“Our love will last till the stars turn cold.” That line from “Singin’ in the Rain” perfectly sums up the sensibility of its director, Stanley Donen: absolute sincerity wedded to knowing irony. When Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood says that to Debbie Reynolds’ Kathy Seldon, he’s actually quoting a line from the cornball movie he’s just made with Jean Hagen for which he has contempt: “The Duelling Cavalier.” But what Lockwood comes to recognize is that, polished just right, hokum can be made to sparkle — and can convey genuine feeling. Is “Our love will last till the stars turn cold” silly? Sure. But it’s beautiful too, and who wants to be so cynical as not to recognize that?
Donen, who died February 23 at age 94 after a nearly 70-year career across film and theater, recognized what so few do today: that two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. In this case, that a genre often not taken seriously, the Hollywood musical, could be a form for staggering artistry. Donen wasn’t arrogant enough to think that the genre was worthless or needed a reinvention to make it relevant; he simply loved it so much that he wanted to keep pushing its boundaries. And did he ever. “On the Town,” “Royal Wedding,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “It’s Always Fair Weather,” “Funny Face,” and, of course, “Singin’ in the Rain,” held up by many critics as the greatest Hollywood musical ever made.
It placed at number 20 on Sight & Sound’s poll of the greatest films ever made in 2012, and at #10 on the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest American Movies in 1998 (and at #5 when AFI released a reconsidered version of the list in 2008). Though officially listed as co-director on that film with Gene Kelly, as was the case on “On the Town,” historians generally agree Kelly focused more on the choreography while Donen shaped the film’s overall look.
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Donen was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1924. When he was nine years old he went to a movie theater and saw “Flying Down to Rio,” the first musical in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appeared. In his words, he was “transported.” He told his biographer Joseph Casper in 1983, “I must have seen the picture 30 or 40 times. I was transported into some sort of fantasy world where everything seemed to be happy, comfortable, easy, and supported. A sense of well-being filled me.” Donen started making home movies with an 8 mm camera and taking dance lessons. After graduating high school at 16, he left for New York where he earned a spot in the chorus line for Rodgers & Hart’s “Pal Joey” on Broadway, a show that had turned its lead Gene Kelly into a star. They became friends, and Kelly made Donen his assistant choreographer for his next show, “Best Foot Forward.”
The two moved to Hollywood in 1943, and Donen quickly adapted the choreography skills he developed to help stage three musical numbers for Kelly in the film “Cover Girl,” starring Rita Hayworth. Donen’s penchant for innovation rose to the fore quickly, when he brainstormed the idea for Kelly to dance with Jerry the Mouse (of “Tom & Jerry” fame) in 1945’s “Anchors Aweigh.” By 1949, MGM’s powerhouse producer Arthur Freed, who led the studio’s most illustrious musical production department, offered Donen and Kelly the chance to adapt Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” for the big screen.
The film would be a game-changer. Never before had a Hollywood musical shot on location in New York City and outside of a soundstage. Admittedly, only seven minutes of the film’s 98-minute runtime would be shot in New York, but those scenes make an extraordinary impact, especially the film’s three-minute opening number “New York, New York (It’s a Wonderful Town).”
For his first solo directing effort, Donen got to make a film with his idol Fred Astaire. “Royal Wedding” (1951) is an eye-popping feast, with Donen staging scenes in which Astaire dances on the ceiling (via a rotating set and camera) and shows that he’s such a charismatic performer that he can even dance with a hatrack.
“Singin’ in the Rain” was next. Viewers today may not be aware of this, but all of the songs in it had appeared in previous MGM musicals, including the title track, and at the time this would have been something musical aficionados would have recognized. It was an early “jukebox musical.” What Kelly and Donen delivered in 1952 was essentially what Baz Luhrmann delivered with “Moulin Rouge!” 49 years later, and its rapid montages and color-splashed frames were almost as overwhelming to the senses. This was a self-conscious attempt to take elements of the musical genre as it had existed before and repackage them in a wholly new way.
As Casey Charness wrote in the 1977 book “Hollywood Cine-dance”: “‘Singin’ in the Rain’ marks the first time the Hollywood musical had ever been reflexive, and amused at its own extravagant non-dancing inadequacy, at that.” It was also Donen and Kelly making fun of the Busby Berkeley style that had dominated Hollywood musicals in the 1930s (they had clashed with Berkeley on the making of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in 1949). Charness noted that Berkeley’s “overhead kaleidoscope floral pattern is predominantly featured [in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’] as is the line of tap-dancing chorines, who are seen only from the knees down.”
Other masterpieces would follow, such as “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “It’s Always Fair Weather,” which serves as a poignant unofficial sequel to “On the Town” about three soldiers who were buddies during the war reconnecting 10 years later and finding they have nothing in common, and “Funny Face.” The whole idea of the “Cine-dance” that Charness wrote about is that Donen created in these films dances that could not exist in real life, that required the interrogation of the camera and aggressive editing techniques to realize.
As the Hollywood musical declined, Donen expanded the type of films he’d direct. His 1963 caper “Charade” is a self-conscious riff on the Alfred Hitchcock style starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Its location photography in Paris is superb, and Donen found a way to make this light, ultimately derivative thriller still pop like a fizzy cocktail. He and Hepburn would reteam for the far more ambitious “Two for the Road,” a time-period-toggling love story following Hepburn and her husband Albert Finney at the beginning and end of their relationship. Linklater’s “Before” trilogy would not exist without “Two for the Road,” a film that also set the stage for all the flashback- and parallel-editing-heavy movies to come.
Missteps followed for Donen, including 1980’s sci-fi disaster “Saturn 3,” starring Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett. But he’d win praise for producing the 1986 Oscars ceremony and win a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1998, having never won one competitively. His last filmed work was the made-for-TV movie “Love Letters,” starring Steven Weber and Laura Linney, which he directed in 1999.
For the last 20 years, Donen had been in a romantic relationship with comedy legend and director Elaine May. In 2013 and 2014, he was trying to get a script he had co-written with May produced, with him directing. A table read was staged with Charles Grodin, Christopher Walken, Jeannie Berlin, and Ron Rifkin, and Mike Nichols was attached to produce, but investors ultimately didn’t appear to fund the project.
Donen was married five times and had three children, including visual effects supervisor Peter Donen (who died in 2003) and Joshua Donen, a producer on “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter.” His partner May is 86 years old and just wrapped a run on Broadway.
If you love movies, you love Stanley Donen. And though he’d probably find this both corny and touching, it’s also true that cinephiles the world over will keep on loving the films of Stanley Donen “until the stars turn cold” indeed.