Six Moments When Stanley Donen Changed My Life
Stanley Donen, the last surviving director from the classic era of Hollywood, passed away last week at the age of 94. I never met him of course, and I really didn’t know much about his personal life until I read the obituaries. However, I can honestly say he changed my life for the better. Endlessly re-watchable, the best of his films contain moments of undeniable joy.
Donen directed one the first classic films I ever remember seeing, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. My mother helped me pick out the VHS at the library. The dancing and singing and the glorious Technicolor shirts dazzled. It sparked a life-long obsession with movie musicals and remains in my personal top 10 to this day. The barn-raising scene is rightly praised as one of the best musical sequences ever filmed. How can you not smile while watching this?
Dancing On The Ceiling
So, I loved musicals. I loved Fred and Ginger. And when I learned that Fred Astaire had once danced up the walls and across the ceiling, it dazzled me once again. That happened in another Stanley Donen movie, Royal Wedding. My dad explained to me how they’d filmed the dance. It was one of the first times that I ever considered the technical side of filmmaking. Even though I understood the illusion, it was still wonderful to watch.
I think about this moment every day. A framed photograph of Fred Astaire dancing down the wall hangs in the hallway outside my children’s bedroom. I see it each morning when I wake them up and each evening when I put them to bed. Every time I see that image, it brings the same joy that I felt the first time I watched Astaire dance.
When I was in high school, the American Film Institute released their first list of the 100 greatest American movies. Like many a budding cinephile, I wanted to see every film on the list. As a tie-in with the TV special about the AFI list, many of the featured films aired on TNT late at night. That’s how I first saw Citizen Kane, King Kong, and Singin’ in the Rain.
Singin’ in the Rain became, immediately and permanently, my favorite movie of all time. It marks the apex of Donen’s celebrated creative collaboration with Gene Kelly. Together, as choreographers and co-directors, they changed the game for movie musicals. They made dance sequences that could only be achieved on film. The moment when the camera swoops down upon Kelly’s upturned face fills me with the overwhelming sensation of pure joy. This is the reason why movies exist.
In college, I studied dance and as I learned more about proper technique, I became a more discerning viewer. I could pick out who among the musical stars were the truly gifted dancers and who were the hoofers gamely getting by. Donen worked with the best of the best: Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Donald O’Connor, and the queen, Cyd Charisse. The most famous dance number in It’s Always Fair Weather is probably Kelly’s virtuosic solo on roller skates, I Like Myself. But I’m in awe of Charisse in Baby You Knock Me Out. The precision! Those legs!
You Know What’s Wrong With You?
Donen created for one my favorite movie-watching memories as an adult, too. About 10 years ago, a friend of mine was working as a projectionist at a local multiplex and he invited me and another friend to come by after closing to watch any movie we wanted on one of the big screens. I chose Charade. I get warm, fuzzy feelings remembering the three of us sitting in the middle of the huge auditorium theatre watching two of my favorite movie stars, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, bigger than life.
Charade contains one of the best three-sentence exchanges in the history of cinema. It’s the kind of romantic, yet witty line that you aspire to say to someone one day and sincerely hope that someone will say to you. People call Charade the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made, but Hitchcock was never this sweetly in love.
He’s In Heaven
Donen’s last great musical moment happened in 1998, when he received an Honorary Academy Award “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, eleance, wit, and visual innovation.” Accepting the award, he manages to be entertaining and funny, while also humble and sincere. And he throws in a bit of soft-shoe. It is a perfect Oscars speech.
Thank you for showing up, Mr. Donen.