Stanley Donen, 1924–2019
The director who mastered the movie musical
Donen was born to a Jewish family in Columbia, S.C., where his father owned a dress store, said The New York Times. He “took refuge” from anti-Semitic bullying by immersing himself in movies, deciding to become a tap dancer after watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio. He moved to New York City at age 16, landing a role in the chorus line of Pal Joey, a hit Broadway musical starring Gene Kelly. The actor and dancer was drawn to Donen’s energy and ambition, said The Washington Post, and recruited him to choreograph his next musical, ultimately taking their partnership to Hollywood. Donen proved himself a wunderkind with technologically inventive sequences like Kelly’s dance “with a ghostlike figure of himself on a lonely street block” in 1944’s Cover Girl, and with a cartoon mouse in the following year’s Anchors Aweigh.
“Donen would later speak resentfully of Kelly,” said the Chicago Tribune. The pair quarreled after co-directing three films together, with Donen feeling belittled and unappreciated. As movie musicals fell out of favor, Donen experimented in other genres, making the chic 1963 thriller Charade and the biting 1967 marital comedy Two for the Road. Donen was awarded an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1998, dancing cheek to cheek with the golden statuette during his acceptance speech. The secret to making great musicals was simple, he told the audience: Find great songwriters and performers. “And when filming starts, you show up and you stay the hell out of the way.”