screened Tuesday June 9, 2009 on Warner DVD in Brooklyn, NY
It’s easy to criticize this Western musical comedy retelling of the Rape of the Sabine Women as an unapologetically sexist defense of American Manifest Destiny principles set to song and dance. More interesting is the class logic behind the narrative that drives a band of backwoods brothers to abduct women from a neighboring town to become their spouses. The men, having been trained by their sister-in-law in the ways of civility, first attempt to court these women through the societal ritual of a barnraising. The underhanded trickery of rival courters from the town provoke them to violent outrage. The guileful townsmen represent civilization as corrupt; the resulting abduction of the women amounts a righteous revolt against class abuse. In the end, the two sides are hardly reconciled; the frontier (i.e. the brothers) takes only as much from civilization as it needs (in the form of these women) to perpetuate itself. The abrupt, somewhat unsatisfying resolution of a shotgun mass wedding caused by the perception of widespread fornication is the film’s final raspberry at the laws governing civility.
Given how much the film implicitly doesn’t give a damn about most of civilization, it’s startling to witness Stanley Donen’s scene-for-scene focus on how human beings relate to each other in a given space, physically as well as dramatically. For a film that celebrates the frontier, Donen treats virtually every scene as a closed space; when he utilizes tracking shots to reveal new spaces, it only brings a heightened sense of claustrophobia (as when Jane Powell deflatedly discovers her in-laws, one by one). The brothers’ magnificent frontier house is host to a parade of configurations that explore the dynamic between characters: Powell singing at her bedroom windowsill with husband Howard Keel perched on a nearby tree branch on their wedding night, while the brothers are lingering in the hallway.
In true MGM studio form, there’s no shortage of talent involved: the physically magnificent ensemble; Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s script and Johnny Mercer’s songwriting that do their best to sell frontier chauvinism with ruddy charisma; Cedric Gibbons’ vibrant sets. And of course, the groundbreaking choreography of Michael Kidd, most notably in the immortal barn raising sequence, where he orchestrates an unprecedented display of footstomping physicality into a harmonious symphony of force and grace. But it’s Donen’s endless playfulness with space that animates all these pieces into magical motion.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures Don’t They?
Auram Heffner, Sight & Sound (1992)
Pedro Olea, Nickel Odeon (1994)
? AFI 25 Greatest Movie Musicals (2006)
? Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book – 500 Great Films (1987)
? Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987)
? David Thomson, Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008)
? Entertainment Weekly, The 25 Greatest Movie Musicals of All Time (2008)
? Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Musical (1993)
? Leonard Maltin, 100 Must-See Films of the 20th Century (2000)
? National Film Preservation Foundation, National Film Registry
? New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
? Various Critics, Book – 501 Must-See Movies (2004)
? Various Critics, Book – 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
A profoundly sexist and eminently hummable 1954 CinemaScope musical–supposedly set in the great outdoors, but mainly filmed on soundstages–with some terrific athletic Michael Kidd choreography and some better-than-average direction by Stanley Donen. Based on a story by Stephen Vincent Benet (who took the plot from the rape of the Sabine women), it concerns six fur-trapping brothers who go to town to find wives after big brother Howard Keel marries Jane Powell; they wind up kidnapping them. A fascinating glimpse at the kind of patriarchal rape fantasies that were considered “cute” and good-natured at the time, performed to the music of Johnny Mercer and Gene DePaul.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
Well, bless my beautiful hide! Director Stanley Donen invests this rollicking musical with a hearty exuberance. Howard Keel, with his big-as-all-outdoors baritone, stars as a bold “mountain man” living in the Oregon woods who brings home a bride (plucky songbird soprano Jane Powell) to his six slovenly brothers. Taming the rambunctious brood, Jane proceeds to make gentlemen of them so they can woo sweethearts of their own. But old habits die hard: their flirting gives way to fighting in the film’s celebrated barn-raising scene, a lively acrobatic dance number exuberantly choreographed by Michael Kidd. Big brother chimes in with his own brand of advice–an old-fashioned kidnapping! Donen manages to get away with such a politically incorrect plot by investing the boys with a innocent sweetness, most notably the youngest brother played with genial earnestness by Rusty (Russ) Tamblyn (pre-West Side Story). This modest production became a huge hit and remains one of MGM’s best-loved musical comedies, an energetic, high-kicking classic.
