Remembering 'Singin' In The Rain' Co-Director Stanley Donen

Mar 1, 2019
Originally published on March 6, 2019 8:23 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Stanley Donen, who directed some of Hollywood's most loved and admired musicals, died last week at the age of 94. He worked with Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. He co-directed "Singin' In The Rain" with Gene Kelly, considered by many to be the best movie musical ever made.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN")

GENE KELLY: (As Don Lockwood, singing) I'm singing in the rain, just singing in the rain. What a glorious feeling. I'm happy again. I'm laughing at clouds so dark up above. The sun's in my heart, and I'm ready for love. Let the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place. Come on with the rain. I've a smile on my face. I walk down the lane with a happy refrain, just singing, singing in the rain.

DAVIES: Donen also directed "Royal Wedding," in which Fred Astaire seemed to defy gravity by dancing on the ceiling. Donen got his start as a dancer. At the age of 16, he landed a job in the chorus of the original Broadway production of "Pal Joey," where he began a long association with its star, Gene Kelly. Soon after, when they were both in Hollywood, Kelly brought Donen to Columbia Pictures to work with him.

Kelly and Donen went on to co-direct "On The Town," "It's Always Fair Weather" and "Singin' In The Rain." Donen's other films include, "Funny Face," "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers," "Damn Yankees," "Indiscreet," "Charade," "Two For The Road" and "Bedazzled."

Donen was never nominated for an Academy Award, but in 1998, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for, quote, "a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation."

Stanley Donen spoke with Terry in 1996. She asked him about "Singin' In The Rain" and the rainfall and puddles in his most famous production number.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STANLEY DONEN: People believe these things happen spontaneously. Certainly, dance numbers are anything but spontaneous. They're worked out in great detail over quite a long period of time. And so we decided where, how, what he would dance, how he would dance, how quickly he would dance, what the steps were, where he would be, we rehearsed on the street and so on.

And we said he'll splash in a puddle here. Well, there had to be a puddle there. So we had to chop out the cement and make a little hole. And then it would fill up with water, and he would splash in that puddle there. And since dance is very specific, and when you do it the same way every time, you end up in the same spot, we placed the puddles where they were necessary.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

And where did the rain come from?

DONEN: Pipes. It came from the Culver City water supply, pipes overhead feeding the rain.

GROSS: Did you make the temperature of the water warm so that...

DONEN: Was not necessary.

GROSS: Gene Kelly's muscles wouldn't be...

DONEN: No, on the contrary, it was so hot in there, it would have been nice if the water had been cool. We were in mid-summer, and we were under black canvas. So - in the bright daylight, we didn't shoot it at night - in real night. And the sun beating down on a black canvas overhead with the water pouring down on it, it was like a sauna in there. It would have been better to have refrigerated water in that case.

GROSS: Now, you work with Gene Kelly. You also work with Fred Astaire on the films "Royal Wedding" and "Funny Face." Now, did you have a different approach to shooting each of them since their approach to dance was different?

DONEN: Yes.

GROSS: Could you describe the difference in shooting them?

DONEN: Well, because Gene's movements are basically athletic and the force of the movement is important to get the thrill of watching him dance, it's harder to produce that on film because film is not able to get forceful movement because it's only a two-dimensional medium. And you need two eyes to see sharp, hard, forward and back or sideways movement. You need three dimensions.

And therefore, I tried to make up for - for that lack in the way I photographed it, which meant trying to make it a more dynamic move by the placement or movement of the camera or lack of movement of the camera. With Fred, you want to get the delicacy of the movement. So it's another way of focusing the eye in this two-dimensional medium on his physical, you know, subtle movements.

GROSS: There's a dance scene I want you to talk about that's very mysterious when you see it. It's the dancing on the ceiling sequence, the sequence that your biography is named after. This is the Fred Astaire dance number from...

DONEN: From "Royal Wedding."

