Dennis Miller and I are on the road in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and about to take to the stage at the Kirby Center. We occasionally get asked by theatregoers what we talk about backstage, and in fact a lot of times we talk about great movies. This guy made more than a few of them: Stanley Donen died a week ago, and, as the tedious charmless joyless self-regarding plonkers at last Sunday's Oscars couldn't be bothered mentioning his passing, I thought we should. Donen was the last surviving major director of the Golden Age, mainly because he was barely out of short pants when he started. His films include On The Town, Singin' In The Rain, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Indiscreet, Charade and Two for the Road. He started out directing Sinatra, Astaire, Gene Kelly, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, and hung in there long enough to direct Lionel Richie, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore (topless), and Michael Jackson (for a Jekyll & Hyde adaptation aborted after the child-molestation charges). And, speaking of the Oscars, the last magical moment at the Academy Awards was Donen's impromptu 1998 dance duet with his statuette to "Cheek to Cheek". It's many years since I last saw him, but I couldn't let his death pass without a nod to the man whose work gave millions of moviegoers - in the words of a famous title song - "a glorious feeling":
A couple of decades back, at one of those American Film Institute galas, in the midst of the more familiar anecdotes, Steve Martin revealed his own hitherto unknown part in one of the most celebrated song-&-dance sequences in motion picture history. "It was the early Fifties," Steve recalled. "Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen were directing a film, so I dropped by to see my pals. They were very glum, and I said, 'What's the matter?' And they said, 'This damn weather! We can't get this number shot!' I sat there in the rain for a minute and said, 'Why don't you shoot it anyway..?' Well, the rain kept up and Stanley said, 'What the heck, we'll do what Steve said... Just get this lamppost outta here and we'll be ready to go.' I said, 'Leave the lamppost.' Gene said, 'Steve, what'll I do when I get to the lamppost?' I said, 'Swing around it a coupla times and make like it's a big deal.'" Martin paused. "The rest is history."
Curiously enough, that's not how Stanley Donen remembers the genesis of "Singin' In The Rain". But Martin's approach does coincide with Donen's general theory of film-making. "If it's raining and you gotta keep shooting, you either change your idea and shoot it inside, or you shoot it in the rain," he told me a few years ago. "Creativity only happens out of the given limits of the situation. The more limits, the more ingenious you look. That's why things on the stage always look so imaginative: you've got this proscenium arch and maybe ten feet of depth and within that you create a whole world. In a movie, everything is possible, so what you come up with is never as good as it could have been - because you could have set it on Mars."
As far as I'm aware, Stanley Donen has never set a movie on Mars. But he did make one set on Saturn's third moon, at an experimental hydroponics station manned by Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett. No singing or dancing, not even from Harvey Keitel, as the chap from head office who has a plan to replace them with robots. Donen was the producer on Saturn 3, and, when Kirk Douglas fell out with the director, Stanley, having no robot to replace him with, pitched in himself. Things like that happened a lot in the late Seventies and Eighties, as Donen's career wound down. His screenwriter on Saturn 3 was Martin Amis, who didn't write Singin' In The Rain, or Funny Face.
As it transpired, the rain wasn't a problem on Singin', because like everything else in those days (with the famous exception of On The Town) it was shot on a sound stage. But they worked hard for months to get that number to look so easy, including digging puddle holes in the street so that Kelly's splashes would splash right. Invited to write a script called Singin' In The Rain, the screenwriters Comden & Green were initially flummoxed. As Betty Comden said to me, "All we knew is that somewhere we'd have to have a scene where it was raining and a guy was singing."
