Stanley Donen, who has died at 94, was a giant of the Hollywood musical who directed such classics as Singin’ In The Rain and Funny Face.
His most enduring association was with the song and dance man Gene Kelly, but he also worked with Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire.
The 1940s and 1950s were the prime era for Hollywood musicals and no filmmaker contributed more to the magic than Donen, among the last survivors from that era and one willing to extend the limits of song and dance into the surreal.
He was part of the unit behind such unforgettable scenes as Kelly dancing with an animated Jerry the mouse in Anchors Aweigh, Astaire’s gravity-defying spin across the ceiling in Royal Wedding, and, the all-time triumph, Kelly ecstatically splashing about as he performs the title number in Singin’ In The Rain.
A 2007 American Film Institute survey of the top 100 American movies ranked that film, with its inventive take on Hollywood’s transition from silent to talking pictures in the 1920s and Kelly’s famous dance in a downpour, at number five.
Donen was asked in 2002 whether he had thought that Singin’ In The Rain, released in 1952 and also starring Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, would be revered decades later.
“You can’t get through a movie if you don’t think it’s good,” he said.
“Certainly we thought it was good. More than that? I don’t know. You don’t think about that. You just think about how you can do it.”
Both the film and Donen were at first underrated. Singin’ In The Rain was seen as high entertainment rather than art and was not even nominated for a best picture or directing Oscar.
Donen, overshadowed by Kelly early in his career, never received a competitive Oscar nomination and waited until 1998 for an honorary award, presented to him by Martin Scorsese.
He was more than ready. Donen danced cheek-to-cheek with his Oscar statuette, which he called “this cute little fella”.
The crowd yelled and applauded as he crooned, “Heaven, I’m in heaven,” from Irving Berlin’s Cheek To Cheek.
Born in Columbia, South Carolina, Donen would remember movies as a needed escape from the tensions of being one of the few Jews in his community.
He took tap dancing lessons in his teens and began his showbusiness career as a performer, dancing in the original Broadway production of Pal Joey at the age of 16.
The title role was played by Kelly, and the show’s success propelled him into the movies.
Singin’ In The Rain was one of three films credited to Kelly and Donen as co-directors; the others were On The Town, the 1949 Kelly-Sinatra musical about sailors on leave in New York City, and the darker It’s Always Fair Weather, in which three soldier friends reunite a decade later.
Other Donen films included Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), with its superlative athletic choreography; Damn Yankees (1958), the remake of the Broadway smash about a baseball fan’s temptation; and Funny Face, in which Astaire teamed up with Audrey Hepburn to play a fashion photographer and his unlikely muse.
One of his films, the chic mystery Charade (1963), reminded viewers of a Hitchcock thriller. It starred Hepburn as a precocious socialite whose husband has been murdered, and Grant, who appeared in four Hitchcock films, as a mysterious man who may or may not be helping her.
Donen steadfastly denied any Hitchcock influence, while adding that the master of suspense “doesn’t own the genre”.