–Sean Axmaker, Amazon.com
Circuitously derived from the tale of the rape of the Sabine women, this rather archly symmetrical movie musical is best seen as a dance-fest, with Michael Kidd’s acrobatic, pas d’action choreography well complemented by ex-choreographer Donen’s camera. Gene De Paul and Johnny Mercer’s score is cosy (‘Spring, Spring, Spring’ and all that), and Keel, avoiding even the odd faked toe-step, is at his least expressive, but it’s vigorous and colourful if you can watch the Anscocolor process which also marred Brigadoon.
The poor cousin of 1954′s Brigadoon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was filmed on a third of the budget but is twice the movie even without top talent like Gene Kelly. Filmed in the great indoors of MGM, this bright and witty jaunt still manages to have an outdoorsy feel, thanks mainly to Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul’s lusty score and plenty of peppy choreography, which extends to action scenes choreographed almost like dancing. Jane Powell and Howard Keel are an attractive couple, the brides and grooms are an engaging group of studio up-and-comers, and the entire enterprise is so spirited one wouldn’t guess that MGM musical era was grinding to a halt.
- Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk
As Bing Crosby remarks in That’s Entertainment, “The next time anyone says that dancing is for sissies, remind them of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” And he couldn’t be more correct. The muscular frontier musical pioneered a new style of athletic dancing, incorporating elements of gymnastics and ballet, and liberating men from the de rigueur uniform of top hat and tails. Reminiscent of Oklahoma!, but with more bounce and humor, Seven Brides overcame studio disinterest to become one of the all-time classics, and its masterful merging of story and song still enchants audiences today.
- David Krause, Digitally Obsessed
Through a series of near-continuous song-and-dance routines, director Stanley Donen weaves such a magical tapestry that it’s hard not to become wrapped up in the sheer joy and playfulness of it all. In the movie’s most invigorating and inspired sequence, a dance at a barn-raising soon becomes a light-footed competition between the Pontipees and the local townsmen for the hands of their lady loves, and the results are nothing short of spectacular and cheerworthy. The story is like a warm blanket of glee that welcomes its audience into a place where the world is content, with six bashful damsels singing about the forthcoming spring, six gentlemen crooning for their acquaintances, and then heading back to town to retrieve them.
In the end, of course, a movie like this is all about characterization, and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” gives us more than enough reason to root for the seven couples as well as the fourteen characters as individuals. The people who populate this film are warmhearted and wholesome, giving the material its sweet disposition. Add this to the extensive choreography work by Michael Kidd, Donen’s expert direction, and a screenplay that scores points in every field imagineable, and you have the formula for one of the most successful musicals in Hollywood, and one of the most lovable and enlightening films of all time.
- David Litton, Movie Eye
Powell also delivers a great performance as Milly, making her alternately feisty, compassionate, and motherly. With the presence of singing and dancing farmers, Powell provides the movie with a much-needed human center. And here’s the best part. For those who find the movie to be short sighted in its treatment of women (even though the musical takes place pre-Ms.), Milly is the most assured, independent and complete character on screen. She’s the antithesis of most female leads in today’s romantic comedies. That’s just one more reason to watch one of the greatest musicals, if not movies, of all time, regardless of what the AFI and its voters say.
