Been There, Donen That: A Salute to Stanley

The films of director Stanley DonenFor me directing is like having sex: when it’s good, it’s very good; but when it’s bad, it’s still good.

Stanley Donen

It’s hard to believe, but the man who brought music and comedy and dancing to the big screen with such flair is still kicking it big as he turn 90 years old this month.

The man is Stanley Donen. His name has been synonymous with musicals– and with good reason.

Among his credits as a director or co-director are such greats as Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town, It’s Always Fair Weather, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Pajama Game, Funny Face, Damn Yankees and more.  

But while Donen—who often collaborated with mentor Gene Kelly early in his career—is considered, first and foremost, a musical filmmaker, he’s worked in other genres as well, from romantic comedy to science fiction, from sex farce to thriller.

In 1998, when Donen won a special Academy Award for “appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation,” the then-74-year-old wowed everyone by ably singing and agilely tap dancing to Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” then thanking many of his collaborators who helped him, and downplayed his achievements by saying all you have to do is “show up and stay the hell out of the way.”

Donen may have done that during his career, but it’s likely he did a whole lot more, too.

Born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina where he took dance lessons at an early age, Donen became infatuated with movies. He decided to make a go of it in musicals after being overwhelmed by the dancing in Flying Down to Rio, the first Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers screen teaming.

A 17-year-old Donen headed to New York looking for Broadway work, eventually landing a gig in the choruses of the musicals “Pal Joey,” starring Kelly, and “Best Foot Forward.” At the age of 19, he high-tailed to Hollywood, where MGM put him in the film version of Best Foot Forward, playing a cadet in the chorus. The studio thereafter assigned him to the famous Arthur Freed Unit, where he worked as a dance coordinator for several films, including Anchors Aweigh, in which Kelly notably danced with the animated Jerry the Mouse of Tom & Jerry fame.

Donen and Kelly first split directing duties with On the Town (1949), in which Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin play three sailors who have a glorious 24-hour leave throughout New York City. The film is notable for Donen’s energetic style and location sequences at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridges and Rockefeller Center—a rarity for its time.

Donen rode solo next with Royal Wedding (1951), which teamed Fred Astaire and Jane Powell as a sibling dance team in London during the royal nuptials, and featured Fred’s now-famous “dancing on the ceiling” routine.  He followed with Love is Better Than Ever (1952), a comedy with some music, which showcased Larry Parks as a big-shot agent who falls for small-town dancer Elizabeth Taylor. Parks was blacklisted between the picture’s completion and its release, and Love is Better Than Ever turned out to be a box-office disappointment. Donen, newly divorced from dancer Jeanne Coyne, managed to have an affair with teenage leading lady Liz just before she married Michael Wilding. (It’s notable that Coyne got remarried in 1960—to Gene Kelly).

Gene and Stanley got back together for another musical, one that didn’t fare too well at the box-office, either—a surprise, in retrospect.

Using songs already in the MGM and Arthur Freed catalog (with lyrics by Freed and music by Nacio Herb Brown) and centering on the early days of sound pictures, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) received mixed reviews and so-so returns; but it is now considered one of the greatest musicals—and movies!—of all time. As New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther noted in his review of the film, which opened as part of Radio City Music Hall’s big Easter show: “Spring came with a fresh and cheerful splatter to the Music Hall yesterday with the arrival of Metro’s new musical, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’…

“Compounded generously of music, dance, color, spectacle and a riotous abundance of Gene Kelly, Jean Hagen and Donald O’Connor on the screen, all elements in this rainbow program are carefully contrived and guaranteed to lift the dolors of winter and put you in a buttercup mood.”

Donen’s next two efforts—the comedy Fearless Fagan (1952), with Janet Leigh and a pet lion, and Give a Girl a Break (1953), with Debbie Reynolds and dancers Gower and Marge Champion, didn’t quite click with audiences.   

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers directed by director Stanley DonenHis following assignment, however, surely did: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), a musical written for the big screen based on a Stephen Vincent Benet story. Set in Oregon Territory in the 1850s, the film stars Howard Keel as the oldest of seven brothers, a macho mountain man who gets hitched to charismatic town girl Jane Powell without really knowing her. Turns out that the siblings want to get married, too, but first Jane needs to teach them manners and how to treat a lady.

