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Like his films, Donen exudes style and wit

Famed director Stanley Donen, the subject of a retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive, visits this week

Stanley Donen cites Fred Astaire as inspiring his sense of style and love of musicals and credits Gene Kelly with jump-starting his career as a filmmaker. Stanley Donen cites Fred Astaire as inspiring his sense of style and love of musicals and credits Gene Kelly with jump-starting his career as a filmmaker. (Jennifer Taylor for The Boston Globe)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / October 4, 2009

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NEW YORK - Stanley Donen’s office is an eye-opener: framed posters from the 30 movies he’s directed, the Career Golden Lion he received at the Venice Film Festival in 2004, a photograph of Donen standing between Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly atop the RCA Building during the filming of “On the Town,’’ the Oscar presented to him in 1998 for lifetime achievement.

Today the office is a pore-opener, too. The temperature’s that warm. A visitor asks if it would be all right to take his jacket off. Donen doesn’t miss a beat. “Sure, just leave your shirt on.’’

At 85, Donen - the co-director with Kelly of “Singin’ in the Rain’’ and “On the Town,’’ the director of “Funny Face’’ and “Charade’’ - remains very sharp, very funny, and very charming. “I can still dance a little, yes,’’ he says, “but I like singing better. It’s more fun.’’

Donen (pronounced DAWN-en) is the subject of a monthlong retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive, “Debonair: The Films of Stanley Donen.’’ “They’re showing so many of them,’’ Donen marvels. “And I’m glad they are - although there are some I’d like to leave out.’’

The archive will host Donen next weekend to present “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’’ on Friday and “Two for the Road’’ on Saturday.

“Stanley Donen is the master of the musical,’’ Jean-Luc Godard once wrote. Any history of the genre would be incomplete without Donen’s name. So would any history of style on the screen. Film historians speak of “the Lubitsch touch,’’ referring to the sophistication the director Ernst Lubitsch brought to such films as “Trouble in Paradise’’ and “The Shop Around the Corner.’’

There’s a Donen touch, too. It’s evident when Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling in “Royal Wedding.’’ When Audrey Hepburn asks Cary Grant in “Charade’’ what’s wrong with him, then answers her own question with “Nothing.’’ Or any time Grant and Ingrid Bergman exchange glances in “Indiscreet.’’

A definition of the Donen touch might be found in his Oscar citation: “for a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit, and visual innovation.’’ Another could come from his biographer, People magazine editor Stephen M. Silverman. “He was the master of knowing exactly where the camera should be and what needed to be captured,’’ Silverman says in a telephone interview.

“And he was able to do it to music! Of course the best example is when the camera zooms in on Gene Kelly’s mega-watt ivories [as he sings] ‘there’s a smile on my face’ [in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’]. Movies today have really lost that touch.’’

Donen hasn’t lost it. He makes a blazer, slacks, and sneakers seem like top hat, white tie, and tails. He moves with a former dancer’s relaxed ease and displays a slightly sardonic, deadpan wit - he’s like Billy Wilder, who was a close friend, without the cynicism - and it nicely dovetails with a penchant for deflecting compliments. “Well, I’m not going to say that,’’ he protests when told he’s led a spectacular life, “but thank you for doing so.’’

A primary source of the Donen touch is visible in his office. Pride of place doesn’t go to the director’s Oscar or any of his other awards. It belongs to an oversize photograph of Fred Astaire.

“He was my inspiration,’’ Donen says of the man he directed in “Royal Wedding’’ and “Funny Face.’’ Astaire was his biggest influence “without any doubt,’’ Donen says. “What I got, unconsciously, from admiring Fred Astaire was that he didn’t want what he was doing to look difficult. What was difficult, in my opinion, was making it look so genuine, so effortless. I equally have tried to remain unseen on the screen.’’