- Pete Croatto, Film Critic.com
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is hardly an evolved movie, but my feminist sensibilities weren’t nearly as offended as I thought they would be. Even though I don’t like them, I can’t really fault Stanley Donen for the film’s representations of gender and gender roles reflecting the dominate social constructions of the 1950s. The enforcement of gender roles is definitely integral to the plot, but this film is largely an exploration of class…
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers lends itself well to a Freudian interpretation. The town and the “deep woods,” where the Pontipee brothers live, act as opposing forces, representing the superego and the id. Having grown up in the deep woods, the Pontipees lack a developed ego, due to little exposure to the superego (the town). Moving from town to the deep woods, Milly acts as an agent of the superego and exposes the Pontipees to the cultural structures that have regulated her behavior…
The scene I find most interesting, and embarrassing, is the one in which the women result to catfights after insinuating that some amongst them had been mooning over the brothers. The fights come after they had been stranded in the deep woods for two months, two months during which the girls only had contact with the id (the deep woods) and no connection with the superego (the town). Even though they are women possessing better-developed egos, prolonged exposure to the id affects their behavior, causing them to behave much like the brothers at the beginning of the film.
Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Seven Brides. I’m too much a feminist to enjoy the story too much, but I was fairly surprised that the women have as much agency as they do in this film. If the film had concluded with the women explaining to their fathers that they choose to marry the Pontipees instead of a mass shotgun wedding I would have been more mollified. However, as a piece of entertainment, Seven Brides, with the help of Michael Kidd’s unique choreography, does satisfy.
- Stefanie B, This To Say About That
Manifest destiny is a conceit that has seemed to suffer a meddlesome perversion in recent decades. What was once the credo of American progress and growth has become a mission to divide and conquer, both inside and outside our own borders. And where better to turn for a little contemporary understanding of America than a film that presents 1850’s Oregon with all the Technicolor pomp and lumberjack circumstance of an overblown Fifties musical. Musical maestro Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers should be little more than an allegorical artifact of suburban sprawl and postwar gender reform, its implications grounded in a specific social time and place, certainly made defunct and altogether laughable with the coming of feminism. A musical comedy about a gaggle of rough-and-tumble mountain men coming into town to kidnap themselves wives fer kissin’ and cookin purposes? An avalanche snowing them all together in one mountain shack, with love blooming unexpectedly along with the spring? The biggest shotgun weeding ever filmed? How could this possibly be socially relevant in an age of sexual harassment laws and Sex and the City?! And yet, somewhere between the barn-raising and the lynch mob, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers reveals far more than merely where we’ve been. It reveals just how little we’ve evolved, even as our expansionist tendencies still thrive. Then, as now, “the victor gets all the loot,” whether that refer to the film’s titular brothers’ quest for brides, or our contemporary national tendency to invade and conquer.
- Suzanne Scott, Reverse Shot
The internal spectator in the backstage musical remains eternally separate, physically and functionally, from the internal performer. This configuration replicates that of the film theater, where the spectator sits in a single seat, permanently separated from the performers on the screen. The internal folk musical “spectator,” however, may at any point be “on stage” (if these terms were still appropriate for a form whose very secret is its ability to break down the distinction between world and stage by treating the entire world as a stage). Nearly every important folk musical from High, Wide and Handsome to Nashville employs this technique (e.g., the party in the Smith house in Meet Me in St. Louis, the picnic in Summer Holiday, nearly the entirety of State Fair and On the Town, the “Horse Told Me” number in Riding High, the “Portland Fancy” dance in Summer Stock, and scores of others). Perhaps the most creative use of [the] theater in the round” approach is to be found in the barn raising scene of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which a dance is followed by competitive acrobatics and a choreographed fight. Each of the seven brothers and each of the town’s people is alternately spotlighted (indeed the lighting problems in a folk musical production number resemble those of theater in the round rather than the typical Hollywood stage paradigm). Constantly alternating between the role of each other’s spectators and each other’s spectacle, the men operate in a space which permits no stable differentiation between spectacle space and spectator space. The “interchangeable” space of the folk musical thus approximates that of the square dance, in which action and glances criss-cross constantly, producing an interwoven space rather than the single set of paired glances characteristic of the proscenium stage.
- Rick Altman, The American Film Musical. Published by Indiana University Press, 1989. Pages 320-321.
