Stanley Donen: Film Magician

Stanley Donen began his career as a director of sprightly musicals and comedies, then continued with gems of light drama and suspense that were equally agile. No one did frothy better. That may sound like a soft compliment, but I don’t mean it that way at all.

It is a high gift to be able to leave your fingerprints on every movie you made while doing so with a feather-fingered touch. The best Stanley Donen movies – and man, are there a lot of “bests” – are full of a joyous energy.

Just try not to smile while Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra song and dance together in Donen’s first film, 1949’s On The Town. Or when Kelly stomps through a small monsoon in Singin’ In The Rain – perhaps the greatest of all musicals. Go ahead and attempt to resist the charms of every shot of Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. It simply can’t be done.

Donen’s filmography is full of movies that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of lifting the spirit. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Indiscreet, Damn Yankees – which briefly legitimized Tab Hunter as more than a pretty face; no small feat at the time – are great examples. Even his second tier stuff was full of delights. The Pajama Game, It’s Always Fair Weather, Arabesque, and The Grass Is Greener fall into that category.

Later in his career, Donen added new shades and deeper shadows to his pallet. My absolute favorite film on his resume is 1963’s Charade. A romance, a mystery, and a thriller all in one with a touch of Hitchcock (in To Catch a Thief mode) thrown in. A perfectly matched Cary Grant at the tail-end of his career (he would make only two more films) and Audrey Hepburn in her final peak star-shine years are so wonderful together the heart nearly breaks at the thought of this being their only film together. But if that is indeed so, at least that one collaboration was perfect. Because oh my, is Charade flawless in every way.

Were it not for Charade, his 1967 reteaming with Audrey Hepburn in Two For the Road would have been a new career peak. In some ways, Two For The Road is a departure for Donen. That’s not to say that a film with Hepburn and Albert Finney retracing the phases of their marriage wasn’t as lovely as Donen could make it, but here he would add bittersweet notes. Yes, there was abundant love and charm in the film, it’s just that in Two For The Road there was infidelity, pain, and marital strife as well. Donen had been an extremely prolific director for nearly twenty years upon the release of Two For the Road, yet just like with Charade, he was capable of shining new light through old windows.

Donen had one more triumph that same year (I said he was prolific) with the very British screwball comedy Bedazzled starring Peter Cook and featuring a breakout performance by Dudley Moore.

When the direction of American cinema took a sharp turn at the intersection of the ’70s, Donen didn’t take the off ramp. His final two films didn’t so much misread the new mood of the country as they simply refused to see the signs. Donen’s final two films would be unmitigated disasters. Saturn 3, a sci-fi misfire, painfully paired Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett to hapless effect. 1984’s Blame It On Rio with Michael Caine and a very young Demi Moore was less awkward but perhaps more forgettable.

Donen did pull off one final flourish in 1986 when he co-directed a black and white musical episode of Moonlighting. A show that one could hardly imagine without the career of Donen preceding it. Light humor, romance, and a touch of the zany – it made the career of Bruce Willis and saved the career of Cybil Shepherd. The musical number in Donen’s episode set to Billy Joel’s Big Man On Mulberry Street has everything we would expect from the genius of Stanley Donen. Silky camera moves, class, style, charm, and most of all, magic.

Because that’s what Stanley Donen really was. Not so much a filmmaker, but a film magician.

Stanley Donen died today. He was 94.

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