When I was about 15 years old I first saw Singin' in the Rain. I had been active in theater since I was 11 and had been in a few musicals, but this was something else altogether. Donald O'Conner was hilarious and amazing. Gene Kelly was one of the most talented human beings I'd ever seen. Debbie Reynolds was adorable and Cyd Charisse was, in a word, h-o-t. I loved it. I bought a VHS copy and wore it out. I gave no thought to who had directed this movie that I loved.
Then when I was twenty and I was in the southern part of Brazil (you know- a looonnggg way away?) and I had just had minor surgery on my back. I was out of commission for a week and a fellow American brought me a tape one day to relieve my boredom. He knew I had been (in his words) a "theater and movie kid" and thought I would enjoy something he had brought from home. It was a copy of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I was enthralled. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I hadn't even seen a movie for a year or the medication- but it was great. I wish I had a deep, rich voice like Howard Keel (still one of my all time favorite musical stars) and thought that not only did Jane Powell have an amazing voice she also had equally amazingly beautiful eyes. The sequences were incredible - the barn raising dance, the lonesome polecat routine- all of it was just great. (I got a copy when I came back to the US and yes- it was the movie, not the medication)
When you keep "discovering" great movies, it makes you want to really delve into who made them, how they were made, and the stories behind them. I was intrigued when I discovered that director Stanley Donen was the common thread in these two films. I began to find his other films and they became favorites as well; Royal Wedding, On the Town, Charade and more. I was even surprised to learn that Donen was from my own hometown, Columbia, SC. Very cool. Imagine that a director of some of the best musicals in American cinema grew up in my very own town.
Stanley Donen was a kid in Columbia, SC who loved movies and loved dancing. He first saw his idol, Fred Astaire, in the movies and really was fascinated by the whole thing. While still a teenager he approached his parents about going to New York. They gave him a little money, knowing he was going to go no matter what, and Donen hit the great white way at the age of 17. Within a short time of arriving in New York, he got a job as a chorus boy in a Broadway musical. It was in one of those musicals, Pal Joey, that he met the man that would help lead him to Hollywood and become his most important collaborator: Gene Kelly.
Gene and Arthur Freed at MGM convinced Donen to come to Hollywood as a choreographer. Soon Donen was creating stunning sequences for Gene Kelly and his talent for visual pacing, camera work and telling a story with dancing became apparent. Donen became a co-director with Gene Kelly, on the beloved film, On the Town. Then Donen got a chance to direct his boyhood idol, Fred Astaire, in the film Royal Wedding. That film included perhaps Astaire's most imaginative and memorable sequence of dancing on the walls and ceiling of a room. Donen devised a way to really show how effortless and unrestrained Fred could be while dancing by creating a rotating room with a fixed camera. Donen and Kelly collaborated again as director's in the famous film Singin' in the Rain. Donen's visual style and theater background helped to create so many incredible sequences in those films and many others throughout his career. He has worked with some of Hollywood's greatest stars and earned their respect, friendship and admiration. Stars like Kelly, Astaire, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, and many more worked with and starred in Donen's films. Cary Grant sought him out as a producing partner, a relationship that led to another great film Charade. Donen continued directing films through the 70s and 80s, including the film version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic book, The Little Prince, and directing Michael Caine in Blame it on Rio. Donen also directed in television, including an episode of Moonlighting. He also directed, appropriately enough, the musica video to Lionel Richie's Dancing on the Ceiling. In 1998, Donen recieved and Honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Upon accepting the award, Donen broke out into song singing and dancing to "Cheek to Cheek."
Wednesday night on Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osbourne will be interviewing filmmaker Stanley Donen in an installment of their original series, Private Screenings. Wolf and I recently sat down and watched the episode and really enjoyed it. I have written quite a bit here, but let us give you both of our takes on the interview.
TCM has a reputation for continuously recognizing our country's greatest film makers. In this installment of TCM's Private Screenings they once again go straight for the good stuff. Stanley Donen is interviewed by TCM's own Robert Osborne and he discusses his career from his train ride to N.Y. as a 16-year-old hopefull to becoming one of the most innovative and successfull film makers of all time. How was he innovative? How about his inventing the method used to film Gene Kelly dancing with himself, in Covergirl, or even a cartoon mouse, in Anchors Aweigh? Don't remember that? Well, maybe you remember Fred Astaire dancing up the walls and onto the ceiling in Royal Wedding. That was his too. How was he successful? Charade. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. Royal Wedding. Funny Face. On the Town. That's just to name a few. There's also a little film he directed that you might remember called Singin' in the Rain.
Mr. Donen was extremely candid in this interview giving the lowdown on the things I've mentioned and more. He was frank with Mr. Osborne telling him at one point after a question about his work that the bottom line was always that "It was a job". That's how he approached his work. No pre-madonna delusions or power trips. That attitude towards film making along with the desire to be good at his "job" made Mr. Donen the great film maker that he is. A fan of movies and movie stars himself, a most profound answer drawn from Mr. Donen by TCM's Robert Osborne was about his idol Fred Astaire. In reference to the 'spinning room' scene in Royal Wedding, Mr. Osborne basically asked him why he chose to do that with Mr. Astaire. Mr. Donen replied with a matter-of-fact look on his face, "In all the world , to me, Fred Astaire seems the least affected by gravity". TCM did it again with this one. They bring the world of classic movies to your home with intelligence and class through this wonderfull interview. While all the other channels give you the flash in the pan film makers of the moment, TCM gives you the American classics which helped build the exstensive catalog of top rate movies that our country is proud to call her own. My advice to you Shelfers is to settle in on the evening of Wednesday December 6th at 8Pm. Grab a seat by the set, dim the lights, and prepare to be entertained. With Stanley Donen on Private Screenings, TCM will do just that.
It's a great interview and Donen talks about his career, many of his films and some of the actors and actresses that he has worked with over the years. I really enjoyed Donen's down to earth attitude about the work of making films and about his career and the nature of working in show business. Osbourne got quite in depth with him at certain points and Donen's responses and stories were very matter of fact and down to earth. It was refreshing to hear a producer-director not talk with so much self-importance. He wasn't there to talk about how great it was to be the director of this or that, or about his private life. Donen discussed the work, the movies, the studios and the stars. What was even more interesting was to hear him state that he had led a fortunate life and it seems he has never taken it, or what he has learned, for granted. This installment of Private Screenings is highly recommended.
Private Screenings with Stanley Donen is hosted by Robert Osbourne and premieres this Wednesday night, December 6th at 8pm est. Every Wednesday in December will feature some of Donen's films and December 13th features Donen's collaborations with Gene Kelly. Don't miss the interview and catch those films.
What do they think I am? Dumb or something? Why, I make more money than - than - than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!