Despite their enthusiasm to bring The Sobbin’ Women to the screen, MGM was partial to another musical film they had in production at the time: Brigadoon (1954), starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. MGM saw Brigadoon as their “A” picture, and Seven Brides as a “B” picture. As a result, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was assigned an extremely tight budget, while MGM put the majority of their faith and money into Brigadoon. According to star Jane Powell, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers almost didn’t even make it to the screen because of Brigadoon. “The studio,” she writes in her 1988 autobiography The Girl Next Door and How She Grew, “was pouring all this money into Brigadoon and felt it couldn’t afford to do two musical extravaganzas at once, so MGM bigwigs were going to drop it. But Jack Cummings, our producer, talked the studio into doing it. He offered to cut the budget, to economize in every way possible. He pleaded.”
From the beginning, Stanley Donen knew that he wanted famed dancer and choreographer Michael Kidd to stage all of the musical numbers. “Michael Kidd was the choreographer to do this film,” Donen said in a 2004 interview, “because his choreography was inventive, athletic, not classical ballet dancing, but dancing which is remarkable.” The problem was that neither Kidd nor the studio could visualize seven rugged mountain men breaking into song and dance in a believable manner. In addition, Kidd was exhausted from doing a show in New York at the time and wanted to take a break. He told Stanley Donen that he didn’t want to do the film. Donen, however, refused to take no for an answer. He convinced Kidd to at least listen to the songs for the film, and Kidd liked them. Still, Kidd couldn’t see how dance numbers could be effectively worked into the story. “I said to Stanley and Saul Chaplin,” recalled Kidd in a 2004 interview, “’I can’t see any dancing in this picture. You got these seven slobs living out in the country. They got horse manure on the floor. They’re unwashed. They’re unshaven. They look terrible. These people are going to get up and dance? We’ll be hooted out of the theater! It doesn’t make any sense to me.’” With a little cajoling and eventually begging, Donen finally convinced Kidd to at least stage the movement of the musical numbers, even if he couldn’t envision dancing. Before long, Kidd did see opportunities in the script for the brothers to be dancing. The musical numbers he eventually brought to life would turn out to be one of the film’s biggest assets.
Instead of using any extra money to allow Donen to shoot on location, MGM had a very different idea. Beginning in 1953 a new technical process was being used to make films called CinemaScope, a spectacular widescreen process that used anamorphic lenses. The process was quite new, but MGM wanted to make sure that they were taking advantage of every cinematic innovation. The only problem was that many theaters had not yet been equipped to show CinemaScope films. MGM’s solution? Stanley Donen would have to shoot two different versions of the film: one in the CinemaScope aspect ratio 2:55, and one in the flat widescreen aspect ration of 1:77. For Donen, it would mean staging and shooting every scene twice, since the framing for each version would be different. There would be two separate negatives for each version. He would essentially have to shoot two different films under one limited budget. It was an enormous undertaking, but Donen was game. Under the new title Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (thought up by MGM head of advertising Howard Dietz), the musical version of The Sobbin’ Women was ready for the cameras.
- Andrea Passafiume, Turner Classic Movies
ABOUT THE WARNER 2-DISC SPECIAL EDITION DVD
Fans of the film have yearned for years to replace MGM’s mediocre, non-anamorphic DVD release, and Warner has finally complied, venturing back to the vault and fashioning a sumptuous two-disc special edition that’s well worth the double dip. In addition to an all-new anamorphic digital transfer with remastered 5.1 audio, the studio also includes the film’s rarely seen alternate widescreen version. That’s right, alternate version. Back in 1953 when Seven Brides commenced production, Cinemascope was still a novelty, and just a fraction of theaters were equipped to show movies shot with the super-wide lens. Worried MGM executives thus demanded director Stanley Donen film an alternate version of Seven Brides to ensure the musical could play in any theater and reach the largest possible audience. Such an edict, however, put enormous pressure on Donen, who needed to compose two different shots for every camera setup to accommodate the vastly different aspect ratios (2.55:1 and 1.77:1). Ironically, by the time Seven Brides premiered in 1954, almost every theater in America could project Cinemascope films, and the alternate version was never commercially shown.
