prince (1974) produced and directed by Donen, was a fantasy musical based on Antoine de Saint Exupery's classic novella, about a young prince fallen to Earth from an asteroid, and meeting a sage fox here played by Gene Wilder. It was Lerner and Loewe's final musical, and it won them a Globe for Best Score and a nomination for Best Song. It failed commercially, but the HFPA nominated it for Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy, and also singled the young lead, Steven Warner, as Most Promising Newcomer, a discontinued category (and in this case- an unfulfilled prediction).

Movie Movie (1978) produced and directed by Donen, was a complex comedy trifecta, that brought him his last Globe nomination. In 105 minutes it featured three interconnected movie parodies set in the 1930s- a boxing drama, a theater world story, and a trailer, a send-up of Hollywood chestnuts. Its three Globe nominations were Best Motion Picture-Comedy or Musical, Best Actor for George C. Scott, and Harry Hamlin, Best Motion Pictures Acting Debut, another discontinued category.

Donen also directed thrillers like Charade (1963), which received Golden Globe nominations for Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn; dramas like Two for the Road (1967), another Globe nomination for Hepburn, and a music score nomination for composer Henry Mancini; and period pieces, such as Lucky Lady (1975), a Globe nomination for Liza Minnelli. Lucky Lady was a problem-plagued project that failed at the box office, was panned by critics, and damaged Donen's career.

The comedy Blame it on Rio (1984) ended Donen's directing career. It was savagely received by critics (Vincent Canby called it "an unfortunate project. Not simply humorless. It also spreads gloom". Roger Ebert called it "sleaze"). It was the last feature ever directed by "the master of the musical", as Jean Luc Godard called Donen.

If awards rarely came his way, Donen took it philosophically.  “Here it is,” he told The New Yorker in 2003. “As an artist, I aspire to be as remarkable as Leonardo da Vinci. To be fantastic, astonishing, one of a kind. I will never get there. Da Vinci’s the one who stopped time. I just did Singin’ in the Rain. It’s pretty good, yes. It’s better than most, I know. But it still leaves you reaching up.”

R.I.P. Stanely Donen, director extraordinaire, always reaching up, forever dancing and singin' in our collective memory.