Reel Dad: Honoring Stanley Donen
He taught the movies how to dance.
Director Stanley Donen — who died on Feb. 21 at age 94 — initially wanted to be a tap dancer. Later, when his career reached the movies, he taught the camera how to capture how singers and dancers move. For anyone who loves movie musicals, Donen’s work reflects the best this medium can be.
Here are a few of his unforgettable films.
“On the Town” (1949)
On stage, this marvelous musical — with a score by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Greene — soared with the virtuoso choreography by Jerome Robbins. For the film, co-directors Donen and Gene Kelly made movie history by taking their cameras to New York City. They perfectly capture the charm of the story (of three sailors on leave in the Big Apples) and the thrilling dances from the stage in the first musical to shoot on location.
“Royal Wedding” (1951)
Donen’s first solo directing assignment is a made-to-order musical with Fred Astaire as one-half of a brother-sister act who happen to be in London at the same time that Princess Elizabeth gets married. This provides an efficient framework for the delightful performing of Astaire and costar Jane Powell. The movie is well-remembered for a remarkable dance sequence where Astaire dances on the walls and ceilings of his room.
“Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)
Considered by many to be the best movie musical ever, this fabulous journey into the chaotic world of early “talkies” entertains as it makes us laugh and sing. Co-directors Donen and Kelly again make the camera dance with performer, especially in the sensational title number. Jean Hagen snagged an Oscar nomination for her hilarious turn as a self-important star while Donald O’Connor delivers, perhaps, the funniest song ever put on film, “Make ’Em Laugh.”
“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954)
Look beyond the simple story and painted scenery to discover one of the most original movie musicals of the 1950s. Working with a delightful score by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, director Donen captures the excitement of Michael Kidd’s choreography to deliver what may be the most physical musical next to West Side Story. The exquisite Jane Powell again reminds us how magical she can be on the musical screen.
“Funny Face” (1957)
Working with songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Donen takes his camera to the streets of New York and Paris to film a wondrous tribute to musical romance. With Audrey Hepburn singing in her own voice (unlike “My Fair Lady” in 1964) and Fred Astaire offering his charisma, the music soars as the connection warms. The legendary Kay Thompson, later author of the “Eloise” books, brings her nightclub magic to a fun role as a demanding fashion editor.
“Two for the Road” (1967)
Surprisingly, for a director best known for musicals, Donen’s most accomplished film is this touching drama about the realities of marriage. Working from an innovative screenplay by Frederick Raphael, that moves forward and backward in time, the director examines the layers of pain and hope, support and resentment that couples can create. And he guides Audrey Hepburn to deliver what may be her most commanding screen performance.
What a marvelous movie maker.
And, thanks to the permanence of film, we can continue to enjoy Stanley Donen’s films for years to come.
Rest in peace. You make us want to sing and dance.
‘Singin’ in the Rain:’ Stanley Donen’s masterpiece
Do you ever wonder how movies began to talk?
Stanley Donen asked that question when he created this magical musical masterpiece.
You may recall hearing about the thousands of silent films that Hollywood produced in the early 20th century before technicians perfected the use of microphones and sound recordings. What you may not realize — or have forgotten until the release of “The Artist” — is that, for Hollywood, the introduction of sound created turbulence beyond compare.
That’s because the people who looked good enough on the screen to be silent film stars often had voices that were either difficult to listen to, or laden with heavy accents, or simply wrong for the physical presence the performer conveyed. Overnight, careers of silent stars ended, and new performers arrived, as the industry struggled to redefine itself in new terms.
“Singin’ in the Rain” will take you to that wild time in the movie business, in the late 1920s, when the microphone had just been invented. That meant, for the first time, audiences could actually hear movie stars talk, instead of watch them mime in silent films. Well, no surprise, some of their voices didn’t match how they looked, and they had a tough time adjusting from silent to sound. And that’s the funny part.
Such a transition is not only a source for Hollywood trivia but also the ideal foundation for movie humor. This movie is so much fun — and filled with so many wacky characters — that it may produce non-stop laughter from beginning to end. Or at least continuous smiles. Rarely will you experience such a crackling and smart screenplay, perfectly performed by an inspired cast, and beautifully packaged in the best MGM tradition. But watch closely. You need to listen carefully to get what’s going on to enjoy all the fun.
We get to know Don Lockwood, a matinee idol with a sterling voice to match, and Lena Lamont, a glamorous movie queen who speaks nothing like what her appearance would suggest. Her hysterical efforts to talk on film, and how the movie industry reacts, makes for one of the funniest films you will ever experience.
What grounds the film is the truth on which it is based. Fact is, when sound came to the movies, many careers did end, as many with beautiful faces found that audiences expected them to speak just as well. And acting in films with sound was different than the visual experience of silent films. As tastes change so do the expectations of audiences. This movie, as well, is a musical, which means people sing and dance whenever they want to. That can be a lot of fun especially in the hands of such masters as Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. Few musical sequences compare to the comic genius of O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” or the tapping dynamics of “Good Morning” or the inspiring romance of the title number.
No matter how much you laugh, “Singin’ in the Rain” will remind you never to “judge a book by its cover” because any package, no matter how appealing, may only be attractive on the surface. And that’s funny, too.
“Singin’ in the Rain,” released in 1952, is rated G. The film runs 1 hour, 43 minutes, and is available online to stream.