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Stanley Donen, Director of Iconic Movie Musicals, Dies at 94

Stanley Donen, the director of such stylish and exuberant films as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Funny Face” and “Two for the Road” and the last surviving helmer of note from Hollywood’s golden age, has died at 94.

The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips tweeted that one of his sons had confirmed the news to him.

Though he was never Oscar-nominated for any of the many films he directed, Donen received a lifetime achievement Oscar at the 1998 Academy Awards “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation.”

His films were known for their brisk pace, witty scripts and stylish look (thanks to cinematography, editing, costumes and art direction that created striking visuals). Even after he stopped making musicals, his camera movements and blocking in later comedies and dramas reflected the work of the precise choreographer that he was.

In his early films, Donen’s contributions were often overshadowed in the public eye by the prominent talents with whom he worked, including Gene Kelly and George Abbott. But Donen came into his own as an energetic director of popular entertainments with such musicals as “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” as well as sophisticated romantic comedies (“Indiscreet”) and romantic thrillers (“Charade”).

Still, he often was underrated, accused (wrongly) of favoring style over substance. But many of his films gained stature over time. Though “Funny Face” and the 1967 “Bedazzled” were not huge hits at the time, they earned big followings in later years (and the latter was remade in 2000). Audiences similarly increased their appreciation for hits like 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” which many have since labeled as the best Hollywood musical ever made.

Still, Donen rarely won prizes and though he was never nominated for an Oscar, he stole the show at the 70th Academy Awards, charming the audience by singing “Cheek to Cheek” and performing a tap number — with the statuette as his partner.

Besides Kelly and Abbott, Donen worked with many of the major musical dancer-choreographers of the day, including Bob Fosse, Gower Champion and Michael Kidd, and he was a major creative force in MGM’s musical halcyon days of the ’40s and ’50s under Arthur Freed.

Donen also had a talent for romantic comedy, as he proved over and over again; his “Two for the Road” was one of the great romantic films of the ’60s.

The Columbia, S.C., native started taking dancing lessons when he was 7 and left home soon after high school for Broadway. His first job was in the chorus of “Pal Joey,” where he met Kelly, who was starring in the Rodgers & Hart musical. Another chorus job in “Best Foot Forward” led to a solo in the number “Beat the Band.”

Along with Kelly, he came to Hollywood to appear in the film version of “Best Foot Forward” and was signed by MGM, where he also worked on “Girl Crazy.” He was loaned out to Columbia for “Cover Girl,” on which he was Kelly’s assistant. When MGM did not renew his contract, he stayed on at Col, laboring unhappily on a dozen or so “less-than-B pictures,” as he once called them.

Kelly brought him back to MGM to be dance director on the 1945 “Anchors Aweigh,” and he joined Jack Donahue, Charles Walters and Don Loper as part of the studio’s in-house dance team.

Starting in 1946, he was choreographer on such pics as “Holiday in Mexico,” “No Leave, No Love,” “Big City,” “A Date With Judy” and “The Kissing Bandit.”

With Kelly he then co-wrote and choreographed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” after which he gained co-director stripes on 1949’s “On the Town.” The New York City-set tuner was shot on location and in bright sunlight — a groundbreaker for screen musicals. While it was then considered the zenith of musical comedy, it also was a signal of the genre’s eventual demise since it emphasized the artificiality of the form in a post-WWII era when audiences were losing their taste for such fare.

Donen and Kelly returned to a deliberately artificial environment in their other classic collaboration, “Singin’ in the Rain,” a set-bound, old-fashioned musical with its tongue firmly planted in cheek.

MGM gave Donen sole directing stripes on “Royal Wedding,” starring Fred Astaire and Jane Powell, as well as early Elizabeth Taylor film “Love Is Better Than Ever.”

Donen also directed Fosse and Debbie Reynolds in the musical “Give a Girl a Break,” but his solo breakthrough was 1954’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” choreographed by Kidd. It ranks among MGM’s best, and was one of the studio’s last musicals to have a heavy dance emphasis.

Donen collaborated with Kelly for the final time on “It’s Always Fair Weather” (1955), his last film at MGM.

He next helped Abbott to film two Broadway musicals, “Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees,” both featuring Fosse’s signature choreography. “Pajama Game” also marked Donen’s debut as a producer. Starting with that pic, he produced each of the next 15 films he helmed with the exception of 1975’s “Lucky Lady.”

Paramount’s stylish 1957 musical “Funny Face,” using vintage George and Ira Gershwin tunes, remains a cult favorite thanks to several show-stopping turns by Astaire, Audrey Hepburn and Kay Thompson and a fashion montage sequence shot by Richard Avedon.

“Funny Face,” shot partly on locations in Paris, and the earlier “On the Town” paved the way for such on-location musicals as “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music.”

By the 1960s, the musical film was becoming an endangered species, and Donen transferred his talents to romantic comedy. Two of his best featured Cary Grant (“Indiscreet,” “The Grass Is Greener”), and he teamed again with the actor and Hepburn in the 1963 “Charade,” a model romantic comedy-suspenser.

Donen tried the same formula three years later with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in “Arabesque.” While not as successful as “Charade,” it provided some stylish moments.

After the success of such pics as “My Fair Lady,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music,” Hollywood made a flurry of musicals, most of them clunkers. Donen chose to sit out this tuner revival, instead experimenting in new directions.

The devil-may-care “Bedazzled,” a spoofy Faustian update starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and the romantic comedy-drama “Two for the Road” are two of the best non-musical films Donen directed. Though wildly different in style and subject matter, both boasted wit, charm and style.

His later efforts included “Staircase” (1969), “Lucky Lady,” “Saturn 3” (1980) and his final feature film, Michael Caine-Demi Moore starrer “Blame It on Rio” (1984).

In the meantime, he did two musicals at a time when Hollywood had stopped making them. He had middling success with 1974’s “The Little Prince,” a late Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe collaboration best remembered for a show-stopping turn by Fosse as a devilish serpent.

Four years later, “Movie, Movie” was a two-hour double feature, an homage/spoof of old Hollywood boxing movies followed by a similar look at backstage musicals. Sporting a Busby Berkeley-style musical section with Kidd choreography, it was a reminder of the musical form’s lost pizzazz.

In 1993, Donen made his Broadway helming debut with the short-lived “The Red Shoes.” He didn’t direct any movies after “Blame It on Rio,” but continued to work, including staging the 1985 Oscar ceremonies and choreographing a sequence for the TV series “Moonlighting.”

A 2010 documentary, “Stanley Donen: You Just Do It,” celebrated his achievements.

Donen was married five times, including to Jeanne Coyne, Marion Marshall and Yvette Mimieux.

He was the longtime companion of writer-director Elaine May. In addition to May, he is survived by two sons, “House of Cards” producer Josh Donen, and Mark Donen. Another son, Peter, a visual effects supervisor, died in 2003 of a heart attack at age 50.

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