Until now. Both editions work well, but the original flaunts more energy and enthusiasm, and the film’s western setting and vigorous musical numbers seem better suited to Cinemascope’s expansive canvas. The smaller ratio lends the alternate version a more intimate feel, heightening the romance and adding impact to close-ups, yet crowding is a persistent problem. Let’s face it, squeezing seven brides and seven brothers into a standard shot ain’t easy, and at times the cast visibly struggles to fit into the frame. Still, film buffs will enjoy noting and evaluating the subtle differences between the two versions.
Extras Review: If a complete alternate edition of the film isn’t enough, Warner has packed this two-disc Seven Brides release with several other interesting supplements. Director Stanley Donen kicks off the extras with a curmudgeonly but entertaining commentary track, relating the film’s history and behind-the-scenes anecdotes in a blunt, tell-it-like-it-is style. He starts by admitting, “The worst fight I ever had was to get the picture made in the way it finally was.” Donen addresses the rumor that Howard Keel sought to have him replaced before filming began, and throws some harsh words toward producer Jack Cummings, who envisioned Seven Brides as a B musical and wanted to use old songs like Turkey in the Straw instead of an original score. According to Donen, shooting two versions proved “an enormous undertaking,” and the additional costs prevented the company from filming on location. Painted mountain backdrops were used instead, and, in addition to lending the movie a “phony look,” so confused the birds on the set, they repeatedly crashed into the scenery! Despite lengthy gaps, it’s fun to hear Donen fling barbs at various targets; unfortunately, he runs out of things to say about two-thirds of the way through, and resorts to chiming in with dialogue or singing along with various songs to fill out the track.
- David Krause, Digitally Obsessed
Warner Home Video has made SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS available on DVD in a widescreen presentation, which is slightly shy of it 2.55:1 theatrical aspect ratio, although it has been enhanced for playback on 16:9 displays. This is a really nice looking transfer that has been slightly limited by the original production. The early CinemaScope lenses weren’t as refined as later iterations, nor was the Ansco Color an impressive replacement for Technicolor. Sharpness and detail are a bit variable, with sequences shot under the most controlled conditions and lighting looking the best. Actual outdoor sequences and anything optically processed tend to look a bit soft, but it is never too bad. The hues fluctuate a bit on the fades, but otherwise, are pretty stable. Colors can look a little flat at times, but under good lighting they appear pretty vibrant and rather appealing. Blacks are accurate, whites hold up well enough and contrast is good. The film elements used for the transfer display few blemishes or scratches, which is quite good for a movie celebrating its Fiftieth Anniversary. There is a bit of grain here and there throughout the presentation, but is usually pretty mild. Digital compression artifacts are nicely contained.
For its age, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS comes with a rather pleasant sounding Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the forward soundstage dominates, with the surround channel providing a nice amount of fill to the score and musical numbers. Fidelity isn’t at modern levels, but is great for a movie hitting the half-century mark. The music is smooth and enjoyable, without any harshness or tinny sounding elements. Singing voices sound warm and rather pleasant, so fans of Howard Keel and Jane Powell are certain to enjoy the track. Dialogue is always understandable, although some of postproduction looping is a bit obvious. A French language tracks is also provided, as well as English, French and Spanish subtitles.
- Derek M. Germano, The Cinema Laser
ABOUT STANLEY DONEN
Stanley Donen is most frequently remembered for his work as a musical director/choreographer at MGM under the Arthur Freed Unit, a production team that Donen claims existed only in Arthur Freed’s head (Movie, Spring 1977). With Gene Kelly, he co-directed three of the musical genre’s best films: On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, and It’s Always Fair Weather. Kelly was, in a sense, responsible for giving Donen his start in Hollywood; their first collaboration being the doppelganger dance in Cover Girl. Donen followed a path typical of that time, from Broadway dancer to Hollywood dancer and choreographer to director. As solo director, he won recognition for Royal Wedding (his first effort), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. Andrew Sarris believes that Donen always seems to function best as a hyphenated director or a genial catalyst; that any personal style he may possess is usually submerged under that of the performer (Kelly, Astaire, Fosse) or choreographer (Michael Kidd, Eugene Loring, Bob Fosse) and hence is difficult to assess. This view may simply reflect that period of studio production (mid-1940s to late 1950s), when there was a constant melding of creative personnel. As Jerome Delamater explains: “Performers, choreographers, and directors worked together and in many instances one cannot discern the auteur, as it were, or—more accurately—there seem to be several auteurs.” Donen credits Astaire for his inspiration and it comes as no surprise that he feels his musical work is an extension of the Astaire/Rogers format (which itself is derived from the films of Clair and Lubitsch). This format is not logically grounded in reality, but functions more or less in the realm of pure emotion. Such a world of spontaneous singing and dancing can most accurately be presented in visual terms through forms of surrealism.