"In it," added Adolph Green. In the end, the guy didn't just sing in it; he created the great signature scene of the Hollywood musical at its peak of perfection - and everything that makes the moment so light and effortless was painstakingly sweated over by Donen and Kelly: the lamppost, the cop, Donen's marvelous retreating crane shot. The assignment illustrates in other ways what the director means by the creativity of limitations. Arthur Freed, lyricist turned producer at MGM, wanted to get all his old songs into one movie – "All I Do Is Dream Of You", "Broadway Melody", "You Are My Lucky Star"... "We didn't know what to do with them," Donen told me, "until we realized they were all from early talkies. So we said the way to use these songs is to make a movie about early talkies. That already started narrowing down the possibilities."
After that, it was just a matter of Donen asking his standard question to actors: "What do you do best?" Donald O'Connor liked to clown, so Donen constructed the ultimate clown sequence in "Make 'Em Laugh", in which O'Connor tries to persuade a dejected Gene Kelly that being an entertainer is just as important as being a great artist:
Now you can study Shakespeare and be quite elite
And you can charm the critics and have nothin' to eat
Just slip on a banana peel, the world's at your feet
Make 'Em Laugh, Make 'Em Laugh, Make 'Em Laugh!
O'Connor's performance lifts the number to the heights. He brought a lifetime's experience and compressed it into a three-minute valentine to vaudeville. But everything in the sequence was new, cooked up for the movie - except for the finale, which Donen and Kelly insisted should be the trick Donald did as a boy on the stage years ago. And so the dancer runs up the wall and backflips, and runs up another wall and backflips, and runs up another wall, but it's a cardboard prop, and he crashes through it. "Make 'Em Laugh" is the essence of entertainment: its only purpose is to delight. Which is a lot harder than it sounds.
Donen was born in Columbia, South Carolina, the son of a man who ran a ladies' wear store. He liked the movies, so his parents gave him an 8mm camera. He especially liked Fred Astaire, so they got him dance lessons. At 16, he was dancing on Broadway in the chorus of Rodgers & Hart's Pal Joey (1940), starring Gene Kelly; at 17, he was hired by Kelly to assist with the choreography on another show, Best Foot Forward; at 19, he was in Hollywood, working on the movie Cover Girl; at 25, he co-directed On The Town; at 30, he made Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. At an age when most of today's directors are just out of film school, Donen had the kind of résumé you could retire on.
"How early," I asked him, "did you realize that that's what you wanted to do?"
"From childhood I realized it. But I didn't know I realized it. I also had, from childhood, this very strong reaction against a certain kind of film musical. The movie I loved was Flying Down To Rio, which was Fred Astaire – or the parts of it I loved were Fred Astaire. But the girls dancing on the airplane wings while people watched them through binoculars, even at that age I thought, 'This is really silly.' But, when Fred Astaire danced, it was magical. At that time almost every picture either had Busby Berkeley or Busby Berkeley imitators doing Busby Berkeley-type kaleidoscopic musical numbers. And I just hated Busby Berkeley numbers. They had one simple idea run into the ground, with no dancing and a lot of optical and geometric patterns. He wasn't really a choreographer, he was a cinematographer of pictorial patterns. I loved René Clair and I loved Lubitsch and Fred Astaire, and they were doing other kinds of musicals. So from childhood I felt like that, and I was resisting Busby Berkeleyism."
Midway through this demolition of Berkeley, the choreographer of 42nd Street, Gold Diggers Of 1935 et al, I remembered that Donen had wound up working with Berkeley, and Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, on a 1949 film called Take Me Out To The Ball Game. How had that turned out in terms of "resisting Busby Berkeleyism"?
"Well, that was a very odd situation. Kelly and I had worked together a considerable amount, and we had written this tiny little story, such as it was, for Take Me Out To The Ball Game - basically because the studio said they wanted to make another Kelly/Sinatra picture after Anchors Aweigh, and they couldn't find a suitable piece of material. So Gene and I sat down and knocked out a little story in four or five days. Arthur Freed, the producer of that film, adored Busby Berkeley and had made any number of Busby Berkeley films with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. And at that time Busby Berkeley, to put it bluntly, was in need of work, and Arthur Freed, in his generosity and concern for Busby Berkeley, gave him that picture to direct. And he then said, to Gene and me, would we do the musical numbers? Well, I was a very young man; I would do anything at that point. So Berkeley directed the scenes (which was his worst talent) and Gene and I were left to do the musical numbers - which the picture didn't have a whole sort of approach to, so we had to do the best we could with those few numbers, and it was a poor compromise. But Arthur Freed admired Gene and me, and the musicals were doing well, and he knew we weren't happy as a threesome with Berkeley. And he simply said, 'Would you two boys like to direct a musical together and see how that will go?'"
