Rain Man

The influential film producer and director Stanley Donen, who has died aged 94, is remembered for a career that had more than its fair share of ups and downs, according to Michael Darvell

The American film producer and director, dancer and choreographer and sometime theatre director Stanley Donen, who has died aged 94, will be remembered for making the best movie musical of all time, namely Singin’ in the Rain. It was a humorous take on Hollywood in the late 1920s when it was changing over from silent films to talkies. Donen co-directed it with its star Gene Kelly and, although it was a moderate hit in 1952, over the years it has become an iconic piece of movie magic – a true cinematic classic. Rather like Andrḗ Previn (q.v.) who will always be indelibly associated in the public mind with Morecambe & Wise and their famous piano sketch, so too will the work of Stanley Donen be called to mind from the same two comedians’ TV tribute to Singin’ in the Rain in their famous and oft-repeated version of the film’s title song. In such ways are great memories made...


Stanley Donan

Stanley Donen was born in 1924 in Columbia, South Carolina to Mordecai Donen who managed dress shops, and his wife Helen, daughter of a jewellery salesman. As a lonely Jewish boy Stanley would frequent his local cinemas, enjoying mainly comedies, thrillers and westerns. In 1933 he saw Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio and was so taken by it, he kept on watching it until he began to make his own 8mm films. He then took dance lessons, hoping to become another Astaire, and on visits to New York he even received instruction from Ned Wayburn who had taught Fred when the dancer was eleven years old.


After graduating from high school he briefly attended university but then headed for New York and started auditioning for Broadway. He secured a place in the chorus of George Abbott’s original 1940 production of Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey where he first met Gene Kelly. Kelly was playing the title role in the show, while Donen was just a dancer in the chorus. However, they clicked as a partnership and started choreographing dance numbers for films. They subsequently worked on Anchors Aweigh at MGM where Donen eventually gained a long-term contract, joining the musical unit run by producer Arthur Freed. He also collaborated with Kelly on other musicals – Take Me Out to the Ball Game, On the Town and It’s Always Fair Weather. Working with Kelly was not always a bed of roses for Donen as they had totally opposite personalities, although the results of their time together produced some of the best moments in the MGM musical movie canon.


Subsequently Donen was choreographer or dance director on such films as Best Foot Forward, Cover Girl (for Columbia, and with Kelly again), Hey, Rookie, Jam Session, Kansas City Kitty, Holiday in Mexico, Living In a Big Way, This Time for Keeps, Big City, A Date With Judy, The Kissing Bandit and Rich, Young and Pretty. Donen’s first film as solo director was Royal Wedding (aka Wedding Bells, 1951), then The Light Fantastic (aka Love Is Better Than Ever), a disaster with Larry Parks and Elizabeth Taylor, Fearless Fagan with Janet Leigh, Give a Girl a Break with Debbie Reynolds, and then the very successful Seven Brides for Seven Brothers which was notable for its brilliant, rip-roaring dance routines choreographed by Michael Kidd. Following Deep in My Heart, a biopic of composer Sigmund Romberg with Josḗ Ferrer, Donen then did some uncredited direction on Vincente Minnelli’s Kismet. With George Abbott he co-directed The Pajama Game starring Doris Day, and Damn Yankees (aka What Lola Wants) with Gwen Verdon. The latter was his first film as producer, after which he produced all the movies he made under his direction.


Stanley Donen

Before those two titles Donen made Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, his favourite actress. It showed the director at his best – visually elegant in art and set direction, in colour and costume design, plus Astaire’s choreography, the music of George Gershwin and above all the use of the camera as another member of the cast. After Singin’ in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Funny Face was probably Stanley Donen’s finest achievement. Then, with film musicals behind him, Donen turned to romantic comedy but the results were not always great. Kiss Them For Me starred Cary Grant and Jayne Mansfield but fell flat on its face. Indiscreet with Cary Grant again plus Ingrid Bergman was something of an improvement and became a popular success.

Donen then quit the US to live and work in London, away from the pressures of Hollywood. He filmed Once More With Feeling, teaming Yul Brynner with Kay Kendall but, sadly, it was not good and was saved only by the endearingly kookie Kendall in what was to be her last film. Surprise Package, with Yul Brynner again, was not much better and The Grass Is Greener starred Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons and Deborah Kerr in Hugh and Margaret Williams’ rather arch comedy, strongly redolent of 1950s West End middle-class theatre fare.


