Stanley Donen died Friday at the age of 94, the son of a Jewish merchant in Columbia, South Carolina and the last surviving director of Hollywood’s “golden age.” It was Donen’s work as co-director with Gene Kelly on Singin’ in the Rain that will survive him as long as filmed entertainment survives. But since Kelly was the superstar name and the one splashing about in those puddles in the greatest musical number ever committed to film, Donen’s reputation never achieved the heights it might have due to Kelly’s shadow.
That was due in part to Kelly’s insanely competitive streak. Kelly, who famously hosted parties at his house for the purpose of beating his friends and colleagues at any and every sport he could take up, did not like sharing credit and took every opportunity to belittle Donen’s contributions to their collaborations—which included the dance numbers in Cover Girl and Anchors Aweigh and the direction of the musicals On the Town, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and It’s Always Fair Weather. He called Donen “an assistant, an aide, a colleague.” Kelly’s condescension may have had its roots in the complex romantic entanglements the two men suffered through. Donen was married for a time to Jeanne Coyne, who was in love with Kelly and wed him eight years after divorcing Donen; friends said Donen was besotted with Betsy Blair, who was married to Kelly.
We know better. The circumstantial evidence suggests that Donen was the presiding genius over Singin’ in the Rain—because Kelly never made anything good without him while Donen proved to be one of the most versatile and innovative directors of his time. All of Kelly’s work as a director without Donen was mediocre at best and awful at worst—consider the drippy Gigot with Jackie Gleason, the wooden The Cheyenne Social Club with James Stewart, and at the very bottom, the elephantine Barbra Streisand Hello Dolly!.
Donen’s career without Kelly was spectacular. He made good-to-classic musicals—Royal Wedding, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Funny Face. He made glorious romances—Love Is Better than Ever, Indiscreet, Charade, and especially Two for the Road, the most profound motion-picture comedy about marriage ever made (from a matchless screenplay by COMMENTARY contributor Frederic Raphael). He made terrific comedies without Kelly—The Grass Is Greener in 1960 with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant and the insanely underrated Movie Movie, a hilarious two-part parody of classic 1930s movies made in 1978 and his last good film.
Donen was not without flaw, to be sure. Aside from Movie Movie, his work after Two for the Road was bad—there was a lousy and expensive musical adaptation of The Little Prince and a really horrid sci-fi picture called Saturn 3 with a screenplay by, of all people, Martin Amis. Then Donen really hit rock bottom with 1984’s Blame It on Rio, one of the most noxious films ever made—a disgraceful portrait/celebration of ephebophilia in which a middle-aged man has an affair with the teenage daughter of his best friend.
Today, everyone involved in Blame It on Rio would likely be jailed just for contemplating it, especially given that it features extensive nude scenes performed by an actress who was then 17 years old. (Wikipedia says the film “received permission from a judge to film her nude scenes,” but offers no supporting citation of this fact, or where this judge might have been from, and I can find no contemporaneous news story that reported it.) Blame It on Rio is a sad reminder of how great directors almost never cap their careers on a high note; they mostly just peter out.
Still, what Donen’s best pictures all share with Singin’ in the Rain is an irrepressible exuberance; they are bursting with life. It’s not just the title number that stirs you to crazed heights in Singin’ in the Rain; it’s the series of sequences, one after the other, from “Fit as a Fiddle” to “Make ‘Em Laugh” to “Good Morning” to “Moses Supposes,” with the jaw-dropping ferocity of their synchronized taps and the comic invention of the dances themselves, that practically leaves you gasping for air.
Donen achieved these heights with the “Dancing on the Ceiling” number in Royal Wedding, with Fred Astaire so in love he climbs the walls of his hotel room in a piece of real-time special effects that has never been equaled in the 68 years since its filming. He did it again with the barn-raising sequence in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, among the most joyous six minutes ever put on film.
Charade, the spy romance in which Audrey Hepburn falls for the mysterious Cary Grant as they try to keep her alive in Paris, is basically 113 minutes of unadulterated pleasure. In Two for the Road, Donen and Raphael show Hepburn and Albert Finney at various stages in the course of their relationship and marriage; the passion and power of the movie itself is an affirmation of the idea that whatever the difficulties of their lives together, what they have built is something worth cherishing.
Stanley Donen was worth cherishing. Perhaps he wasn’t cherished enough—Gene Kelly saw to that. But he did get an honorary Oscar in 1998 and gave what may have been the most delightful speech in the history of those awards. You can see it here.
Baruch dayan emet. May Stanley Donen’s children and grandchildren, and his common-law widow Elaine May, be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.