Stanley Donen 13th April 1924 – 23rd February 2019

Cover Girl.jpg

Hollywood great Stanley Donen has died aged 94. Handsome, genial, witty and debonair he was an actor, dancer and choreographer who teamed up with Gene Kelly at a ridiculously young age and made screen history with the first musical shot on location, On the Town. They made the greatest musical in film history together, Singin’ in the Rain, the perfect integrated backstage Hollywood movie, the most brilliant, joyous blend of song and dance and storytelling. It transformed cinema. During the Fifties Donen continued learning his craft as director with romantic comedies and returning to his favourite form with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, another innovative iteration of the musical. He reunited with Kelly for It’s Always Fair Weather and then became an independent producer. He worked with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in the enduring classic Funny Face and then relocated to England and made some terrific midlife romcoms, including Indiscreet and The Grass is Greener before turning to thrillers with the great Charade, a Hitchcockian suspenser, back in Paris with Audrey Hepburn and another regular collaborator, Cary Grant. He followed that with another Peter Stone collaboration, ArabesqueTwo for the Road was his most personal film, a comedy drama about a couple in crisis, again starring Hepburn. His Seventies films were variable with Lucky Lady and Movie Movie the standouts, loving homages and pastiches of a Hollywood that he ironically had helped quash. He produced the 1986 Oscars, which boasted a musical number featuring a roll call of Hollywood musical stars:  Leslie Caron, June Allyson, Marge Champion, Cyd Charisse, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Esther Williams. His legacy is indelible;  he worked with the greats and made them better;  he mastered musicals, elevating them to a different level entirely with animation, editing and choreography;  romantic comedies; thrillers; and dramas.  Each time I see one of his films I feel a lot better about everything. He was one of my all-time favourite directors. Rest in peace.

Advertisements

Bedazzled (1967)

Bedazzled_1967_film.jpg

What terrible Sins I’ve got working for me. I suppose it must be the wages. Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) is a hapless short-order cook, infatuated with Margaret (Eleanor Bron), the statuesque waitress he works with at Wimpy Burger in London. On the verge of suicide, he meets George Spiggott (Peter Cook), the devil, who, in return for his soul, grants him seven wishes to woo the immensely challenging Margaret. Despite the wishes and the advice of the Seven Deadly Sins, including Lilian Lust (Raquel Welch), Stanley can’t seem to win his love and shake the meddling Spiggott… The writing and performing team of Pete ‘n’ Dud (aka Derek and Clive) were top comics in the 60s and this collaboration with Stanley Donen would seem to be a marriage made in cinematic heaven but it’s hard to see how their antic charm works in a Faustian satire that seems more antique nowadays. The seven deadly sins are embodied in quite clever colour-coded scenarios and there are some good visual tricks but overall the surreal touches can’t hit the mark. The deadpan delivery by the debonair Cook and the winsome charms of both Moore and Bron (who inspired Eleanor Rigby) as an unwitting femme fatale compensate for the shortcomings of the script. Best bits:  the pastiche pop show and the cross-dressing as nuns who trampoline. A time capsule of sorts. Julie Andrews!

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers poster.jpg

Let me tell you something, no woman is gonna go to bear country with you to cook and wash and slave for seven slumachy back woodsmen. 1850 Oregon. Milly (Jane Powell), a pretty young cook, marries backwoodsman Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel)after a brief courtship. When the two return up the mountains to Adam’s farm, Milly is shocked to meet his six ill-mannered brothers, all of whom live in his cabin and she is shocked to realised she’s basically their skivvy, washing and laundering and cooking and cleaning. She promptly begins teaching the brothers proper behavior, and most importantly, how to court a woman. But after the brothers kidnap six local girls during a town barn-raising, a group of indignant villagers tries to track them down and Milly splits from Adam then there’s an avalanche and the pass is blocked for months … Husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and Dorothy Kingsley adapted Stephen Vincent Benet’s story The Sobbin’ Women. It’s one of the most spectacularly staged Fifties musicals but the usual versions are panned and scanned and the colour hasn’t been graded correctly for current enjoyment. Nonetheless, Michael Kidd’s great choreography, the humour (some quite daring) and the relationships are nicely done and the songs are wonderful. Directed by former dancer and choreographer Stanley Donen. Bless your beautiful hide!

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

singin-in-the-rain-poster

It hasn’t taken the death of Debbie Reynolds for me to watch this again;  it’s a regular viewing choice for me and has been for a very long time. It’s the ultimate film about Hollywood moviemaking and let’s pretend and the transition from silents to talkies; it’s the greatest ever musical; it’s a film to grow up with and grow old with, with comedy and romance and great song and dance routines and that number, in the rain; it is a heaven-sent ode to joy. Goodbye, Debbie.

