Stanley Donen Chapter 1


INT: I am RAYMOND DE FELITTA with the DGA oral history project, and we will be discussing his work, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, CHARADE, ON THE TOWN, it is January 27, 2004, Oscars announced primaries happening.


INT: Do you have any regrets about coming back to New York?
SD: No, I happen to like New York. [INT: Since we just mentioned New York, and I'm so astounded by the beginning of your career, it appears from the very moment you got here you immediately met two gigantic figures, GENE KELLY, GEORGE ABBOTT, wondered if you could talk a little bit about PAL JOEY?]. Yea, I have been very fortunate in that the cliché everything seems to be for the best is what seems to happen to people. Events take you in a direction so that's the way you go. As you say in PAL JOEY, 1941 or 1940, I came to New York to go into theater and musicals. I was from the south, very thick accent. I got hired to be in PAL JOEY as a dancer. Wonderful experience, remarkable men. I was 16, had to be 1940. World War II began while I was in PAL JOEY. What can I say?


INT: Was your ambition to perform or direct already?
SD: You expect too much of a 16 year old from South Carolina. I just knew I wanted musicals, theater, and film. I had been infected by seeing FRED ASTAIRE in FLYING DOWN TO RIO when I was 9. South Carolina, where young boys weren't interested in music and dancing. All I knew was I started dancing lessons, continued to take dancing lessons after that movie to New York seven years later. I could dance, couldn't talk very well, I talked very Southern. [INT: Came by yourself?] Came by myself. My family had nothing to do with theater or movies. My father ran the ladies dress shop. They never said it wasn't a good idea, the only thing my father wanted was I should go to a university, which I didn't do. They didn't think it was going to happen, he bought me a ticket on the train. Gave me 15 dollars and I came here, got a job right away in PAL JOEY.


INT: Did you have any clue that GENE KELLY and you would be linked through eternity?
SD: Of course not, we weren't linked in that show. He was PAL JOEY, we got to know each other very well. I was this very long man, and ABBOTT who you mentioned was doing another show. PAL JOEY wasn't a gigantic hit, never was, he was doing a second musical called BEST FOOT FORWARD about young boys in military school. I left PAL JOEY and went into rehearsal and the choreographer of the show whose name escapes me, GEORGE didn't like him. After a week of rehearsals we fired him, went to GENE who was still in PAL JOEY and said would you like to choreograph BEST FOOT FORWARD. He said yeah while he was in another play. He knew me and said why don't you be my assistant. Sort of the beginning of us working together.


INT: Did you go to Hollywood with him then?
SD: No nobody took me to Hollywood. He went to Hollywood and I stayed on in BEST FOOT FORWARD, went into a third show called BEAT THE BAND where I replaced the choreographer, asked me to redo the numbers. GENE was a year in Los Angeles. I saved enough money to buy a ticket to Los Angeles, war was well on. I got on an airplane buying my own way. I got bumped off the plane. World War II was on, I was 17, they had the right to kick off civilians if the military needed a seat. Kicked off in Chicago. This was early 1942, I took a train to Hollywood, knocked on the door to get a job. Hired at MGM as a dancer. GENE was already there, nothing to do with me coming there. I was there in a lot of movies, dancing, became assistant choreographer to god knows how many. CHUCK WALTERS, JACK DONOHUE. Assistant to a lot of directors like GEORGE ABBOTT and RICHARD THORPE. I worked on thirty movies or more. GENE got hired to do COVER GIRL at COLUMBIA, said would you come with me and we'll do my musical numbers together. MGM lent me. And that was how we started working together, I was 19 by then.


INT: Amazing to me that COVER GIRL is the only great musical COLUMBIA ever made in the alter ego number?
SD: That was fun. I liked THE JOLSON STORY. Musical is an odd word. What constitutes a musical? Are there any rules to how you can define a musical. The only thing you can really say is that a musical is a film that has a lot of music in it. beyond that there is nothing you can say. How much music, how it's done, as soon as you limit that I don't think its possible. I think THE JOLSON STORY was really good. LARRY PARKS was wonderful. I liked that. [that’s very generous of you, I think COVER GIRL has such a…?] It’s a different kind of music. Is THE JOLSON STORY a musical, I guess so, but it's not thought of that way.


INT: Getting back to MGM for a bit, you said you worked with a lot of directors…?
SD: You'll have to forgive me, you sit there so comfortably like you know a lot about what you're saying and I'm astounded because I can't believe [INT: Do I intimidate you?] No just that you know it all seems to be amazing, why? [INT: When I was growing up everybody was watching STAR WARS, I was at home watching your movies.] But you know a lot about studios and shows.