GROSS: Yeah, from "Royal Wedding." So, I mean, he dances on the floor, and the walls and the ceiling on this. What did you do to create that illusion?

DONEN: We had to build a room inside a wheel - or a barrel, if you like - which turned slowly and in which the camera turned with the room as well as the lights and everything in the room. And its turning had to be so controlled and gentle, both in timing and in movement, that the things didn't shake or didn't throw Fred Astaire around. And the camera had to be fixed to its position so it turned exactly as the room did. And so did the lights, otherwise, you would see the room turning - as the lights stayed still, you'd see shadows moving and so on.

And then the wall, if we were now going to Fred dancing from the - from the floor to the side wall, slowly the side wall becomes the floor. And he's actually dancing on that floor, which is now the wall of the room. But since the camera turns with it, the camera doesn't know that the set has moved in that sense. It doesn't see outside the room. So, to the camera, it's still the side wall, and it looks like Fred has actually gone to the side wall. And that's repeated on the ceiling, the other side and so on.

GROSS: So did the choreography have to be done in such a way as to coincide with the turning of the room?

DONEN: Yes, and the turning of the room had to coincide with the choreography and so on. They had to marry each other. And that only could happen with trial and error.

GROSS: You say in your biography that the most difficult part in a film musical is making that transition from talking into dancing or talking into singing. And I could see how that would be the most difficult - the most difficult part. What are some of the ways you've gotten around that in production numbers to try to make a smooth transition?

DONEN: Well, we try any number of ways. In the number we were just talking about, in - "All The World To Me" is the name of the song where he dances around the room - you hear him singing. But actually his lips aren't moving in the beginning. So it's almost as though his singing is an underscoring of the scene. And then after the verse of the song, he starts singing - theoretically singing it with his mouth. So that's one technique.

There are numbers of ways I've tried to do it. I've tried it sometimes with the character's back to the camera. You hear him singing, but you don't see him singing. Sometimes in "Singin' In The Rain," we had a - we had a little vamp which was written, which sort of eased him from dialogue into song. The vamp ahead of the song was written by Roger Edens. Most people are familiar with it. It goes, (singing) doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, that little vamp. He sings that, and that seems to bridge the moment.

GROSS: Yeah, and in "Moses Supposes" they start talking about that before...

DONEN: In "Moses Supposes," they're talking the lyric. That's right. And then the music joins the talk. So there are, I hope, endless ways of avoiding a catastrophe at that moment.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, what goes wrong if that transition isn't done just right? Do you think the audience thinks it looks foolish?

DONEN: People laugh is what goes wrong. They think this is highly unlikely. People don't sing in this situation. They think, why - why are they doing that? It seems not real, not acceptable. And it makes the audience uncomfortable, and they laugh.

GROSS: Now, when you worked at MGM - or at least I think most the time you were at MGM - Louis B. Mayer was the head of the studio.

DONEN: Not really.

GROSS: Just part of the time?

DONEN: Well, by the time we did "Singin' In The Rain," Dore Schary was there running the studio. Mayer was still there, but the decisions were made by Dore Schary.

GROSS: Wow. What was Mayer like to work with?

DONEN: I knew him very slightly. He was - clearly he had a large input into what kind of films were made. He was someone who - I think if he were alive today, he couldn't bear it. He would have lost his mind because he wanted films to only be sweet and gentle and talk about mothers loving sons, and sons and daughters, and family things.

He loved the - for example, the Andy Hardy series which showed the kind of family life - the only kind of family life he really liked to see. He didn't like to see, for example, women in slacks. It drove him mad. He thought it's not feminine for a woman to wear pants. I remember that was a great problem, as I was told, about Katharine Hepburn, who wore pants in some MGM movies. He didn't like that. He had a lot of things which found their way into the whole studio output. He didn't like shiny surfaces for some reason on the films.

GROSS: Shiny surfaces?