The musical they directed together was On The Town, and it went very well, considering it was the first MGM song-&-dance spectacular to be filmed on location. But, when two guys do one man's job, people become strangely fascinated by who does what. For On The Town, Donen co-directed and co-choreographed; Kelly co-directed and co-choreographed ...and acted and sang and danced. When they met on the Broadway production of Pal Joey, Kelly was a leading man pushing 30, and Donen was a 16-year old chorus boy. On their movies, Kelly was an even bigger star, and Donen was... Well, as Debbie Reynolds said of Singin' In The Rain, "Stanley coukldn't dance, so he just operated the camera." Which is almost as condescending as Diana Ross, after announcing that she'd be producing a movie about Josephine Baker, being asked by a BBC interviewer whether she'd be writing it herself: "Oh," said Miss Ross, "I always leave the paperwork to somebody else." Was Kelly just leaving the drudge work to his gofer?
Singin' In The Rain must have hit close to home. Kelly plays movie legend Don Lockwood, and Donald O'Connor is Cosmo Brown, the obscure sidekick the press trample over at movie premieres in order to get to the big stars. Yet the film plays off a certain cheesy insincerity about the Kelly screen persona, and for that to work you need someone utterly natural and likeable alongside, like O'Connor. Freed's original choice for the role, the misanthropic Oscar Levant, would have been disastrous.
In the movie, Kelly gets the girl, and O'Connor's only duets are with tailor's dummies. In real life, the relationship between the star and the sidekick was more complex. Kelly and Donen were both married to the dancer Jeanne Coyne – not simultaneously, I hasten to add. Jeanne was married to Stanley but in love with Gene. Stanley was married to Jeanne, but in love with Gene's wife Betsy. "It was all pretty incestuous," said Kelly.
Donen and Kelly's partnership fell apart during their third and final co-directing assignment, It's Always Fair Weather (1955), and was never put back together. When we met, Donen said blandly that he had nothing to say about his relationship with Kelly, and then cackled for such a length of time that, like Dr Evil's minion, I felt obliged to join in. He had a very genial (so to speak) vicious streak that day, and some time later observed that Kelly's bloated, charmless film of Hello, Dolly! was widely credited as having singlehandedly killed off the Hollywood musical.
He has a point. The star and the sidekick went their separate ways. Kelly made Invitation To The Dance, a portentous flopperoo: Donen had seen early on that Kelly's pretentious side could easily get out of hand. The sidekick, on the other hand, made Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and then Funny Face, and The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, and then, as musicals sputtered, he turned to stylish comedies and romances – Indiscreet, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman; Charade, which is so good people think it's Hitchcock. After Donen, Kelly had directorial failures punctuated by the occasional forgettable acting cameo: his career died with the studio system. After Kelly, Donen had a solid Second Act, and thrived as an independent producer. Even with the commercial disasters, when you look at Kelly's, you mostly see why they bombed; when you look at Donen's Two For The Road, say, you see something worth doing, and worth watching. Donen moved to England for a decade and wound up marrying a countess, and still cranked out more watchable pictures than Kelly did back in Hollywood.