INT: I'm interested that you worked with so many different directors at MGM and COLUMBIA. The sense is that movies then were more compartmentalized with more than one director at the helm. Is that fair or accurate?
SD: Well there was no rule. The way it worked for me, and I assume it worked for some other people, I was employed by MGM and they couldn't know what they were going to do with me. How could they know what films are going to be made, you are sort of thrown into a big pot. Whatever you can figure out to do, you still scrounge for yourself. I ate film, I just love movies. I use to see everything, I was mostly involved in musicals although I did numbers, one with MICKEY ROONEY in KILLER MCCOY. I got nothing to do with the musical movie. I did what I could do, people got to know me, because of my interest and enthusiasm. I worked on a lot of pictures. It wasn't as compartmentalized as you said. GENE and I wrote a story, made into a movie, worked in sound and editing. I worked everywhere. Soon I worked in the cartoon department. My education in film, I had much more of a possibility of working with everything than film students. I was into making it in a real way. Today film students are limited, asked to write, edit, photograph their own movie. That's not going to happen. They're going to work with a lot of other people, that's what I was able to do. Broad education in films. Six years of constant hard work in the trenches.


INT: I think that must account for the great confidence of ON THE TOWN?
SD: I was far more confident then than I am today. Fools rush in, I thought I knew everything. [INT: What was it like getting them to shoot in New York?] It was tough shooting here, it wasn’t a routine, the city wasn't out to help you like they are today. FRANK SINATRA was like THE BEATLES, everywhere he went was chaos. It was madness. Fun, I knew what I wanted to do, we didn't shoot much here. Maximum of two weeks. Then a studio in Los Angeles. In those days MGM thought musicals could only be done on a sound stage. I suspect because, let me make a lecture here. Silent films could be made anywhere. Camera was all you needed. Went all over the world. When sound happened in 1929-30, sound controlled making films. That's when all the sound stages were insulated. Otherwise you heard noise on the outside street. The early musicals and talkies, they could only record in these walls. They didn't realize that that was the limiting thing. Somehow the idea got confused that there was some magic about a musical in an enclosed place. By the time we were doing ON THE TOWN, the early days orchestra and sound were recorded live. Song and dance to live music. Didn't know how to edit music. Recorded on disc. By the time we did ON THE TOWN, all the music was prerecorded. The sound wasn't controlling at all. We recorded it separately. When you're making a movie about New York City, it seems ludicrous to reproduce this amazing city on a sound stage, particularly in those days there was no computer generated imagery. They really believed you couldn't shoot it anywhere but on stage. The only reason it happened was that GENE was a star, said we have to shoot. To actually do it was not easy, New York wouldn't help you and SINATRA was of the magnitude that made it difficult.


INT: It's interesting your mention of the early talkies, was that a subject you were interested in prior to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN?
SD: Absolutely, I ate film. I was five years old when the transition from silent to sound happened. As a child I had an 8mm projector. You could buy three and four minute clips in the store in 8mm with KEYSTONE KOPS or whatever. I had a collection with a hand cranked projector. I was familiar with every kind of movie. When SINGIN' IN THE RAIN came, the reason it's about silent to sound is because ARTHUR FREED who wrote the picture and lyrics, preeminent musical producer in film, he said to GENE and me, I produced pictures with RODGERS AND HART, JEROME KERN. No one made a picture with the songs I wrote with HERB BROWN. These are the songs we wrote, play them and see what kind of movie we make. When you play the songs, it's clear those old period songs were written for early talking pictures. The way to use them was in a movie about early talking pictures. That's why it was placed in the background. None of us, that's KELLY, BETTY COMDEN, ADOLPH GREEN and me, none of us had to do any research on movies, we were all movie nuts. We were the geeks. That was our life blood the movies.


INT: There were a couple of directors still at MGM, ROBERT Z. LEONARD, did you speak to him?
SD: POP LEONARD, I worked with SIDNEY and RICHARD THORPE, they would have me come and do whatever. There were others, CLARENCE BROWN made silents, they had a man there who was a producer trying to be a director. MGM like all studios was a silent movie factory. [ INT: Did you speak to any of them in your research?] We didn't do any research, that's what I'm saying, we just knew. BUSTER KEATON worked on the movie, on SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, he was there. Just because we all admired him. MGM paid him a weekly sum. Wanted to charge it to something, ARTHUR said let BUSTER be around. Just being there. He was only silent movies. [INT: He had nothing to do with Make 'Em Laugh?] No.