DONEN: Yes, he didn't like things reflecting. So MGM films, unless you fought very hard, had a very soft look to them. He didn't like dark shadows, so MGM black-and-white films had filled-in light in the shadow areas. There were all kinds of odd things.

GROSS: What was the process of fighting like? Would you go into his office and make your case?

DONEN: No. No. Oh no, it was all done through - he was way above all that. It was - these things had become law at the studio in a funny way, unwritten albeit. But, you know, there are all kinds of departments. The wardrobe department said, Mr. Mayer won't like this. Or the camera department said, Mr. Mayer won't like this, or the set - the art department, Mr. Mayer won't like it like that. And you have to find a way to get around that, whatever that might be - using star power or your producer or being adamant yourself and saying well, we're going to do it like this, and I don't care what he likes. However, you got around it. But he - his presence physically was not - he never confronted these issues with the people involved.

DAVIES: We're listening back to Terry's interview with Director Stanley Donen, who died last week at the age of 94. His films include "Singin' In The Rain," "Damn Yankees" and "Royal Wedding." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENE KELLY SONG, "SINGING IN THE RAIN'")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with Stanley Donen, who directed the film "Singin' In the Rain," "Damn Yankees," "Royal Wedding" and other classic Hollywood musicals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now I want to ask you about your musical "Funny Face," which starred Fred Astaire as a fashion photographer and Audrey Hepburn as a young woman who is kind of bullied into becoming a fashion model.

DONEN: Antagonistic to fashion.

GROSS: Yes. Yes. And she really wants to be a kind of beatnik. And anyways, they, of course, fall in love, you know, Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Although he's really much older than she is, which isn't spoken about in the film. But how are they paired together, Astaire and Hepburn?

DONEN: By - you mean by our casting?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

DONEN: Well, who are - we just thought - who are the best people to play these parts? Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. And lo and behold, we got them. That was the unbelievable part of it. We got Audrey Hepburn after a great deal of trouble because she's - when we sent her the script, she said yes, she would like to be in the movie. But MGM - it was - we prepared the script at MGM. MGM couldn't get her. She was under contract to Paramount, and MGM could not get Paramount to lend Audrey Hepburn's services to MGM to make "Funny Face." So the picture looked like it was a dead issue when it occurred to me and Roger Edens to see if we could get Paramount to buy the picture and take us to Paramount to make the picture. They had Audrey.

So we went to MGM and said, can we try to get Paramount to buy this situation from you? And the studio said, well, if they'll pay us enough money, yes. Although they were going to lose it all. Nevertheless, Paramount paid them and borrowed Roger Edens and me to go to Paramount to make the picture. That way we got Audrey Hepburn. Once we had the picture at Paramount, we asked Fred Astaire, would he like to make this picture with Audrey Hepburn and us? And we - Roger knew him well and I directed him previously in "Royal Wedding." And he said he'd love to. So that's how we got them together.

GROSS: Now, Audrey Hepburn, who wrote the introduction to your biography, says that she was so nervous about dancing with Astaire, she actually lost her breakfast. She threw up the morning of the first performance together. Were you aware of how nervous she was?

DONEN: Yes. It is terrifying to work with Fred Astaire, particularly if you're a dancer, as Audrey Hepburn is - was a very trained dancer. So Fred Astaire was everyone's idol. And, suddenly, she was thrust into being his equal. Of course, it's terrifying for her.

GROSS: And was he...

DONEN: Very gentle. Very helpful. Very - he had been through this with other people that were equally terrified of working with him. So he had - but he loved Audrey, as everyone did.

GROSS: Another movie I want to ask you about is "On The Town." Three guys on leave in New York, and this - some of these numbers are actually shot in the streets of New York, which - you've pointed out this isn't the first time that production numbers were shot on location. But it was still unusual. In fact, I think you had to fight to shoot the movie in New York instead of on the set in Hollywood.

DONEN: Right. That is right. Yes. We had to fight very hard. We didn't shoot as much as we wanted to shoot in New York, but we did get a bit of the movie done in New York.