However indirectly, Astaire gave Donen vocational advice as well as a sense of style. “I saw this movie, ‘Flying Down to Rio’ [with Astaire], and my life changed. I was 9 years old. . . . I don’t know how to explain it. It was an emotional reaction to Fred, and to that movie, and to movies in general. I loved all movies, but that particular genre got to me because of that picture.’’

Seven years later Donen moved from Columbia, S.C., to Manhattan, showed up at an audition, and was picked for the chorus of “Pal Joey.’’ “It was an amazing thing,’’ he says. “Did it feel lucky? I felt relieved. I don’t know that I felt lucky. I felt,’’ he sighs, “oh God, I got something.

“The happiest year I could ever imagine is the first year of my life in ‘Pal Joey’ as a dancer in the chorus. Because everything I had in Columbia, S.C., was turned upside down, and here I was in a show with great music by Rodgers and Hart, and George Abbott directing, and I was 16 and didn’t know what end was up.’’

The show starred Kelly. “Less than a year later [Kelly] was asked to choreograph ‘Best Foot Forward,’ ’’ Donen recalls, “and asked if I’d like to be his assistant. That was sort of the real beginning of how we worked together. Was it a big influence? It made my life easier. Everything started because of Gene. It couldn’t have been more fortunate.’’

Soon thereafter Donen went out to Hollywood, where he again teamed up with Kelly, helping him with numbers in “Cover Girl’’ and “Anchors Aweigh’’ and the story of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.’’ In 1949, they co-directed “On the Town.’’ Taking the musical out of the studio, it permanently changed the genre.

“I was determined that ‘On the Town’ had to be shot partially in New York,’’ Donen says. “Now, of course, with computer-generated imagery it wouldn’t be the same. But in those days you had to be there. So it was important, in ‘On the Town,’ to be on the town.’’

That movie’s opener, “New York, New York,’’ is one of the great musical numbers in movie history. “Singin’ in the Rain’’ is one great number after another. When it’s mentioned to Donen that it’s long been a fixture of critics’ Ten Best polls, he interrupts. “Not the first! I still have some ways to go,’’ he says with a laugh.

“I was a young pisher. ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ I was 26. I was worried as hell about what I was going to do and how I was going to do it. And at the same time I felt I knew better than everybody else.’’

Kelly, Donen says, “was wonderful to work with,’’ if also trying at times. “Co-anythings are very difficult. And co-directors and co-choreographers is not a very easy collaboration. Gene and I both thought we knew better, so it wasn’t easy.’’

The last movie Donen and Kelly made together was “It’s Always Fair Weather,’’ in 1955. The question of who did what in their collaborations is hard to determine. Silverman thinks the balance tilts heavily in Donen’s favor. “Look at what Gene Kelly did [directing on his own],’’ he says. Silverman would appear to be on to something. “Invitation to the Dance’’ and “Hello, Dolly!’’ have not exactly fared well over time.

Donen’s own directing career waned after 1970. “They stopped making his kind of pictures,’’ Billy Wilder pointed out. Except for “Movie Movie,’’ a very funny send-up of ’30s genre pictures, there’s nothing as entertaining (or memorable) as the little soft shoe he did as part of his acceptance speech for his honorary Oscar.

Kelly isn’t the only director Donen collaborated with. Remembering “Pal Joey,’’ George Abbott asked him to co-direct and co-produce the film versions of “The Pajama Game’’ and “Damn Yankees.’’ And he’s currently engaged in an ongoing collaboration, albeit offscreen, with another noted director. His partner is Elaine May.

May, who got her start paired with Mike Nichols in the groundbreaking comedy team Nichols and May, later directed such films as “The Heartbreak Kid’’ and “Mikey & Nicky.’’ Talking about her, Donen lights up. “She is simply, in my opinion, the most gifted person I’ve ever come to know,’’ he says. “She’s funnier than anybody on earth.’’

He shows off a large medallion he wears. “Stanley Donen,’’ the inscription reads, “If lost, please return to Elaine May.’’

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com

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