With hindsight, he was, with Vincente Minnelli, one of the two most consequential directors of the American musical. Donen had been particularly fond of the distinctively cinematic numbers in Astaire's early films - where, for example, he plays golf during the song, a routine which would be impossibly cramped if not downright lethal on a theatre stage. So, from the beginning of his own career, young Stanley seized every opportunity to flaunt the possibilities of the medium: the "Alter-Ego'" sequence in Cover Girl (1943), where Kelly dances with himself down a deserted street; the first ever duet with a cartoon character, between Jerry (of Tom &...) and Kelly (of Donen &...) in Anchors Aweigh (1945); Astaire dancing up the walls and on the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1951).
"Physical dancing is physical dancing, and there's no difference just because the man or woman dancing is photographed," said Donen. But what's usually a surefire crowdpleaser on stage - the big chorus number which overwhelms by the sheer weight of human presence - rarely retains its impact on the screen. "The bigger the group, the less power," Donen explained to me, "because in order to see them you have to pull further away - unless you do what Fosse did in the opening of All That Jazz, where you just see arms going up in the air. But large groups just dancing are boring because you can't see them dance. So you have to use either an idea that can be enhanced by photographing it or a cinematic idea that couldn't be contained within the proscenium arch."
He explained everything to me in a matter-of-fact drawl, as if what he was saying should be obvious, unless you had no idea what you were doing – like, say, Richard Attenborough on A Chorus Line or any of the other johnny-come-latelys attempting to dig up the film musical and jolt it back to life. And he's right: a lot of it should be obvious. Yet for most of their history, from 42nd Street on, original screen musicals have felt obliged to keep the numbers within some kind of recognizable reality: the characters play showmen or songwriters and they sing on stages or in rehearsal rooms or radio studios – somewhere where there's a reason why there's music around. Donen wanted to find an integrated style for screen musicals equivalent to the advances being made on Broadway. Yet even respected stage dramatists were inclined to treat motion pictures as a simple-minded cousin. In later years, Alan Jay Lerner was unable to watch Royal Wedding because his screenplay for Donen reduced him to "a state of cringe".
"It made me cringe, too," said Donen. "Alan Lerner was really interested in seeing somebody standing there saying his lyrics preferably in a big head close-up. You see it in On A Clear Day or Paint Your Wagon: they've got to sing those lyrics straight into the lens; you could almost turn off the picture. His lyrics are as good as they get, but he wasn't interested in overall cinematic ideas. Not only didn't he understand dance and movement, he didn't like it." Since the Sixties, Donen has directed straight pictures, but a return to musicals with The Little Prince in 1973 failed mainly, he believes, because Lerner, his screenwriter, refused to look on a film musical as anything other than a musical play photographed.
Donen blames this fear of going beyond either theatre style or what's "realistic" on the very technology which enabled screen musicals. "I've been a film nut since early childhood and, while I'm not quite old enough to have been extremely familiar with silent films, I became familiar with them. Silent films by their very nature were a very stylistic medium. In order to tell a story in which nobody could talk, they used metaphor and symbols, cinematic devices, everything. But, as soon as talkies happened, cinema became closer to the banality of real life – to the banality of you and me sitting here, Mark. We could sit here on this sofa and do My Dinner With André for two hours ...but that wouldn't be a movie. It seems to me a shame not to try to get away from that banality, because we get nothing but movies where people talk and automobiles crash. Alfred Hitchcock once said he didn't go to movies, and they asked why, and he said 'I don't enjoy photographs of people talking.' And you know, it's very broad, but that's what movies became."
As he said this, I thought of Donen's last theatrical feature, Blame It On Rio (1984). No automobile crashes, but the overall effect of the film is like watching one in slow-motion. Best buddies Michael Caine and Joseph Bologna take their respective teenage daughters Demi Moore and Michelle Johnson on vacation, and the girls wander around topless, and Caine's character winds up having sex with young Miss Johnson, and even though it's Michael Caine, he can't quite expunge the creepiness of the situation, and then he and Bologna spend the rest of the movie bickering...
For a guy who co-directed On The Town at the age of 25, that's no way to bring the curtain down. I was gratified to hear recently that, entering his tenth decade, Donen is apparently in pre-production on a new project written by his long-term partner Elaine May – by "long-term partner", I don't mean in the business sense but the romantic one: Miss May apparently has no desire to become the sixth Mrs Donen.