Donen’s oeuvre demonstrates a reaction against the presentation of musical numbers on the stage, choreographing them instead on the streets of everyday life. It is this combination of a visual reality and a performing unreality (a performing reality is some type of stage that is clearly delineated from normal, day–to–day activity) that creates the tension inherent in surrealism. Donen geared the integrated musical towards the unreal; our functional perception of the real world does not include singing and dancing as a means of normal interpersonal communication. As he said in an interview with Jim Hillier, “A musical . . . is anything but real.”
Musicals possess their own peculiar internal reality, not directly connected to everyday life. Leo Braudy points out that Donen’s musical films explore communities and the reaction/interaction of the people that dwell within. Even though Donen left the musical genre after Damn Yankees (returning to it in 1973), he continued to explore the situation of the individual in a social community, and the absurd, occasionally surrealistic experiences that we all face, in such deft comedies as Bedazzled, Two for the Road, and Charade (the last in homage to Hitchcock).
—Greg Faller, Film Reference.com
Stanley Donen has always seemed to function best as a hyphenated director. He was dismissed for a time as Gene Kelly’s invisible partner on such Golden-Age Metro musicals as On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, and It’s Always Fair Weather. When the Metro bubble burst, Donen moved to Warners with The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, two transposed Broadway musicals seemingly dominated by George Abbott’s vigorously theatrical pacing. Even when Donen received sole directorial credit, his more notable efforts seemed only marginally personal. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, for example, is stamped (and stomped) with Michael Kidd’s muscular choreography; Funny Face is graced with Richard Avedon’s witty fashion photography. In all these tandem operations, Donen clearly lacks the stylistic presence of a Vincente Minnelli. As for Donen’s relatively personal musicals, Royal Wedding and Give a Girl a Break are peculiarly somber affairs with only intermittent flashes of inspiration, while Deep in My Heart is virtually a complete disaster. His nonmusical comedies have been either relentlessly trivial (Love is Better than Ever, Fearles Fagan) or nearly oververbalized (Kiss Them for Me, Once More with Feeling, Surprise Package, The Grass Is Greener).
Where Donen has come closest to projecting a personal style is in Indiscreet, a comedy that eventually collapses under the weight of Norman Krasna’s plot indiscretions, but not before Donen reveals the serious temperament necesary for high comedy. His timing is sharp, and he seems at home with an elegant cast; in this instance the height of elegance represented by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. After flirtations with black comedy, op art, and half-baked Hitchcock imitations in Charade and Arabesque, Donen has found his own road back with Two for the Road. The director’s serious temperament is well suited to the offbeat casting of Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, the stylishly brittle script of Frederic Raphael (Nothing but the Best, Darling), and the tinkly romantic score of Henry Mancini. It would seem that if Donen is to be involved in good movies in the future, it will be moreas a genial catalyst than as a creative force. Donene seems too much the congenital team player ever to display a marked individuality, and the Donen “touch” remains as elusive as ever. Certainly, Bedazzled owes infinitely more of its personal style to Dudley Moore and Peter Cook than to Stanley Donen, whereas a relative newcomer like Joseph McGrath seems already to have stolen Donen’s thunder with the psychedelic portions of Casino Royale and the more dazzling than Beddazled Dudley Moore capers in 30 Is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia! Still, if a director acts as a pleasant enough catalyst long enough, he may come to be accepted as a creator if only in the most passive form permitted the claim of creation.
- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. Published by Da Capo Press, 1996. Pages 126-127.