But then there was Charade, the best of Donen’s later movies, a comedy thriller which found the director in Hitchcock mode, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, which he filmed in Paris, his favourite city. He tried to repeat its success with Arabesque but even Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren couldn’t raise it above the level of the mildly entertaining, and it has never gained the aura of a classic that sustained the reputation of Charade. However, Donen’s star shined a little brighter on Two for the Road which, sharply written by Frederic Raphael, had Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as a couple looking back over their doomed relationship while driving around France, and here the two stars really brought home the goods. However, for Donen’s remaining films, it was a road going nowhere much except downhill.


In 1967 he made the somewhat modish Bedazzled, a Faustian comedy with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, because he had admired the two funny men in Beyond the Fringe. It was popular with the public if not the critics and Donen dubbed it one of his own favourite films. Then he seriously miscast Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as two gay men in a film version of Charles Dyer’s excellent play Staircase. He would have done much better with the play’s original cast of Paul Scofield and Patrick Magee. Back in Hollywood there was the musical version of Antoine de Saint-Exupḗry’s The Little Prince, written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe but, despite its beautiful production designs by John Barry and choreography by Bob Fosse, it was a commercial flop that bought to an end the musical partnership of Lerner and Loewe. 


After that came Gene Hackman, Liza Minnelli and Burt Reynolds in the unfunny comedy Lucky Lady; then Saturn 3, an oddly unsatisfactory space adventure with Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett and Harvey Keitel in a screenplay by Martin Amis and John Barry, based on a story by film designer Barry who also co-directed the picture, but it was another flop for Donen. Finally in 1984 Blame It On Rio was a Hollywood remake of Claude Berri’s 1977 French comedy Un Moment d’ḗgarement but, even with Michael Caine it got lost in translation. It was Donen’s last feature film apart from a TV movie of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, with Steven Weber and Laura Linney, made in 1999. He also produced a television special on the Academy Awards of 1986 and a Lionel Richie video of Dancing on the Ceiling. This song harked back to a dance sequence in Royal Wedding, Donen’s first film as a solo director, in which Fred Astaire in the ‘You’re All the World To Me’ number appears to be dancing on the walls and the ceiling in a brilliant piece of trompe-l’oeil executed several decades before CGI was invented. The very last work by Donen as a director was for The Lionel Richie Collection, a video documentary in 2003.


In 1978 Donen had directed Movie Movie, a lovingly shot parody of a Hollywood double-bill of the 1930s – a boxing drama called Dynamite Hands and a Busby Berkeley style musical, Baxter’s Beauties of 1933, with the likes of George C. Scott, Eli Wallach, Art Carney, Red Buttons, Trish Van Devere, Michael Kidd, Ann Reinking and George Burns. I like to think it was Donen once again paying homage to old Hollywood as he had done before in Singin’ in the Rain a quarter of a century earlier. Sadly, nobody seemed to care and, despite its obvious charm, it fared badly both at the box-office and with the critics.


In his time Donen tried to film Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, but that went to Fred Zinnemann and the result scooped six Academy Awards. He also wanted to do A Patch of Blue which Guy Green then directed and for which Shelley Winters grabbed the Oscar. Later on Donen wanted to film Stephen King’s The Dead Zone but David Cronenberg eventually made it. When, in 1993, Donen suggested filming a musical version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with Michael Jackson, it came to nought following the Jackson Neverland scandal. In the same year Donen took over direction of a stage version of Powell & Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes with music by Jule Styne. It closed on Broadway after fifty-one previews and just five performances.


Stanley Donen

None of Stanley Donen’s films ever received nominations for Oscars, but the director was given an honorary Academy Award in 1998 in appreciation for his lifetime’s “body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual perception.” He was also awarded a Career Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2004. He was married five times, first to Jeanne Coyne (who subsequently married Gene Kelly), then to Marion Marshall (who later married Robert Wagner), then Margaret Adelle Dillingham, Yvette Mimieux and Pamela Braden. All five marriages ended in divorce. He was the father of three children, Peter (who died in 2003), Joshua and Mark. He was also the life partner of actress Elaine May from 1999 until his death, but they never married. He planned to make a film he was writing with May, to be produced by May’s former comedy partner Mike Nichols. It never happened.


If Stanley Donen’s talents became rather stretched following the passing of the MGM musical era, we shouldn’t be too hard on him. Ultimately he was a dance movement director through and through who, with some of the best film music and songs, was inspired by the great Fred Astaire to become one of the most imaginative choreographers for the cinema. The cornerstone of Donen’s career is Singin’ in the Rain. It was included in the first collection of films to be inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry some thirty years ago. If all else is forgotten, Singin’ in the Rain will remain a constant reminder of the heyday of the film musical and of a long-lost cinema genre now confined to the pages of movie history. In part we have to thank the likes of Stanley Donen for the pleasure we have taken from the 20th century’s only original art form.


Stanley Donen: born 13 April 1924; died 21 February 2019. R.I.P.