Stanley Donen at the HFA

I caught the Stanley Donen appearance at the HFA‘s screening of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) on Friday night. The film represents MGM’s first foray into CinemaScope, which produced a picture about twice as wide as the then current standard Academy format. Donen used every inch of it by the way, seven brides + seven brothers = 14 primary cast members. The print was a little spotty in parts, but it was spectacularly, well, wide. I’ve never seen a movie at HFA where they had to pull the curtains back all the way.

They screened two clips of dance sequences Donen directed early in his career from Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Cover Girl (1944) to open the evening. These showcased Donen’s work with special effects, back when special effects were an afterthought–something credited to like one guy, where today lists of special and visual effects technicians can be longer than that of traditional crew members. I’ve uploaded an abridged version of the Anchors Aweigh clip because, although Donen did not direct the entire film, it’s a testament to his strides in expanding the genre of the musical; creating splendid visual spectacles with song and dance, and how much those transcendent spectacles factor into the popular American imagination. He directed this sequence when he was only 21. The guy is practically Keats.

Donen at 85, though a little hard of hearing, is as sharp and witty as one could imagine. He speaks very pragmatically and humbly about his work, and this made him seem a little prickly at times relative to his interviewer, HFA director Haden Guest, and the audience. One woman stood up to say that when she saw Seven Brides at the age of eleven, she promised herself that (based on the plot of the film) she would marry a man from a large farming family, which she did. Donen wasn’t exactly moved by this example of his pictures touching someone so deeply (and permanently). He could also be a little snappy when given heady critical prompts by either an audience member or Guest, e.g. comment on the amalgam of dance and acrobatics. I think we forget that when he started making movies, we weren’t talking about them as we do now, and I don’t know if he was ever really part of that dialogue, not to say he didn’t create great art and great popular art. The best person to ask some things about a film isn’t always the filmmaker.

cydDonen was at his best when talking about how films got made or how they almost didn’t. Someone asked how he got Cyd Charisse’s parachute-like costume to fly like it did during the Singing in the Rain ballet interlude. They actually installed two airplane engines in the sound stage, with the props opposing each other, creating some kind of wind vortex. Donen grew up with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicles, and got to Hollywood only just in time to do musicals, not far before they lost their capacity to maintain a suspension of disbelief among the American audience.  He said, paradoxically, the most frightening part of a musical picture is when someone starts singing; when the reality of speech ends and the stylized surreal ideal of the musical number begins. You got a sense that he worked hard to make his musicals believable and authentic, particuarly so in their transitions from lines to lyrics. He explained, ‘if it’s not exactly right, the audience will laugh.’ I think most of us are still laughing with him.

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Not The Dueling Cavalier: Stanley Donen at the Harvard Film Archive

This month the Harvard Film Archive presents a series of films drawn from the career of Stanley Donen. Donen’s pictures can be conveniently divided into two sections: the iconic musicals of the 1950s, like On the Town (screens Oct.2), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Oct.9), and Singing in the Rain (Oct.2), and those films made after the musical comedy lost favor with American audiences, the most famous being Charade (Oct.4). Though by no means prolific, Donen remained active right through the seventies, making Saturn 3 (1980), a campy sci-fi thriller that pairs Farrah Fawcet with (a by then well aged) Kirk Douglas and a lusty robot.

Liz Taylor and Donen at Hollywood’s Club Mocambo, 1951 (left)

Donen is of course no stranger to romantic pairings that span a generation or two and put an extra load on our suspension of disbelief. Cary Grant refused the romantic lead opposite Hepburn in both Roman Holiday and Sabrina, only agreeing to Charade with the stipulation that Hepburn play the smitten and forward one rather than himself. By then she had already been cast alongside Fred Astaire, who did not age nearly as well as Grant and whose first film with Ginger Rogers actually only misses Hepburn’s birth by four years, in Funny Face (Oct.3). Hepburn’s (somewhat comic) modernist dance in a bohemian Paris jazz club, recently popularized by a Gap jeans commercial, is probably Funny Face’s most redeeming moment. Hepburn could certainly dance, but she couldn’t sing, and the film would have been better off had her voice been dubbed, as it was in My Fair Lady.

Arabesque (Oct.3) pairs Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in a psychedelic thriller that exacerbates, to the point of convolution, the suspenseful plotting of Charade from three years earlier. If you’re able to put the plot aside and focus your attention towards the hip 1960s cinematography, spectacular color, Alan Badel’s classic performance as a dubious Arab business man, and a sumptuously photographed Sophia Loren; Arabesque becomes a five reel chase scene that’s incredibly pleasing to the eye.

The HFA is always committed to screening rare underrated gems, as well as those films that, although sometimes rightfully underrated, take on importance in the context established by a film series. Staircase (Oct.30) stars Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as an aging gay couple. Movie Movie (Oct.30) starred George C. Scott and his last wife, Trish Van Devere, in a simulated double feature long before Tarantino’s Grindhouse. Also worthwhile should be his two very different Faust adaptations; Damn Yankees and Bedazzled, screening together on the 31st.

See the HFA website for more information and showtimes.

Note that Donen will be appearing in person on October 9th (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ) and 10th (Two for the Road).

Unfortunately, HFA seems to be raising its prices a little closer to those of most theaters. Now special events (e.g. the Donen appearances) are $12 and regular admission is $9 (non-Harvard students $7).