Friday, March 1, 2019

Singin’ and Dancin’ with Donen

Recently I’ve been thrilled to introduce a new generation to Singin’ in the Rain, considered by many to be the best Hollywood musical of all time. Singin’ in the Rain (released in 1952) has it all: dance, song, comedy, social satire, a soupçon of movie history. Or, to put it another way, it has agile Gene Kelly, adorable Debbie Reynolds, rubber-limbed Donald O’Connor, and the hilarious Jean Hagen, along with a host of movieland second bananas (even Rita Moreno in a tiny part).  So who made it all work? Gene Kelly generally gets most of the credit, but there was also a co-director, Stanley Donen.

The name Stanley Donen pops up often in the annals of movie history. After co-directing with his good friend Kelly the innovative shot-on-location On The Town (1949), he moved out on his own with a string of elegantly dance-based musicals. Along with Singin’ in the Rain, these included Royal Wedding (starring Fred Astaire and Jane Powell), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (who can forget that barn-raising sequence?), Funny Face (featuring the delectable combination of Astaire and Audrey Hepburn), and many others. In the Sixties, as movie musicals became more and more bloated, he about-faced into romantic thrillers like Charade, as well as the wildly experimental dramedy, Two for the Road. In 1974 he helmed a small, unlikely musical based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, featuring Bob Fosse as the most slithery of snakes. His final stab at a musical involved a witty spoof of the Busby Berkeley style, as part of the “Baxter’s Beauties of 1933” segment of 1978’s Movie Movie

Frankly, the news of Stanley Donen’s death last week was a shock to my system. I associated him so strongly with the Golden Age of Hollywood that it was hard to believe he was still alive until February 21, 2019, when he died at age 94. The truth is—Donen started out young. Born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1924, he was a shy kid, one who faced bullying and anti-Semitic taunts. He found refuge at the movies, where he soon fell under the spell of Astaire and Rogers in Flying Down to Rio. That’s why, at age 10, he started taking tap dance lessons. Some seven years later, as a chorus boy hoofing in Broadway’s Pal Joey, he connected with Kelly, the show’s breakout star. After coming to Hollywood in 1943 for a dancing role in the movie version of Best Food Forward, he soon found his footing as a dance director in movies with Kelly and others. (One somewhat bizarre footnote to his history with Gene Kelly: At various times, both were married to the same woman, dancer Jeanne Coyne. That may have been part of the reason why the relationship of the two pals eventually floundered. In all, Donen was married five times. And for the last two decades of his life, he was the partner—and romantic suitor—of Elaine May.)  

For all his talent, Stanley Donen was never nominated for a competitive Oscar. But the Academy made up for that oversight in 1998, granting him an honorary Oscar “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation.” Thankfully, the award was presented to him back in the days when honorary awards were included in the televised Oscar broadcast. So the whole world, in addition to the lucky folks seated in L.A.’s cavernous Shrine Auditorium, got to enjoy the still spritely septuagenarian who danced off with his Oscar as well as everyone’s hearts. 

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