Stanley Donen, Famed Director of Mirthful Movie Musicals, Dies at 94

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

He helmed 'Singin’ in the Rain' and 'On the Town' with Gene Kelly as well as 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers' and 'Funny Face,' taking his films beyond studio walls.

Stanley Donen, who co-directed Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly and helmed two of the most acclaimed musicals of the 1950s, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Funny Face, has died. He was 94.

Sons Joshua and Mark Donen told the Associated Press that their father died Thursday in Manhattan from heart failure.

Donen was a dynamic part of the legendary MGM Studios creative force, directing and choreographing several of the great studio musicals. No other director, with the possible exception of Vincente Minnelli, contributed more aesthetically to the American musical. With George Abbott, he co-directed two excellent film adaptations, The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958). With Kelly, he also co-directed On the Town (1949) and It’s Always Fair Weather (1955).

In 1998, the director-choreographer was awarded an honorary Oscar “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation.”

Donen accepted his statuette from Martin Scorsese, then sweetly sang Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” first performed by his Royal Wedding star Fred Astaire in 1935’s Top Hat, and danced with Oscar: “Heaven, I’m in heaven, any my heart beats so that I can hardly speak …”

Incredibly, Donen never received an Academy Award nomination and never won a regulation Directors Guild of America trophy. He was the last surviving director of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The South Carolina native was a pioneer in opening up the Hollywood musical, expanding the proscenium arch of the stage. “Donen led the musical in a triumphant and personal direction: out of doors. Not only did Donen dare to stage elaborate routines in real locations, he threw his camera about with the freedom of the studio,” noted film historian David Thomson.

Donen was responsible for the look, style and energy of the great musicals of the 1950s and ’60s. He directed the classic sequence in Royal Wedding (1951) in which Astaire danced up walls and across a ceiling, a dazzling display of ingenuity created in an era before computers.

In addition, Donen’s visual panache sparked such comic thrillers as Charade (1963) and Arabesque (1966). He integrated song, dance and story in a way that propelled the musical to a dynamic rarely seen before. Using complex intercuts to explore emotional dynamics and color correlatives, he won accolades for his direction of the Albert Finney-Audrey Hepburn romancer Two for the Road (1967). On a satiric plane, Donen directed Bedazzled (1967), starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

He invigorated the form with fresh-air excitement: one only need to watch the lakeside dance in Funny Face or the picnic in The Pajama Game.

Indeed, the Donen/Kelly collaboration crystallized when they were given the opportunity to co-direct On the Town. Although they spent only three days on location in New York, they invigorated and “opened up” the production with shots of the docks and the top of Empire State Building. Donen was just 25 at the time.

“He was a dancer and knew that movement was everything: the beat of the image, the movement of the image, the rhythm of the image — he makes the camera dance,” his biographer, USC professor Drew Casper, noted.

Following the virtual disappearance of the musical in the late 1960s, Donen ventured to other genres. He went to England to film Indiscreet (1958) and legendarily defied the censors when he used a split screen to show Cary Grant in bed with Ingrid Bergman.

In the 1970s, Donen’s filmmaking was sporadic and less successful. He revisited the musical with The Little Prince (1974) and a year later directed Lucky Lady, starring Gene Hackman, Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli, a lumbering expedition that failed to capture the magic of musical glories.

During the latter part of his career, Donen directed Movie Movie (1978), a satire of three film genres; Blame It on Rio (1984), which starred Michael Caine as a philanderer who has an affair with his best friend’s daughter (Michelle Johnson); a memorable 1986 musical episode of ABC’s Moonlighting; and a 1999 adaptation of Love Letters for ABC starring Steven Weber and Laura Linney.

Other Donen films include Fearless Fagan and Love Is Better Than Ever with Elizabeth Taylor, both released in 1952.

In a statement, Steven Spielberg called Donen "a friend and early mentor."

"His generosity in giving over so many of his weekends in the late '60s to film students like me to learn about telling stories and placing lenses and directing actors is a time I will never forget," the filmmaker said.

"He co-directed what some consider the greatest Hollywood musical of all time, Singin' In the Rain, but when he left his partnership with Gene Kelly to go it alone, he made his most compelling movies in multiple genres," said Spielberg. "Charade, Bedazzled and Two for the Road were my favorites."

He added, "When visiting New York, I will miss not bumping into him on his daily walks and hear him talking about life and film, which for Stanley were inseparable."

Donen was born April 13, 1924, in Columbia, South Carolina. He began dancing at age 10 and appeared in local theaters.

“I saw Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio when I was 9 years old, and it changed my life,” he told Vanity Fair in March 2013. “It just seemed wonderful, and my life wasn’t wonderful. The joy of dancing to music! And Fred was so amazing, and Ginger — oh, God! Ginger!”

He attended the University of South Carolina but moved to New York in search of theater work. His first job was in 1940 as a dancer in the chorus of Pal Joey, starring Kelly.

When Kelly was hired to choreograph the 1941 Broadway musical comedy Best Foot Forward, he chose Donen to assist him. The director of that show was Abbott. Still only 17 years old, Donen had met two of his most important future collaborators. When MGM acquired the film rights to Best Foot Forward for a 1943 film, Donen was selected as assistant choreographer.

During the next five years, Donen worked on the choreography of 14 films, four for Columbia and the rest for MGM. He resumed his collaboration with Kelly on Cover Girl (1944) and Living in a Big Way (1947).

Working with the Freed Unit — responsible for most of the studio’s major musicals — Donen’s star rose quickly. He co-wrote with Kelly the story for Busby Berkeley’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), which starred Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Esther Williams. Donen then got the chance to work with Astaire in his next film, Royal Wedding.

The iconic scene in Singin’ in the Rain in which Kelly dances down the street with his umbrella took months of preparation. “He danced in puddles, which had to be in the exact spot, and the exact timing,” Donen told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in 2012. “We had to dig the cement out and make it for him to splash at that point … so you have to rehearse it very much.”

Donen was married four times: to dancer, choreographer and actress Jeanne Coyne from 1948-51 (she wound up marrying Kelly, and Donen and the actor would have a falling out); to actress Marion Marshall (and future wife of actor Robert Wagner) from 1952-59; to English countess Adelle Beatty from 1960-71; and to actress Yvette Mimieux from 1972-85.

His most recent companion was writer-director Elaine May. They were together since 1999, and he wore a medallion that was inscribed, “Stanley Donen. If lost, please return to Elaine May.” She survives him.

Watch Donen’s delightful 1998 Oscar acceptance speech, below.

Feb. 23, 11:37 a.m. Updated with confirmation of the cause of death.