An ode to Stanley Donen

Aoibhín Bryant

Stanley Donen, beloved director of Hollywood movie musicals such as Singing in The Rain and Funny Face, died on February 21st due to a heart attack, aged an impressive 94. Donen, as a director, was the face of the golden era of movie musicals in Hollywood. 

At their peak in the 1940s and 50s, Donen was the last surviving figurehead of a by-gone era. Movie musicals may have seen their heyday at the forefront of popularity but the classics, many directed by Donen, leave a special place in our hearts. His delightful films deliver the sweet comfort of nostalgia even if you never lived during those decades.

Audrey Hepburn reportedly said “one person whose very name makes me smile in total delight whenever I think of him” about the late director, showing that the charm in is films were present in his own characters. However, he was omitted from the Oscars’ memorial reel which was met with outrage, although his death was only announced on the day of the awards ceremony. No doubt, his face will appear amongst the stage screen this time next year.

Funnily enough, although a legend, Donen had never won an Academy Award for any of his works. However, in 1998 he received a lifetime achievement “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation.”

Donen was born to Jewish parents in Columbia, South Carolina. He experienced antisemitic bullying while growing up there and it was Astaire’s performance in Flying Down to Rio that helped him discover what he wanted to pursue the art of film.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or be, or be around, or be with, or relate to, or anything. I just knew that there was something about the magic of the movies and, in particular, Fred Astaire and music that galvanised me.”

Donen worked with iconic movie stars of the time, the aforementioned Hepburn but also Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. His films were known for their impeccable style and their keen strive for perfection, especially when it came to choreography. In the days before CGI, Donen wowed audiences with his “movie magic” techniques. In Royal Wedding, where Astaire tap dances on the ceiling is still seen as a classic moment in film history.

Singin In The Rain is undisputedly his most popular work, everyone knows the scene where Gene Kelly swings around street lamps and hops around with his umbrella. The scene is so iconic as a cheerful moment that Malcolm MacDowell sings the song in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, its jolly tune strikes an unnerving contrast with the film’s dark matter.

His partnership with Kelly usually left him outside of the spotlight, while Kelly rivetted in the fame and applause, Donen was a humble man who preferred to work in the background. An excellent choreographer, he did not excel in the act of dancing itself. His talents lay in combination, able to blend all aspects of the film, from actors to costume design, blending them so harmoniously to create chefs-d’oeuvres.

Although Donen’s talents did not just lie with the musical, proving himself an accomplished director of comedies and romances in the 60s and 70s as the movie musical quieted in popularity.

Donen will certainly go down as one of the best directors of all time. His style and taste encapsulated the old Hollywood glamour that simply cannot be replicated again. In his honour, perhaps we should risk pneumonia and sing in the rain.

Aoibhín Bryant

Image Credit: Rachel Halpin