With color bursting throughout its Cinemascope presentation, Seven Brides offered such songs as “Sobbin’ Women,” “Going Courtin’,” “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” and “Wonderful, Wonderful Day,” penned by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul; and exuberant dance numbers choreographed by Michael Kidd. The picture bested the Keel-starring Kismet, MGM’s favored musical of the year, in terms of fine reviews and business. It still enthralls audiences today–if they can overlook some of its un-PC elements.           

Donen’s next effort was Deep in My Heart (1954), a musical biography of composer Sigmund Romberg. The film offered Jose Ferrer in the lead and an all-star cast performing the composer’s works, plus Paul Henried and Walter Pidgeon as theater impresarios Flo Ziegfeld and J.J. Shubert, respectively.

Donen and Kelly got back together one more time with It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), in which Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd played GIs reuniting ten years after last seeing each other.

Over the balance of the Eisenhower era, Donen would successfully tackle other musicals, including the high fashion industry-set Funny Face (1957), with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn; the low fashion industry-set The Pajama Game (1957), starring Doris Day and John Raitt; and the baseball fantasy Damn Yankees! (1958), with Tab Hunter, Ray Walston and Gwen Verdon. After that, Donen shied away from screen musicals until The Little Prince (1974).

Donen–who relocated to England in 1960, and counts actress Yvette Mimieux among his five marriages—decided to remake his career sans choreography and big musical numbers, in a number of different genres.

“You see, it took me so long, it was such a struggle, to move myself out of musicals – because I had had a success, nobody wanted to allow me to direct a non-musical picture,” he recalled in an interview. “It was so hard. And the only way I could get it going was to become a producer myself.”

Indiscreet starring Cary Grant and Ingrid BergmanHis self-produced efforts would include Indiscreet (1958), a top-flight romance centering on diplomat Cary Grant and actress Ingrid Bergman; The Grass is Greener (1960), a farce with Grant and Deborah Kerr as a married couple with money trouble allowing tourists to check out their British estate, as wealthy Robert Mitchum checks out Kerr; and Two for the Road (1967), a bittersweet look at a crumbling marriage between Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.

There were also thrillers like the Hitchockian Charade (1963), teaming Hepburn and Grant, and the underrated Arabesque (1966), with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren.

Then there is the Faustian farce Bedazzled (1967), starring Raquel Welch and the British comedy team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, which became a big cult item.

Of course, not all of Donen’s projects were hits, particularly in the last decade he directed pictures. Besides the fizzle of the aforementioned Little Prince, there was the beautiful but tepid adventure/love triangle saga Lucky Lady (1975), a major bomb for two studios starring Burt Reynolds, Gene Hackman and Liza Minnelli.

Staircase (1969), Donen’s portrait of a long-term liaison between British hairdressers Rex Harrison and Richard Burton—Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony in an earlier incarnation—was a major flop, as was his sci-fi effort Saturn 3 (1980), a space yarn with Kirk Douglas and Farah Fawcett that Donen was pulled in to direct at the last minute. Although the retro double feature Movie Movie (1978), with George C. Scott in two roles, was refreshingly nostalgic and inventive, there was no great reception.     

In a whole other category is Blame It on Rio (1984), co-written by Larry Gelbart, a saucy (some would say “smarmy”) sex farce in which middle-aged Michael Caine takes a liking to Michelle Williams, the sexy teenage girlfriend of daughter Demi Moore, while on a South American vacation. Although a flop in theaters, the film became a big video and cable hit, thanks in part to Ms. Williams’ nude scenes.

After a long absence from helming musicals, Donen directed Lionel Ritchie’s much-talked-about 1986 video of “Dancing on the Ceiling,” in which the singer reenacted Fred Astaire’s upside down footwork from Royal Wedding.

Except for some TV work (including a 1999 adaptation of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters”), Donen remained pretty low-profile after his last feature. But in December 2013, he, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May organized a table meeting for a film about Hollywood which drew the likes of Christopher Walken, Ron Rifkin and Charles Grodin. The idea is to have Donen come out of retirement at age 90 to direct the picture.

He must miss the sex.