Close encounters with a musical legend

At home with Stanley Donen in New York

by Richard Mowe

Singin' In The Rain
Singin' In The Rain
Richard Mowe met Stanley Donen - whose death has been announced at age 94 - in 2000 when the director was a youthful 75. In tribute we revive his encounter at Donen’s home overlooking Central Park which was tied to a planned retrospective of his films at the Edinburgh International Film Festival during Mark Cousins’ tenure as director. Sadly Donen never made it in the end when a project intervened.

The clouds nestling on top of Trump Tower threaten a serious New York drenching.

Halfway up Fifth Avenue they deliver on cue, turning the blocks en route to West 56th Street into gushing rivulets. If the downpour fails in its mission, the Yellow Cabs splash reinforcements from gutter level. Either way you end up drookit (drenched).

If Gene Kelly was swinging around lampposts, pirouetting in puddles, while singing about the joys of life, then disappointingly he remained invisible. The man whose inspiration put him there in the first place, Stanley Donen, bids a polite welcome to the dripping orphan from the storm.

His eyrie, which provides a CinemaScope size vista over Central Park and the Hudson, is packed with mementoes and memorabilia of a lifetime in the movies, including a sprinkling of those benchmarks - lifetime achievement awards.

Donen looms tall and distinguished, the bald pate and glasses giving him the air of a distinguished academic rather than an ex-chorus boy. When you talk about "inspiration" and "legend", he squirms discreetly in embarrassment before downplaying the whole business - "inspiration is such a big word. I tend rather to summon up enthusiasms. People talk about goals - mine have always been restricted to the next little step. I cannot imagine having a five-year plan."

The first little step was to bail out of his home town in Connecticut, aged 16, to head for the bright lights of a Broadway chorus line for a production of Pal Joey, the star of which was Gene Kelly with whom he would later reinvent the movie musical.

Donen barely gave himself time to draw breath before he hived off to Hollywood, side-stepping his way into various all-singing, all- dancing musicals. His ambitions, though, lay elsewhere. He inveigled his way behind the scenes and into the creative departments. In his spare time, he gazed in awe from the stalls at the craftsmanship of Busby Berkeley, the European influence of Rene Clair and the antics of Fred Astaire, who had been a guiding influence from way back, especially in Flying Down To Rio.

"I started off as a dancer because of Astaire, and I changed sides just to prove I could do it. I loved musicals, but an eight-year apprenticeship before I was allowed to direct a movie was a long time when you're 17," he said.

He was 27 when he co-directed (with Kelly) Singin' In The Rain by which time he had already made five films, starting with On The Town, another Kelly collaboration, in 1949. The partnership was not without its creative difficulties.

"We had rehearsal rooms side by side where we would each stage a musical number. Then he would go in my room, and I would go in his room and work on the number the other one had worked on. We had differences of opinion. We had to somehow or another sort them out."

There was no division at all about the ground-breaking Singin' in the Rain sequence or Donen's pioneering spirit in moving movie musicals

He regards his days at MGM with obvious affection. Although they did not realise it then, he admits, it was "an extraordinary time. You had this group of gifted people who all worked together and saw each other socially, over a period of seven or eight years. In retrospect, it was wonderful although I'm not making any lofty illusions, the atmosphere was akin to the French Impressionists who used to eat lunch and get together every day."

His love of the format embraces, “Oh God, everything - the music, the performers, the dancing, and the stylistic approach rather than realism. The fact that you are lifted into a world you wished was the real world, and I still do. When I think of happiness I think of Astaire and Ginger Rogers _ she's beautiful and she loves him, and if they have any problems they dance and sing their way out of them.

“Don't you wish it were like that?" he says and beams serenely.

In his more reflective moments, of course, he realises that life is not like that. The state of the planet he finds profoundly depressing. " Sociologically, politically, economically and artistically - the whole package is disappointing. It may simply be about growing up. Everyone says it was better when they were young. But it was better though! Today's preoccupations are with money which represents comfort, power and sexuality and everything that goes with it."

That switch in mood between optimism and melancholy is reflected in his filmography. His earlier films were about joy, but his later ones such as Two For The Road, and Indiscreet have a sadness around them.

Two for the Road, made in 1967, adopted an abrasive approach to wedlock, a subject of which he has had some experience through five marriages. His exes include actress Yvette Mimieux and dancer Jeannie Coyne (who later married Kelly).

One of his happiest and most fertile periods were the years he spent in England which gave rise to such sophisticated thrillers as Charade with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, and Peter Cook's black comedy, Bedazzled, with Dudley Moore. He appreciated Cook's sense of humour - "he really had a gloomy view of humanity which I'm not sure I don't share."

Now that Hollywood musicals have dried up, he was cajoled into directing a Broadway show for the first time. The $ 8million version of the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film, The Red Shoes, which made a star of Moira Shearer, must have seemed tailor-made but closed after five performances and 51 previews. Donen replaced the original director Susan Schulman while the production underwent several changes of personnel.

"The critics weren't too keen, but audiences seemed to like it. So I can’t understand what went wrong. It bothers you, but not enough to send me into any kind of terminal depression," he says.

Although he had expected to attend the Edinburgh International Film Festival retrospective, he has had to bow out for the best of all possible reasons. For the last few years he has been trying to put together a film based on AR Gurney's play, Love Letters, which has now been given the go-ahead.

"It's about two people who have loved each other all their lives but never realised the potential of the relationship. It's a love story about missed opportunities _ I mean if Romeo and Juliet had been happy, it wouldn't have been much of a story."

Donen, displaying the patience of Job, purred content that opportunity had kept knocking.

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