INT: I'm amazed, you know whenever I watch SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, a new number is my favorite. Last time I saw it I was taken with Broadway Ballet. You wrote that it was too long, but the beginning is beautifully staged and edited?
SD: It's not too long within itself. By the time you go into the number and run it, I think it's 17 minutes long. You're in another world, it's not that I think it doesn't sustain itself, it's what it does to the other part of the picture. That's over 50 years ago, now you can't change the picture. I actually did change it once. Very friendly with JULES DASSIN. He lived in Paris, I was in London. He called me and said I have a wonderful idea for a movie with MELINA his wife. Silent movie actress when talkies happen. I knew he wasn't being funny. I said I made a picture like that. This was 1960, he said I never saw it. I would show it to him. I said I would bring you a print, I took it and edited the Broadway Ballet for this one screening. Made it like five or six minutes long. That's the only time I saw it.


INT: Did you, I wonder about your process in directing a number like that, did you storyboard, they certainly feel so integrated?
SD: No, the trick of everything is I think rehearsal. In rehearsal it gets done. By the time we rehearse, I just made a list. that was what we would shoot. when I made the first 15 movies there was nothing left over. I thought that was the best way, the only way. I don't feel like that any longer. It's not true of course. I'm not even sure it was true then. Planning what you're going to see, photographing physical movement like in a dance, how does it look the best form where. How close, what light, where is the camera, across the screen. When you choreograph it yourself, you know what the power you want it to be because you've struggled to get it there. I never heard of storyboarding, they were all done like that.


INT: Do you think that maybe your attitude changed when you started making non-musical films?
SD: I remember the specific scene, not until CHARADE started to feel different. A scene, not CHARADE, it was INDISCREET. CARY GRANT and INGRID BERGMAN, she wants him to move with her in London. He is married. Its an unhappy situation, they still love each other. He is a diplomat. She invites him to breakfast. He is telling her he is taking a job near London, that's the event. They don't talk much. She fixes breakfast, puts the plates and things, it's all about how they are feeling about each other. I realize I had to get that, I couldn't just stage the physical places. I shot it totally different. That was 1957. Long time, 18 years of directing by then. I shot it like that, realized there were other ways. That's why I say in ON THE TOWN I thought I knew everything.


INT: I think that is very interesting. I as a director went through this a few months ago directing a movie, realized it wasn’t important how I was going to shoot the scene, it was more important that I watch them. It’s the final dispensing of your ego?
SD: Yea, but that's only true in some scenes. That's the problem about making movies. It's a problem about all art, maybe about everything in the world. You have to be able to respond to the reality and the possibility. You have to be informed and intelligent, but also unafraid to go in a way that is unexpected. You have to believe in your own sensibilities.


INT: It's so interesting just to jump 15 years ahead, I ran TWO FOR THE ROAD last night, I was amazed at the cutting, and the staging is very elaborate, yet at the end you are left with a simple story of two people. But your style is not simple at all. Was that a conscious choice on your part?
SD: Of course it was conscious, people said to me did you shoot it and put it together, I said you haven't looked at it. Everything has something to do with something in a later moment. It's a wonderfully fun movie. Using the part of the magic of what movies can be in that conception. That's fun to do that. MARSHALL MCLUHAN said the medium is the message. Not really, if it's too much of the message it's a pain in the neck. How much and where has to do with what's the story and scene, what's important. If we could make rules everybody could learn, then we can make great movies. It's not always the same, we're left to make a decision and choice which is not what we have done in the past.


INT: And yet when I look at your MGM musicals, they are definitely different.
SD: So many things suggested by your excitement of film that I don’t see in other directors at the time? It’s the truth. It's what I understood, what I loved, what I thought could be brought to the film. Even if we were making a movie, something that was generic to the way of telling it, I loved movies.


INT: I guess I need to, I'm sure you explained this, but I need to ask you about FRED ASTAIRE and ROYAL WEDDING. Before the dancing on the ceiling number, what did it mean for you to work with him, you mentioned FLYING DOWN TO RIO?
SD: I never thought that would happen, and he was in the true sense of the word, he was my idol, still is. The way it came about is ARTHUR FREED was the producer, I had only directed SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, sorry ON THE TOWN. It was before SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. FREED said I was going to make it with JUDY GARLAND and ASTAIRE with CHARLES WALTERS. He just finished doing SUMMER STOCK with GARLAND, he said I can't do another picture, I barely lived through SUMMER STOCK. Said would I like to direct them. I said are you crazy, there is nothing I would rather do. I was around because of my appreciation of him. I was nine, ROYAL WEDDING was around 1950. 17 years later I was directing him. [INT: So young, ORSON WELLES is the only one] SPIELBERG too. It's not all that unusual, films today more than ever they want to make movies for young people. Their points of view are more in common than making a film than older people. I was very lucky in that things always happened easily for me. I had the opportunity to do what I wanted to do. Not many people had that chance.