Stanley Donen 1924 to 2019

I should apologise to Donen fans for this delayed tribute to an important director. My practice is to study the list of obituaries in Sight & Sound and pick out those I would particular like to honour and remember. This year my study of this resource has itself been delayed.

Stanley Donen moved from Broadway production to Hollywood’s M-G-M as a choreographer. Here he teamed up with Gene Kelly with whom he had worked on the Broadway production of Pal Joey. The duo choreographed a number of dances in the excellent Anchors Away (1945). And, in 1949, they teamed up to co-direct the now classic On the Town (1949).

This is one of the great Hollywood musicals and a film that pioneered the move to location shooting. The opening ‘New York New York’ sequence is a memorable number and, when in New York, there is a great opportunity to wander round the sites  of the song and dance. Working with cinematographer Harold Rosson and editor Ralph E. Winters, Donen produced an unconventional but dynamic street ballet.

In 1952 Donen and Kelly together helmed the equally entertaining classic, Singin’ in the Rain. This was a delightful send up of the transition from non-talkie to talkie films in Hollywood in the late 1920s. It has some remarkably funny scenes and some great musical numbers; the title sequence must be the most watched song and dance performance to come out of Hollywood. Kelly was ably supported by Donald O‘Connor and Debbie Reynolds. All three were nearly outperformed by Jean Hagen.

Donen then had a solo direction on another classic, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Adapted from a story from ancient Rome, ‘the rape of the Sabine Women’, this is a period musical. It does not have quite the panache of the contemporary musicals but still has some great song and dance numbers.

Donen also directed one of the last classic Kelly musicals It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). Plotted as a sequel to On the Town it never matches the intensity of the earlier musical, but there are, as always, some great sequences with Kelly demonstrating his skills on roller skates.

Donen then left M-G-M and worked both for other studios and independently though none of these titles match the earlier classics. In 1960 he moved to Britain. The great age of the screen musical was in its decline. He still worked on a number of successful films, usually with some financial and or production input by a Hollywood studio. The most well-known is Charade (1963) on which Donen was both producer and director. This was a Hitchcock-style thriller with Audrey Hepburn and [the much older] Cary Grant. It does not have the resonance of Hitchcock’s actual films but it has wit and excitement and a suitable MacGuffin.

The other late film of Donen’s that I really liked was Two for the Road (1967), again with Audrey Hepburn playing opposite Albert Finney. The film was scripted by Frederic Raphael and has an unconventional and non-linear narrative. Joanna (Hepburn) and Mark (Finney) have to re-examine their marital relationship whilst driving in Southern France. So the film is both a romantic drama and a road movie.

Donen directed twenty film titles. Only a few are classics and most of these are the musicals; one could add to those mentioned above The Pyjama Game (1957), starring Doris Day and co-directed with George Abbott, with whom Donen worked on a couple of occasion. Interestingly co-direction is a recurring feature in the work of Donen, something that throws a spanner in the work of auteur specialists. However, especially in the musicals, there is a distinctive style and approach from Donen. Some writers have referred to the idea of ‘cine-dance’. In his work with Gene Kelly Donen pioneered a new style of film musical; both men were always ready and interested in experimentation.. These are smaller scale than many of the great earlier film musicals and relying on a sense of the actual rather than the stylised. The presentation of song and dance is beautifully choreographed, not just in the performances, but also in the way they are filmed, visually and aurally. The ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ sequence is a model of this. Kelly’s performance is perfection but the way that the camera follows or advances with him and the quality and timbre of the recording are why this sequence can be watched time and time again.

I might add that Stanley Donen, like the other film people, who passed on last year, has received rather less than usual from Sight & Sound. Usually the February issue contains the printed listing and comments on those who went to the great cinema in the sky. This year I scanned the March issue, which now appears in February; no obituaries? This was the same in the following issue. An email to the S&S office revealed that they were only online. Worse, I have as yet been unable to find any reference in the printed issues of the magazine to this ‘downsizing’. I do think they deserve better.

Check out the obituaries.

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