Director Stanley Donen, dead at 94, was light on his feet and a movie musical heavyweight

Be very glad that Stanley Donen, who died on today at age 94, decided not to his work at his family’s dress shop after seeing the 1933 musical “Flying Down to Rio” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as a boy, one that he would watch at least 30 or 40 times.

Without that influence he might not have taken dance lessons. And, if he hadn’t learned how to dance, he wouldn’t have moved to New York City to be part of the chorus in the 1940 Broadway musical in  “Pal Joey,” starring Gene Kelly. Kelly asked him to be his assistant choreographer in his next Great White Way production, “Best Foot Forward.” He would be fired from the show. Donen would renew his friendship with Kelly when they both headed to Hollywood and they would collaborate on “Cover Girl” and “An American in Paris.”

Eventually, they became co-directors on  1949’s “On the Town” and would add many innovations to the cinematic art of the musical. Their most influential and beloved collaboration would be 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” a musical satire of Tinseltown’s transition to talking pictures. It was under-appreciated in its day, earning just two Oscar nominations, for supporting actress Jean Hagen and its score.. But its reputation grew through the years, and it is considered by many as the crowning achievement of the Golden Age of movie musicals.

Donen became an in-demand director,going  behind the camera on such classics as “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Funny Face” with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees!” — which would be his last musical for several years. His 1963 Hitchcockian romantic mystery “Charade” would magically pair Hepburn with Cary Grant.

But my favorite of all his films was “Two for the Road” from 1967, a rather incisive portrait of  matrimony starring another great pairing, Hepburn yet again with Albert Finney. Donen, who would wed five times, was way ahead of Quentin Tarantino‘s love of non-linear story-telling as he surgically de-constructs the giddy courtship and eventual disillusionment of a marriage using four separate car trips. I first saw it on TV as a impressionable pre-teen and it certainly gave me a candid,  eye-opening look at couple-hood that Disney’s princesses never provided.

Somehow, Donen never won an Oscar. Heck, he was never even nominated for an Oscar. But in 1998,  when the academy finally bestowed an honorary statuette “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, with and visual innovation.” The song-and-dance man would provide one of the most joyous non-speech ever on an Oscar telecast. After Martin Scorsese handed him his “cute little fellow,” instead of a speech, Donen opted to warble “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” while doing a tap routine (watch the video above). I and anyone else who saw that elevating and electrifying moment live were, as the song says, truly in heaven.

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