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Curtain Call For The Dean Of Dance: A Farewell To Stanley Donen

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad Stanley Donen movie.

Granted, I haven’t seen all of the movies in the Donen canon, but the ones I’ve seen were all fantastic.

No matter what, the women were going to look glamorous (Funny Face, Charade), you were always going to have a fabulous score (Damn Yankees), you were going to have couples with chemistry (Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road; Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Indiscreet), and most likely  you were going to have dancing. Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding; Gene Kelly, Michael Kidd, and Dan Dailey dancing on trashcan lids in It’s Always Fair Weather; Cyd Charisse and James Mitchell against a green light in Deep in My Heart; and of course, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor dancing on the table in Singing in the Rain.

It shouldn’t be a surprise Donen was a dancer first, taking dance lessons in his hometown in Columbia, South Carolina. His other great love was movies, starting when he saw Flying Down To Rio in 1933. He had no idea that while he watched Fred Astaire on the screen, he would later direct him in several films. His family used to go to New York City during the summer so that he could learn dancing from one of Fred Astaire’s teachers. When he was sixteen, he went to New York and got a job dancing on the Broadway hit Pal Joey. Pal Joey was played by this new guy with an Irish name, Gene Kelly. Again, fate intervened. Kelly wanted Donen to be his choreographer. The two work would work together off and on during their careers.

At that point, Donen was eighteen years old.

Hollywood was in the stars as well–it had to be.

Okay, he wasn’t yet twenty, but he was a remarkable dancer. He choreographed Kelly in Cover Girl, then Anchors Aweigh where he choreographed Kelly dancing with Jerry, the mouse. Yes, Jerry the mouse. We should be glad Donen was willing to work with rodents.

He made his directing debut with On The Town with Kelly and another new kid in Hollywood named Frank Sinatra. It also marked his first collaboration with Adolph Green and Betty Comden, who wrote the Broadway musical the movie was based on. The movie was a hit. Donen was twenty-five. And he was just getting started.

He directed Royal Wedding next, then a film called Love is Better than Ever starring Elizabeth Taylor. However, the film’s debut was delayed because of the other star Larry Parks being accused of being a communist. What to do? Wait, Kelly wanted to do a film and needed a director. It was going to star Donald O’Connor and that new girl Debbie Reynolds. Get Comden and Green to write the script. The title of the movie? Singing in the Rain.

Following the success of Kelly’s An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain was slow to catch on. That shocks me: it has Gene Kelly dancing in the rain! It has Debbie Reynolds jumping out of a cake! It has singing and dancing! How can you top that? It’s one of those rare perfect movies, where everyone is on top of their game.

Donen directed several more films for MGM, ending with It’s Always Fair Weather. By then he and Kelly were on shaky terms. Donen was married to dancer Jeanne Coyne, but they divorced in 1951. Coyne and Kelly started having feelings for each other in 1955, but there was one small problem: He was married to actress Betsy Blair. Blair realized the two were falling in love, yet didn’t act on it. Blair eventually gave her blessing, but it destroyed the friendship with Donen, and they never made a never made a film again. Coyne and Kelly married in 1960 and remained together until Coyne’s death in 1973.

Donen wanted to be independent, not dependent, on MGM. He wanted to do things his way–go on location and not be bound to a studio lot. He made Funny Face, where Kay Thompson urged women to think pink, Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire sang Gershwin, and all three of them went to Paris and danced. Add costumes by Edith Head and Givenchy, and you had a classic.

Donen didn’t just want to do musicals. He made Indiscreet, a romance film between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant then teamed up with Grant and Hepburn for the murder mystery Charade.  Many credit Hitchcock for the film because there are so many twists and turns, but it was Donen all the way. Hepburn returned for another movie by Donen, this time Two for the Road with the co-star being Albert Finney. He made movies throughout the seventies and in 1987 directed an episode of Moonlighting.

But it wouldn’t be until 1998 when he was introduced to a new generation.

The Academy decided in 1998 to give Donen an honorary long overdue Oscar. After a film montage, Martin Scorsese introduced Donen. “Singing in the Rain” came on, with the customary standing ovation. People looked bored, waiting for the “big” awards to be given out. They didn’t know they were going to see one of the best moments in Oscar history.

After the applause died down, Donen addressed Scorsese: “Marty, it’s backward, I should be giving this to you… And I want to thank the Board of Governors for this cute little fella which to me looks titanic. Tonight, words seem inadequate. In musicals that’s when we do a song, so…” then the orchestra started to play “Cheek to Cheek,” and he started to sing the song, putting the statuette near his cheek. He started to tap dance. The crowd went wild, cheering and clapping. Scorsese started laughing. Michael Bolton gave him a standing ovation.

He then continued:

“I’m going to let you in on the secret of being a good director. For the script, you get Larry Gelbart, or Peter Stone, or Huyck and Katz, or Frederic Raphael — like that. If it’s a musical, for the songs you get George and Ira Gershwin, or Arthur Freed and Herb Brown, or Leonard Bernstein and Comden and Green, or Alan Lerner and Fritz Loewe — like that. Then you cast Cary Grant, or Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Gene Hackman or Frank Sinatra — like that. When filming starts you show up, and you stay the hell out of the way. But you’ve got to show up; you’ve got to show up. Otherwise, you can’t take the credit and get one of these fellas. Thank you very much.”

In that speech, he gave the best advice any artist could ever get: You’ve got to show up.

Donen lived with writer/actress Elaine May the past twenty years, and they were working on a film. When he died this week at the age of ninety-five, I felt sad to know that he wouldn’t direct that film.

Because trust me, in the words of Gershwin, it would’ve been s’wonderful, s’marvelous, to see Stanley Donen direct again.