Bob Fosse, Donen's co-choreographer on the screen versions of Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958), was convinced that film audiences no longer accept the convention of a guy walking down the street and bursting into song. "Bob felt the audience didn't like it. I think it depends who's in the film. If one had Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul in a musical, when Michael stepped out of the scene and into a musical number, the audience would burst into applause. But you need that level of performer. Judy and Gene and Fred are freaks. In orchid growing, they call them 'sports' – they're so different, they're out on their own. Unless you do musicals like All That Jazz, where the film itself is the 'sport', you need those freaks."
Today, the "sports" are the superheroes. Moviegoers will accept Captain America or Iron Man doing anything, no matter how ridiculous, because they buy the conventions of the genre. But, if the Mighty Thor were to turn to the Black Widow and sing "It Had To Be You", audiences would go, "Oh, that's totally unrealistic..."
So today nobody does musicals because nobody does musicals. "They don't do it because they don't do it," Donen reckoned, "and that creates its own downward spiral. If it was an ongoing thing, it would be an ongoing thing and they would do it. And the other reason they don't do it is because, since they haven't done it, they don't know to whom to turn to do it."
And these days Hollywood makes films for the world. "The language barrier in most musicals is gigantic," said Donen. "Mainly because of the singing. There's no way to dub the singing. If you have Barbra Streisand or Michael Jackson or Judy Garland or whoever it is, and you subtitle it, the audiences don't like it. If you take their voice out and put in another singer in another language, they don't like that either."
I told him the last time I'd seen Singin' In The Rain was on French TV. The dialogue had been dubbed but the singing had been left in English, and, needless to say, there was no attempt to match "Don Lockwood"'s speaking voice with his singing voice. Which kind of undermined Donen's great contribution to musical films:the integration of dialogue and song into a coherent, flowing whole - although all that partially-French vocally-mismatched dubbing is pretty funny for a film about the technical difficulties of talking pictures.
Nobody could have foreseen back in 1952 that Arthur Freed's scheme to reactivate his ancient song catalogue would produce a film that, as Comden & Green told me the first time I met them, came third in the international critics' all-time top ten, after La règle du jeu and Citizen Kane. I think they thought that would impress me, but I'd rather watch Singin' In The Rain than Renoir or Welles. Still, since the screen musical went belly up, Stanley Donen has been much in demand from the world's film institutes and universities to attend one cerebral assessment of his work or another – Britain, Spain, Germany, Australia... A director can while away a lot of time jetting from one hommage to another - as the auteur himself put it to me, breaking with his dry, measured delivery to caress lovingly each exotic elongated syllable. If it's Paris, it must be Chantons sous la pluie.
But I'd hoped that that Elaine May project would come off. Even in his nineties, a film director would rather direct a new film than talk about the old ones - even though the new production will, like the old productions, stagger from one backstage nightmare to another. That's the beauty of Singin' In The Rain, I suggested to Donen. It's a grand comedy of crises about an entire industry scrambling to transform itself. And yet it's a very rare movie about movies that doesn't sour on its own insider's cynicism. Notwithstanding their fractious relationship and spousal envy, Donen and Kelly made a film about making films that looks like it was fun to make. And, in that sense, it's the perfect monument to the Golden Age.
Ah, but even Stanley Donen can only take so much of this sort of thing. He listened politely to my effusions, and then shrugged. "Singin' In The Rain? Oh, it's just a regular movie."
~Much of our content at SteynOnline is made possible through the support of members of The Mark Steyn Club. What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, aside from an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, it's also a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time (the latest takes place this Tuesday) and a live music club (check out our annual Twelfth Night edition of On the Town). More details here. And don't miss this weekend's Tale for Our Time - Anne of Green Gables with Mark and special guest Michele Bachmann.