Monday, December 04, 2006

preview: private screenings with stanley donen

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.

Wolf's take:
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.

Loophole's take:
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.

I never forget a face, but in your case I'll make an exceptionI find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.

What do they think I am? Dumb or something? Why, I make more money than - than - than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!


Laura said...

Thanks very much for this great preview. It takes me back to one of my first experiences viewing a movie musical in a theater -- when I was about 12 I saw ON THE TOWN in a small theater in L.A. which had a screen that was little more than a bedsheet. (Our family still jokes about that theater...) Still, the less than optimal viewing conditions couldn't undo the magic of seeing that movie for the first time. (It's hard for my kids, brought up on movies like this, to understand there was a time when viewing "oldies" was confined to "revival theaters" or cut-up airings on local TV. No cable, no video, no DVDs...)

My all-time favorite movie is SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. (What an amazing story you told about first seeing it in Brazil, of all places!) A decade ago I had the thrill of seeing a screening of a newly restored 7 BRIDES print at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in L.A. Many members of the cast and crew were there, including Tommy Rall, Julie Newmar, Ruta Lee, Russ Tamblyn, Michael Kidd, and Saul Chaplin (a really lovely man I met briefly on a couple of occasions). Mr. Donen wasn't there but it was a great tribute to the work he and everyone else did on the film.

If you haven't read Drew Casper's book on Stanley Donen yet you might want to check it out:

Thanks again for the great preview. Really looking forward to it.

J.C. Loophole said...

What a great opportunity to have seen the cast and the film. It still is my (and my wife's) favorite movie musical (which is tough to say for someone who loves so many of them). Did you get to meet any of them.
By the way, I watched several of the documentaries on Seven Brides, Singin' In the Rain and some other DVDs that also featured interviews with Donen in preparing for this interview. Saul Chaplin had some wonderful stories and he and Betty Comden and Adolph Green were some of the best "interviewees" in the features. Listening to them talk about the Freed unit reminded me of a couple of stock companies I was in and the great times we had putting on shows.
Thanks again for your comments!

Gia said...

Enjoyed the preview. I will be watching the show tomorrow night. I never knew that the same director did all of those movies. I love Funny Face and Charade- so I'll be checking it out on TCM. Found your site through your nomination on the Web blogs site. I really have enjoyed reading your articles.

Wolf Flywheel said...

--We welcome all reageders, *gia*. We're glad you've enjoyed us so far. Take a trip through our archives when you get a chance. You might like what you find.

--As always *laura*, you bring great insight through your comments. Always a fan of classic movies, it still took me awhile to come around to musicals. When I did, Donen's were the ones I enjoyed the most. You'll greatly enjoy this interview. His information on the workings of Hollywood in that era are wonderful and his personal success story is amazing.

Laura said...

Have you read Hugh Fordin's book THE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT about the Freed stock company at MGM? It's a very valuable and interesting book for a musical lover to read.

I did get to meet the attendees after the 7 BRIDES screening and panel discussion. I have a large collection of stills from the film (gathered over the years at a couple stores in Hollywood) and was able to get a couple of the publicity stills autographed, too. For a 7 BRIDES fan it was pretty much heaven. (Grin) I met Jane Powell on a different occasion -- my parents took a film class from director/choreographer Charles Walters in '80/'81 and she came to one of the classes, which I was able to attend. Saw her and Howard Keel in SOUTH PACIFIC at the Pantages in the late '70s, too. (I did a little bit of acting myself, as a teenager, and saw that right I played Nellie in 9th grade, so that was extra-neat.) CA can be a frustrating place to live at times (grin) but living here has also provided many very special experiences over the years.

What a neat opportunity you had yourself to have an advance screening of the new documentary! Fun to compare notes and experiences as we have so many common interests.

Best wishes, Laura

Filmfanman said...

Nice to see so many fellow Seven Brides fans. I actually have something going on that same night, fortunately the DVR will do the work for me and I'll catch it this weekend. Turner Classic Movies + Technology= 1 happy film fan. Thanks for the heads up and preview of what looks like to be an excellent show.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that both of you mention Donen as being candid and being matter of fact about the work and his career. I doubt if such an interview could take place with any young director of today's Hollywood. Looks like Donen is part of a vanishing breed. I look forward to the interview.

brewjoe said...

Good stuff.
I like Charade as well and was really surprised to find out he did Blame it on Rio. Very different movie from his others, I think.

Retro_N_Groovy said...

Excellent post. I can't get enough of TCM. My favorite channel by far. Charade is one of my favorites, and it's about time I catch it again. You know, when I first saw it long ago, I was under the impression it was a Hitchcock film.

As filmfanman mentioned, TCM + DVR = excellent! Oh, and a DVD recorder, as I simply can't afford to buy so many great films. I'm still picking up the Fox noir collection here and there when I can.

By the way, I noticed Forbidden Hollywood is on the shelf at the moment. I really want to check that out. I caught a little bit of the films they were showing last night.

Great blog fellas.

J.C. Loophole said...

You'll want to check out our review of Forbidden Hollywood later today Retro N'Groovy. It's an excellent set.
By the way folks, thanks for all of your comments! Hope you enjoy the Private Screenings.


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