Critic’s Notebook: Stanley Donen Brought Flair and Freshness to a Fading Old Hollywood

Vincent Rossell/Universal Pictures/Photofest
Stanley Donen with Audrey Hepburn on the set of the 1963 film 'Charade'

As the industry’s mainstays were starting to show their age, Donen arrived and reinvigorated the big-screen musical with his energy, imagination and discipline.

Our living connection with anything to do with the old Hollywood has become all the more tenuous with the passing of Stanley Donen. Among directors, his career may have extended further back in time than anyone else still alive — he made his first film, the innovative 1949 MGM musical On the Town, with Gene Kelly at 25, the same age as Orson Welles when he stormed Hollywood with Citizen Kane eight years earlier. 

Although they had virtually nothing else in common cinematically, Donen and Welles shared a further distinction: In 1982, when Kane topped the Sight & Sound international critics poll as the greatest film of all time, Kelly and Donen's Singin' in the Rain was voted No. 3. Twenty years later, it was still on the list, at No. 10.

Of course, we don't typically think of Donen, who directed his final feature, the best-forgotten Blame It on Rio, 35 years ago, in the same august category as Welles and other legendary auteurs. So how did this happen to a small-town South Carolina Jewish kid who refused to be bar mitzvahed and abandoned his studies at 16 to flee to New York and become a dancer? The simple answer is that he had the great good fortune to be hired as a chorus boy in the original 1940 Broadway production of Pal Joey, where he met Kelly, the show's star, and director George Abbott. His collaborations with these two men would essentially enable his career for the next 18 years.

Donen's taste in musicals was defined early. He said his life changed at age 9 when he saw Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio, and before long he had formed strong opinions about the form: He loathed Busby Berkeley's elaborately designed and choreographed musical numbers because they were stand-alone set pieces that had nothing to do with the films' narratives and stopped the stories dead in their tracks. In his view, songs and production numbers should be thoroughly integrated and help advance the narratives. It was a perspective that he held to and dexterously used in his best work in the coming decades.

Because of Donen's youth and consequent protege status — he arrived in Hollywood in 1946 as Kelly's assistant on Cover Girl and was credited as dance director and/or choreographer on the likes of Anchors Away and Take Me Out to the Ballgame — when the opportunity arose for Kelly and Donen to co-direct On the Town, the latter was naturally perceived as the junior member of the team. Donen vigorously advocated for doing as much location work in New York as possible (a stingy MGM granted the filmmakers a single week), and he immediately afterward proved himself as a solo act by directing Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding.

After that, it was back to collaboration with Kelly on the immortal Singin' in the Rain, arguably the most madly entertaining and flawless movie musical ever made. This was the original Hollywood musical at its zenith, and it has never occurred to me to try to parse the responsibility for it, as the film was so clearly the result of a lightning-strike collaboration among the numerous inspired parties involved.

What has occurred to me, however, is to compare the individual directing careers of Kelly and Donen, and here the advantage is decisively in the latter's favor. Kelly hit 0-for-7 in his solo outings, most conspicuously with his elephantine adaptation of Hello, Dolly! By contrast, Donen displayed both flair and an adventurous spirit in his approach to his subsequent major musicals, most notably Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and, especially, Funny Face, the first of Donen's three fruitful collaborations with Audrey Hepburn and a film of great style and sensibility.

Reteaming with the old theater veteran George Abbott, Donen faithfully put two hit Broadway musicals, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, on the screen before productively heading to Europe for the 1960s. As long as he worked with Hepburn, he remained in fine form, first alongside Cary Grant in the entertainingly Hitchcockian Charade, then pairing her opposite a very different sort of Englishman, Albert Finney, to keen effect in the brittle and hyper-stylish Two for the Road. These two films displayed a talent for dealing with couples in prickly, difficult yet strongly bonded circumstances, suggesting a path that might have been, but unfortunately was not, further explored by the director.

Then suddenly, as it not infrequently happens, the dice went cold, the well ran dry and Donen, then just in his early forties, couldn't make a hit, or a good film, to save his life. If Staircase, with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton playing an aging gay couple, was an embarrassment in 1969, it's genuinely scary to imagine seeing it today. An attempt at an original musical, The Little Prince, never took off, and nothing after that is remotely worth mentioning. Why many talents soar for a certain period and then become hopelessly depleted forever after remains a mysterious and fascinating question; it was certainly the case with Donen.

But when he arrived in Hollywood, Donen must have seemed like a breath of fresh air and energy and imagination at a time when the old guard was beginning to show its age. He slipped in with his illustrious Broadway connections and immediately made the most of it, contributing mightily to giving the traditional Hollywood musical a great climactic blast of glory.