For auteurists, Donen’s oeuvre is a difficult one to approach, mainly because two of his most famous films – On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain – were co-directed by Gene Kelly. Then, in the Swinging Sixties, his non-musical work was a mixed bag of stylish thrillers (Charade, Arabesque), dark comedies (Two for the Road, Bedazzled) and starry but indigestible adaptations of stage hits (Once More with Feeling, The Grass is Greener), followed by a run of deserved flops.
While Donen’s touch – bouncy cutting, fluid camerawork, an energising use of space – was evident in almost everything he did, it was the unnaturalistic character of the musical that allowed him to experiment in colour, split- screen techniques, trompe l’oeil superimposition, trick photography, and surreal settings. Later, he was to use these stylistic devices in “straight” films like the comedy Indiscreet (1958) – where Cary Crant and Ingrid Bergman appear to be in bed together thanks to an amusing use of a split- screen. The best of his films, of whatever genre, have a built-in choreographic dimension: Donen had been a dancer from the age of 10.
Stanley Isaac Donen (pronounced like Donna, not doughnut) was born in South Carolina in 1924. “My childhood wasn’t very happy. It’s a long, grim story about being a Jew in a small southern town…” In fact, he withdrew into making films with an 8mm camera his father had given him, and into movie theatres, where seeing Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio determined the nine-year-old to become a dancer.
Few other directors have given such pleasure to the eye and ear, the full appreciation of which can only be obtained on the big screen. To paraphrase Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, Donen, looking back on his career, could say, “If I have brought a little joy into your humdrum lives, I know all my hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’.”
- Ronald Bergen, The Independent
His movies graced soundstages and theaters all across the country, bringing viewers into a magical world of musical elegance. His feet never stopped moving, his mind never stopped hunting for the “perfect dance.” His artistic genius spread like wildfire, infecting every dancer, every actor he came in contact with; his quest for perfection infuriated them.
Stanley Donen has been called the “Wonder Child” of American dance and the “Mastermind” behind musical choreography, but most of all, he liked to humbly think of himself as just another kid who loved to dance.
List of films playing for Stanley Donen Today! on TCM Indiscreet (1958) Funny Face (1958) The Little Prince (1974) Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies by Stephen M. Silverman (1996) Stanley Donen by Joseph Andrew Casper (1983)
While Donen was, ironically, never nominated for an Oscar for any of his films, the academy honored him last year with an Oscar for lifetime achievement. The then 73-year-old director accepted the award with all the grace and dignity of his choreographic dynasty. Donen sang, danced and tapped his magical feet for the audience and provided a genuinely special performance for Oscar viewers everywhere.
- Meg Gural, Turner Classic Movies
In his interview with director Stanley Donen in the TCM series “Private Screenings,” host Robert Osborne mentions that Donen, directed half the movies on his personal “Top Ten” list, including Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Funny Face (1957). That’s quite a record for a “chorus boy” from Columbia, S.C., who progressed from hoofing in Broadway musicals to directing many of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars in some of their best-remembered vehicles. In 1998 Donen won an honorary Oscar® “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation.”
Donen acknowledges that, although he and Kelly were close friends, the task of co-directing could be difficult: “Would you like somebody sitting behind you saying, ‘Don’t say that. No. Try it this way’? And you have to convince them. It’s tough.” Still, the Kelly-Donen alliance continued in another sparkling MGM musical, It’s Always Fair Weather (1955).
Here are Donen’s impressions of other superstars with whom he worked:
Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain: “I don’t think she was in any way forced on us. She was an irresistible little girl.” Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951) and Funny Face: “It was intimidating to be working with a man you thought was the single greatest contributor to musical films. But it was wonderful… Of all the people on earth Fred Astaire seems to be the least affected by gravity.”
Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face and Charade (1963): “I loved her. I knew her from her movies. [Then] I got to work with her and she was wonderful and sweet and friendly and kind and giving and intimate and personal and gifted. And the sound of her voice was enough to send you.” Sophia Loren in Arabesque (1966): “She was funny, you know…a really welcoming, big, powerful woman who knew she was strong and she was attractive and sexual, and she was a huge star at that time.”