Stanley Donen -- Dance Film Icon, Gone At 94

by Michael Mahany | 2/26/2019 5:18 PM

Academy Award-winning director Stanley Donen. Photo credit: Jim Cooper/AP

On February 21st, the dance world lost an icon. Stanley Donen, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 94, directed some of the most successful musical and dance films in history, having been the visual mastermind behind successes like Royal Wedding, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, On The Town and perhaps his best known and most celebrated piece, Singin' In The Rain, which he co-directed with the late Gene Kelly.

Donen, who was born in South Carolina in April of 1924, was raised in a Jewish household, a rarity in the American Southeast in the early 1920s. He often retreated to the movies to escape the anti-Semitic bullying of which he was often the victim, and it was there in the cinema, he discovered a love for dance and musicals. After seeing the 1933 film Flying Down To Rio, Donen became fascinated by stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and took up a study of dance, himself.

After studying dance locally in South Carolina, he moved to New York City in 1940 — reportedly under the encouragement of his mother — and began to audition for Broadway musicals. He was quickly hired to dance in the cast of the original production of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s new musical, Pal Joey, which starred a young Gene Kelly in the title role. While the meeting of Kelly marked the beginning of one of the most important relationships in Donen’s life, it also was one of the most tumultuous. 

'Singin' In The Rain', starring Gene Kelly. Video courtesy of MGM

Kelly and Donen became fast friends, and it wasn’t long until Kelly hired Donen to assist him with the choreography of his next project, Best Foot Forward. After a falling out, however, Donen was fired from the project. 

In 1943, though, when Best Foot Forward was contracted by MGM to be made into a film, Kelly hired Donen to assist with choreography, and the opportunity opened up a career path for Donen that would pave the way to some of his biggest successes.

“Stanley needed a job,” Kelly said of Donen, according to Sheridan Morley and Ruth Leon's book, Gene Kelly: A Celebration. “I needed someone to count for the cameraman, someone who knew the steps and could explain what I was going to do so the shot was set up correctly.”

For Donen, those early years in Hollywood working as both an assistant and co-choreographer in the movies with Kelly would ultimately lead to his film directorial debut with 1949’s On The Town. Though their relationship had its ups and downs throughout the years, the duo created some of film's most celebrated works.

Second to Singin' In The Rain, Donen’s next most recognizable sequence on film is arguably another he meticulously helped develop and choreograph with Kelly — the segment in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh in which Gene Kelly danced with Jerry Mouse, from William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s Tom And Jerry. The creation involved shooting Kelly's dance first, then painstakingly, having animators trace his movements frame by frame until the cartoon character's choreography completely matched that of the human actor.

Gene Kelly and Jerry Mouse in 'Anchors Aweigh'. Video courtesy of MGM

Throughout his career, Donen went on to work with some of the biggest names in theatre and film dance. 

Bob Fosse, who not only choreographed for Donen's The Pajama Game in 1957 and Damn Yankees in 1958, also danced in both 1953’s Give A Girl A Break and later in the 1970 cult classic, The Little Prince, both directed by the late filmmaker. Michael Kidd, who choreographed Donen's memorable hit Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, also appeared as an actor in Donen and Kelly's collaboration of It's Always Fair Weather.

Donen’s cannon of films included Royal Wedding, (which starred his idol, Fred Astaire, who performed the famous 'You're All The World' sequence in which he dances on the ceiling), Funny Face, Take Me Out To The Ball Game, Once More With Feeling, and so many more.

Debbie Reynolds and Bob Fosse in 'Give A Girl A Break'. The entire sequence was filmed backward. Video courtesy: Warner Brothers

Donen’s loss is incredibly heartbreaking to the dance industry, and his absence will be felt enormously. His passing marks a sort of end to an era, a reminder that the last of the golden age musical filmmakers are no longer with us.

One of the truest and most glorious things about Donen’s contributions to his art form, however, is that they’re all on film — and those endearing memories and moments will last forever.

Fred Astaire's 'You're All The World To Me' sequence from 'Royal Wedding'. Video courtesy: MGM

Michael Mahany serves as the New York City Correspondent for Dance Network. He is also a professional actor, musician, dancer, and writer. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or click here to find out more.

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