Obituary for Stanley Donen

March 18, 2019

 

Think about your favourite directors; they tend to be eponymous with a specific genre, or at least never strayed too far from it. For instance: James Cameron is the main staple of epic science fiction, and Clint Eastwood of Westerns. From the 1940s well into the 1970s, the man that epitomised musicals and comedies was the great Stanley Donen. Perhaps – unless your knowledge of film was quite detailed – you might never have heard of him, but I can guarantee you know his films. Beginning as a Hollywood choreographer in the 1940s, he soon struck up a close friendship with actor and dancer Gene Kelly with whom he created the dance in Columbia Studios’ film Cover Girl wherein Gene Kelly dances with a reflection of himself that still amazes audiences to this day.

 

The pair soon returned to MGM where they fought to co-direct films but instead only choreographed them. In this time, they choreographed films like Take Me Out to the Ball Game, whose most famous dance sequence wherein Kelly dances with Jerry from Tom and Jerry was entirely Donen’s idea. This continued until MGM allowed the pair to co-direct On the Town, a Frank Sinatra starred, that ended up being Donen's first directing job. He was only 25.

 

After this major success, Donen became an MGM contract director, signing for 7 years with the production company. In this time he directed a film with Fred Astaire that saw Fred dance on the wall and ceilings with some game-changing camera trickery. Then came his opportunity to work again with Kelly, this time on a film that would change the face of Hollywood cinema: 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. With some of the most famous dance numbers and songs of all time, Singin’ in the Rain was and remains an utter smash hit. Just two years later he followed this up with a solo directing effort that perhaps was not as famous as Singin’ in the Rain, but was absolutely as beloved: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The film actually made more money in the box office than Singin’ in the Rain at the time.

 

As studio contracts declined in use and Donen had a disagreement with MGM, he decided to become an independent director and producer. His first film as an independent director was Funny Face for Paramount Pictures. This film was far more experimental than Paramount was used to or that he had even attempted before, so complications arose in which Paramount questioned his techniques. But Donen overcame this and released one of the most visually stunning films of the 1950s. Soon thereafter in 1958, he made Damn Yankees to moderate box office success, but it was to be his last musical until The Little Prince in 1974.

 

Britain soon became his home in the decline of the popularity of musicals, forcing Donen to focus on comedies like Once More With Feeling and Surprise Package. Soon he made the Hitchcock inspired Charade with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, which with reviews such as “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made”, it’s no surprise it was his highest earning film. He soon followed this up with another Hitchcock inspired thriller Arabesque, this time starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren. This was not as popular but equally good, showing Donen could master musicals, comedy and complex thriller.

 

But he wasn’t done yet. Living in England his fascination grew with legendary British comedy double act Dudley Cooke and Peter Moore. He soon became friends with the pair and from this friendship was born Bedazzled, a contemporary retelling of Faust, it became one of the best loved and best rated British comedies of all time. He soon made another comedy with the help of Dudley Moore called Staircase that was much less loved at the time, but has had a resurgence recently as  "a rare Hollywood movie to depict gay experience with wisdom, humour and warmth" according to film critic Armond White in 2007 who also describes it as “a lost treasure” of a film.

 

Upon returning to Hollywood, he also returned to musicals, facing a resurgence in the 1970s as part nostalgia and part post-modernist movement. He released The Little Prince and Lucky Lady, both somewhat lost in time, but both still filled with Donen’s originality and heart.

He then turned his head to science fiction, making Saturn 3, proving yet again he was a man of such talent that he could turn his head to any genre and still make a good film of it.

 

He once said:

 

“People always say to me, 'You have such a clearly defined sense of style,' and when I hear it, I get crazed, because what I hear - and I know they mean it as a compliment - is that I have such a narrow vision that I can't get out of it”

 

But his skill branching over comedy, musicals, thrillers and science fiction – all so incredibly different – prove he was one of the greats. Perhaps his name wasn’t as famous as Alfred Hitchcock’s or Steven Spielberg’s, but his legacy and his filmography are so ingrained in the zeitgeist that his influence is inescapable.

 

He lived a long life, having been born in 1924 in a small town in South Carolina and dying an incredible 94 years later in 2019 in Manhattan – he forever marked the annals of film and scaled possibility.

 

His films and legacy will be forever remembered.

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