Stanley Donen Revitalized Hollywood and Rejoiced in Its Magic
The day before the 91st Academy Awards, director Stanley Donen passed away at the age of 94, leaving a gaping hole in the Hollywood firmament. Donen’s magnum opus, Singin’ In The Rain, is often hailed as the greatest movie musical of all time. Its timeless humor, critique of Hollywood and endless joy all combine to make pure movie magic, even decades after its initial release.
The 40’s saw a sharp decline in both the quantity and quality of movie musicals as World War I hardened public sensibilities. Donen observed this change and used Singin’ to poke fun at cultural transitions (represented by the switch from silent films to sound in the movie) with heaping doses of hope and sentimentality. Since its release in 1952, you’d be hard pressed to find a person in America that wouldn't recognize the classic title song or picture Gene Kelly’s iconic umbrella/lamppost pose.
Stanley Donen films are characterized by their ability to deliver sweetness while retaining human authenticity and a sharp wit that keeps them from becoming too saccharine. His directorial debut, On the Town, is a classically cheesy musical staring Kelly and young phenom Frank Sinatra, majorly grounded by Donen’s on-location filming in New York, against the wishes of MGM. Donen saw that the city was practically another character in the movie, and to fake it would be to compromise the story.
One of my personal favorites, Funny Face, features Audrey Hepburn as a bookstore clerk turned model and Fred Astaire as a photographer in a film that sweetly reconciles intellectualism, fashion and love. In his commitment to authenticity, Donen even drew from Diana Vreeland, a former Vogue editor-in-chief, for musical number “Think Pink”–the editor had sent a memo to her staff saying "Today let's think pig white! Wouldn't it be wonderful to have stockings that were pig white! The color of baby pigs, not quite white and not quite pink!"
Donen’s directorial genius shone brightest through his handling of dance in film. Along with frequent collaborator Gene Kelly, he created the “cine-dance,” integrating the musical medium with film in order to have dances become more than Broadway-style numbers, but rather an artistic collaboration between dancer and cameraman. His ability to strike harmony between so many elements of a musical has made him the director of some of the best movie musical dance sequences of all time: Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling in 1951’s Royal Wedding.
Donen was notably overlooked by the Oscars throughout his legendary career, only awarded for his artistic contributions to film with a Lifetime Achievement award in 1997. The legendary director burst into song and dance, giving us one last piece of that classic Hollywood joy he overflowed with.
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