GROSS: What were you up against in New York, since the city was probably not used to movies being shot on the streets?

DONEN: No. The city was not used to it and certainly wasn't used to Frank Sinatra in a sailor suit singing on the street. So we had problems of crowd control, and - or hiding a camera or trying to get the shot without the people realizing what was going on. Or we had to use many different ways of getting it done. And the actual city of New York was very helpful to us. They wanted the picture to be photographed on the streets. But just the thing of traffic and noise and onlookers staring at him and staring at the cameras or hearing the playback - and all of that caused great difficulties.

GROSS: Now, there were three leads - three male leads - Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and...

DONEN: Jules Munshin.

GROSS: Jules Munshin, yeah. And he apparently was afraid of heights? And...

DONEN: He was terrified of heights.

GROSS: And where was the production number on top of a building that you had to...

DONEN: Well, there were several. There were several. There was one on top of the RCA building, but it turned out he was even afraid - when we got to New York to shoot, he said, can my room be on the ground floor? I don't even want to be one floor up. He was absolutely thrown into a catatonic state at height, and there was nothing for it but to try to get it done. And I must say that he was extremely brave because knowing what kind of fear he had, he managed to go and stand up on a roof high in New York and sing and move and not show his fear, whereas when we would go to the roof to be - to do the scene, he would actually ride in the elevator on his hands and knees. It sounds funny, but it's terrifying. Somebody who has that kind of phobia is in a terrible sweat, and that he was able to overcome it is a tremendous courage.

GROSS: Did you know that he was afraid of heights when you cast him?

DONEN: Not when we - when I cast him, it never occurred to me, no. When we - it didn't - none of us were aware of it till we got on a plane and wanted to come to New York. I didn't fly with him, so I don't know what he was like in an airplane. But certainly, when he got to New York, he said, I can't go up in the elevator. But he did.

GROSS: Well, you must've had a sinking feeling in your stomach. You had the production numbers planned already.

DONEN: Yes. Well, we did what best we can. We sometimes put Jules Munshin between Sinatra and Kelly so he would feel somewhat supported by them in these high spots. But the whole sequence wasn't done up on the rooftops. Some of it was done in Central Park and Rockefeller Center and Fifth Avenue and Chinatown, Little Italy, all over New York. The Brooklyn Navy Yard - there were all kinds of places where he wasn't in mortal fear.

GROSS: Now, how did Sinatra and Kelly get along?

DONEN: They got along great. They were great friends from before that. We had done - this was the third picture that Kelly, Sinatra and I had worked on together. So they were great buddies and remained so until Gene died.

GROSS: But Sinatra was hard to work with, right?

DONEN: I wouldn't categorize him as hard to work with. He was very willing to do what you wanted him to do. He just had certain feelings of - he wanted to go to lunch when he went to lunch, or he wanted, you know, to not rehearse as much as perhaps we would. But he managed to force himself to do what we wanted. Gene was terrific there 'cause he admired Gene so much. So it wasn't all that hard.

DAVIES: Film director Stanley Donen recorded in 1996. He died last week at the age of 94. Coming up, we remember a legendary obituary writer who celebrated ordinary men and women. He himself was anything but ordinary. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ALL THE WORLD TO ME")

FRED ASTAIRE: (Singing) Everywhere that beauty glows you are. Everywhere an orchid grows you are. Everything that's young and gay, brighter than a holiday, everywhere the angels play you are. You're like Paris in April and May. You're New York on a silvery day, a Swiss Alp as the sun grows fainter. You're Loch Lomond when autumn is the painter. You're moonlight on a night in Capri and Cape Cod looking out at the sea. You're all places that made me breathless. And no wonder - you're all the world to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY SLINGBAUM SONG, "WATER GAMES - RAVEL RE-IMAGINED (FEAT. ELDAR DJANGIROV, ET AL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.