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.
Donen 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.