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Stanley Donen (1924–2019), “Singin’ in the Rain” director and choreographer

by Linnea Crowther

The last of the great directors of Hollywood’s golden age.

Stanley Donen, the director and choreographer whose notable films include “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Charade,” died February 21, 2019 of heart failure. He was 94.

Born April 13, 1924, Donen was the last of the great directors of Hollywood’s golden age to die, bringing an end to an era. Known best for his musicals, he was the driver of a new style of movie musical, one that made singing and dancing an organic part of an evolving story rather than highly staged and stylized in a “backstage musical” format. But he wasn’t a niche director, either. In addition to his musicals, he was also known for smart comedies.


An early role dancing in a Broadway chorus gave Donen his first big break. It was in “Pal Joey” that he met Gene Kelly, the rising star who would become his choreographing and directing partner and help launch his career. The two first worked together on 1944’s “Cover Girl,” a Rita Hayworth/Kelly musical for which Donen choreographed three dance numbers. 

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One of those numbers went down in movie musical history. In it, Kelly danced with his own reflection in a shop window, with the reflection breaking free and becoming a dance partner. Director Charles Vidor considered the idea too technically challenging to work, so Kelly and Donen took over the scene, directing and filming it themselves. The result, after a massive amount of post-production work by Donen, was revolutionary, making Kelly a star and Donen an innovator.

The two men paired again to choreograph the 1945 Kelly film “Anchors Aweigh,” for which Donen devised another unusual scene. Kelly’s partner for this number was Jerry, the cartoon mouse of “Tom and Jerry” fame, who appeared courtesy of animation giants William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Donen again worked hard in post-production to perfect the combination of animation and live action, and the result, in Barbera’s words, “blew the audience away.”

Donen and Kelly had their first chance to direct a full movie musical together in 1949, and their “On the Town” became a big hit and a classic of the genre. Shot in part on location in New York, it included the popular song-and-dance number “New York, New York.” A box-office success and an Oscar winner for best score, “On the Town” opened doors for Donen, who signed a contract with MGM and got the opportunity of a lifetime: a gig directing his childhood idol.

Donen had revered Fred Astaire since childhood when he saw him star alongside Ginger Rogers in 1933’s “Flying Down to Rio.” For Donen’s first solo outing as a director, he directed Astaire himself, along with Jane Powell, in 1951’s “Royal Wedding.” The film was successful and fulfilled a dream for Donen, who called Astaire “my inspiration.” A second solo directorial project, 1952’s “Love Is Better Than Ever,” starred Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Parks.

Donen and Kelly were back together again in 1952, and they collaborated to co-direct and co-choreograph one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time: “Singin’ in the Rain.” Donen was just 26 years old when he made this enduring film, which remains an all-time classic decades after its creation, one of the very first films to be included in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress for its cultural significance. At the movie review website RottenTomatoes.com, “Singin’ in the Rain” holds a rare 100 percent fresh rating, with a critical consensus that it’s a masterpiece.

Donen and Kelly shared credit for the movie’s iconic scene, in which Kelly sings its title song while dancing with his umbrella and swinging on light posts. Kelly’s exuberant dancing combined with Donen’s use of camera angles and attention to detail to create an unforgettable dance number. Donen later recalled in an interview with ABC the meticulous way they created the streetscape, in which Kelly would splash in puddles in very particular places: “We had to dig the cement out and make (puddles) for him to splash at that point.”

After “Singin’ in the Rain,” Donen and Kelly would work together again, but their friendship and professional relationship soured as they co-directed 1955’s “It’s Always Fair Weather,” and the rift remained for the rest of their lives. Upset by the dispute and disenchanted with MGM, Donen moved on to other studios and became strictly a solo director. But the drama didn’t hurt his talent or his career — soon to follow was another chance to work with his idol in the 1957 Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire musical “Funny Face,” a box office disappointment upon its initial release that later became successful and profitable when it was rereleased as Hepburn’s career burgeoned.

Donen’s time as a director of musicals was coming to a close, but not before he could create two more lasting classics: “The Pajama Game” (1957) and “Damn Yankees” (1958). He largely turned to comedies in the 1960s, including his 1963 hit, “Charade,” starring Hepburn and Cary Grant. The film was an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, as Donen told Hepburn’s biographer: “I always wanted to make a movie like one of my favorites, ‘North by Northwest’ … I searched (for something with) the same idiom of adventure, suspense, and humor.”

In 1967, Donen again worked with Hepburn, directing “Two for the Road.” Other later films included “Bedazzled” (1967), “The Little Prince” (1974), and “Lucky Lady” (1975). His final film was 1999’s “Love Letters,” a television movie.

Though Donen never won a competitive Oscar as director, in 1998 he was presented with an honorary Academy Award “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit, and visual innovation.” His acceptance speech was one of the more memorable in the award’s history, as he danced with his statuette while singing “Cheek to Cheek” — a song most famously performed by Donen’s idol, Astaire, in “Top Hat.” Donen later explained his exuberance in an interview with Vanity Fair: “You know, it was for lifetime achievement. That’s a big thing to say to somebody.”

Donen was married five times, with all five relationships ending in divorce. His first wife was Jeanne Coyne, who was later married to Kelly. Donen began dating Elaine May in 1999, and they remained together until his death, though they never married. Donen told Vanity Fair he had asked her to marry him “about 172 times.” In addition to May, Donen is survived by two children, Joshua and Mark. He was preceded in death by his oldest son, Peter, in 2003.

Donen’s death came just days before the 91st Academy Awards ceremony. He was remembered by many of Hollywood’s bright stars in the days after his death:

“Stanley Donen was a friend and an early mentor. His generosity in giving over so many of his weekends in the late ’60s to film students like me to learn about telling stories and placing lenses and directing actors is a time I will never forget. He co-directed what some consider the greatest Hollywood musical of all time Singing In the Rain, but when he left his partnership with Gene Kelly to go it alone he made his most compelling movies in multiple genres. Charade, Bedazzled and Two For the Road were my favorites.” —Steven Spielberg

“Bravo to Stanley Donen on a life well lived. I had the honor of being directed by him in 1960’s Surprise Package. What an incredible gift he was to the movies — Singin’ In the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the list of classics is endless, like his talent.” —Mitzi Gaynor

“Stanley Donen. A brilliant storyteller- elegant, exuberant, a master of color and top crane choreographer. He had so much style and so much joy in him… We are indebted to him for as long s there is Cinema.” —Guillermo del Toro

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