Two For the Road (1967)

Two for the Road movie.jpg

Architect Albert Finney is on a road trip to Saint Tropez with wife Audrey Hepburn to meet a wealthy client. On the way, they reflect on their relationship, how they met, their marriage and the possibility of splitting up for good. Who was it said every road movie was an emotional journey? And this Frederic Raphael screenplay directed by Stanley Donen is all that, and more besides, influenced as it was by the work of French auteurs, chiefly Alain Resnais, whose non-linear mosaic-like approach also had its effect on Nicolas Roeg. So the contemporary scenes are juxtaposed variously with scenes from alternating phases in their 12-year long relationship, all emblemised by different models of  (enviable!) cars, to great effect. The leads are as magnificent as you’d expect (Hepburn was not even wearing Givenchy, shock horror!) and it really is as magical as you’d want for a film that sends them towards the glorious Med as their marriage spirals up and down. It’s a daring film for its time with adult themes, realistic depiction of the banality of marriage and brilliant locations for the armchair francophile. Extraordinary photography by Christopher Challis, a great score (and song) by Henry Mancini and a notable titles sequence by Maurice Binder distinguish this mid-Sixties gem. A wonderful meshing of talents, this was the final of the three films Hepburn and Donen made together after Funny Face and Charade and it’s not remembered as well as it deserves to be.

Funny Face (1957)

Funny Face poster.jpg

The bookshop assistant who’s picked out to model by the world’s leading fashion photographer and uses a trip to Paris to try out her belief in empathicalism. Charm, wit, style, panache – and that’s just the costumes. Acting by Hepburn and Astaire, direction by Donen, photos by Avedon, humour by Kay Thompson, clothes by Givenchy. music by Gershwin. An MGM musical in all but name (in fact they all went to Paramount.) City by Paris. What more could you possibly want? ‘Smarvellous.

Arabesque (1966)

Arabesque movie poster.jpg

A professor who is expert in hieroglyphics is hired to go undercover to assist an Arab prime minister whose life is in danger from a mysterious organisation led by Alan Badel. David Pollock was a role conceived for Cary Grant after Charade, but he was retiring and it went to Gregory Peck instead and a huge amount was spent on rewrites – utilising the talents of Pierre Marton aka Peter Stone (and Julian Mitchell and Stanley Price) once again but even he can’t make Peck deliver humour like Grant. The beautiful woman this time is the awesome Sophia Loren who is the mistress of Badel. Since it’s Peter Stone there is cross and double cross and code and it’s espionage therefore there’s tension to burn … if you can figure out the plot. It really is quite a lot of hieroglyphics but it’s also one of the most incredible films ever shot, with the glory going to cinematographer Christopher Challis who gives great colour and there are lots of wacky angles a la mod style of the era, supposedly to camouflage the production issues. If you hate going to the optician best avoid the first ten minutes. It’s the last film of John Merivale, Vivien Leigh’s last companion, and the debut of legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong. There’s another fabulous titles sequence by Maurice Binder and it’s scored by Henry Mancini with some interesting sax and trombone work. Gorgeous entertainment.

Charade (1963)

Charade theatrical poster.jpg

One of the great entertainments, from the pen of Peter Stone (aka Pierre Marton – get it?!) with a story by him and Marc Behm, and directed by the estimable Stanley Donen. Audrey is the befuddled widow whose husband turns out to have been in on a wartime heist and she’s expected to know where he stashed the loot; Cary’s the guy from the US embassy keen to help her out … or is he? With hubby’s ex-gang after her for the money, nobody is who they seem in this play on identity, a pastiche of thriller tropes that is betimes gleefully black – George Kennedy’s hook for a hand lends itself to a lot of interesting outcomes! Walter Matthau is brilliantly cast as the CIA man. Great romance, wonderful locations in Paris and Megeve, incredible stars and extremely slickly done. This is pure Hitchcockian enjoyment with the difference being that the gender roles are switched and we care about the McGuffin. On a meta level, the use of names is particular to people on the production – eg Cary is called Peter Joshua after Stanley Donen’s sons. Stone plays the man in the elevator, Jim Clark edits and Charles Lang does the incredible cinematography. Audrey is dressed by Hubert de Givenchy – qui d’autre?!  For lovers of Paris you get a travelogue of practically everything you want to see – the Comedie Francaise, the Eiffel Tower, Les Halles, the Theatre de Guignol … Watch for that classic titles sequence by Maurice Binder and music by Henry Mancini. This came out the week after JFK was assassinated so maybe its humour wasn’t loved that winter, but it’s going with me on that desert island for sure. Totally delightful.

Indiscreet (1958)

Indiscreet poster 1.jpg

Delightfully spry adult comedy about a famous actress having an affair with an apparently married economist. This adaptation of Norman Krasna’s play (by the man himself, a prolific screenwriter) is an elegant and sexy drawing room comedy reuniting the stars

Indiscreet flat int.jpg)

from Hitchcock’s great S&M outing, Notorious, after 12 years. Everything about Stanley Donen’s direction is well judged – including the use of split screen for the couple’s late night phonecalls: watch their hands!!! Wonderfully atmospheric location shooting in foggy London is matched by the lush interiors of Bergman’s flat – this is what made me want to live exactly like her!

Kismet (1955)

Kismet 1955 poster.jpg

This Arabian Nights-type kitsch, adapted from the Broadway musical (it had already been filmed 3 times in Hollywood), is a strange choice for the BBC on a day that celebrates the crucifixion of Jesus. Particularly in a week that has seen Islamic terror on the streets of Europe, another destination for caliphate builders. Perhaps Angela Merkel is programming their films. Even Vincente Minnelli had to be threatened to make it, otherwise he wouldn’t have been permitted to do Lust for Life, his passion project. Stanley Donen gave him some uncredited assistance. You’ll know the songs – Stranger in Paradise, Baubles, Bangles and Beads. But really – is there no respect for Christianity and Judaism?