Saturday, October 10, 2009

Stanley Donen at the HFA - Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

A few days ago I got a phone call at work from my beau. He asked me if I recognized the name Stanley Donen. I replied that yes I recognized his name and that he was a film director. My beau proceeded to tell me that Stanley Donen, the Stanley Donen would be at the Harvard Film Archive on Friday to present his film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). It took me a while to grasp the magnitude of this opportunity and by the time it did, I had already gotten off the phone with my beau and I was staring blankly into my cubicle. I get to see the great director Stanley Donen in person! Oh... my... God! It was all I could do not to get up and dance around the office in pure joy.

The HFA was doing a series called Debonair: The Films of Stanley Donen where they were showcasing 14 of his films. Stanley Donen would be there to present two, Seven Brides and Two for the Road (1967). The Boston Globe had an article about the 85 year old director giving a great overview on his career. The article concluded saying that Donen always wears a large medallion on a chain around his neck which is inscribed: Stanley Donen. If lost, please return to Elaine May. Sure enough when I saw him enter the HFA, he was wearing that same medallion!

Stanley Donen spoke a few words after he was formally introduced. We got to see two of his famous choreographed works: the Gene Kelly-Jerry the Mouse Anchor's Aweigh (1945) dance number and the Gene Kelly & Gene Kelly's ghost dance number from Cover Girl (1944). Then they pulled the curtains aside and we got to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in all it's widescreen Cinemascope glory!

The audience reaction was great. There was applause after the really wonderful dance and song sequences, especially the Barn Raising dance number that makes this film so iconic. I think my beau like the story, Howard Keel's brazenness and the acrobatics. I most enjoyed the choreography and Jane Powell's spunkiness. It's hard not to be impressed by this movie. It has it's sleepy moments but it's truly a feast for the eyes and there is something for everyone to enjoy.


I think the most awkward part of these sorts of things is the Q&A portion. The people who have the courage to ask the questions (not me) are the ones who either hog the spotlight solely to praise the guest or to ask some dumb question. It's the dumb questions, which these people take way too long to ask (what's with the throat clearing people, just get to the point), that illicit the best answers. One guy asked about the long scarf in one of the dance sequences in Singin' in the Rain (1952). I'm not going to even begin to contemplate the way he asked the question because it makes me want to cry. Donen said that they had used to airplane propellers on either side of the studio turned on at full blast to create enough wind force that when Cyd Charisse stood in one spot, it lifted the long silk scarf up and held it up. There were no computers or fancy technology involved; just pure ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Another person asked the question about what Stanley Donen thinks about films today. A good question just poorly presented by the asker. Donen's answer really struck me and I wish to God that I had done a video-recording of his answer. Donen said that he watches films today and he tries to limit his viewing of newer films to those of quality, but it's getting more and more difficult to find these films. He dislikes computer generated movies in which you see something on screen that doesn't really happen. There is a magic and realness to watching real people do things on screen that he misses in contemporary film. Granted, his films had fancy effects. Gene Kelly didn't really dance with the cartoon mouse Jerry in the famous Donen-choreographed sequence in Anchors Aweigh (1945). Donen struck a chord with me while he was speaking. There is a humanity in classic films that is lacking in contemporary movies, especially blockbuster ones. We as the audience become increasingly disconnected with what's going on on the screen. There is the magic of the movies, the fantasy element that sweeps us away to another time and place and to another reality. However, the story, the people, the realness is what grounds us. Contemporary movies seem to isolate us more and more. Don't some of you feel this way too? I know I do.

An interesting thing to point out about Stanley Donen is that he started off as a dancer. He was inspired by Fred Astaire and when he was 9 years old he watched Flying Down to Rio (1933) on the big screen and he knew he wanted to be part of whatever it was that made films like that so magical. The day after he graduated high school he moved to New York. He got the opportunity to be a dancer in Pal Joey. He got to meet, become friends with and work with dancer Gene Kelly extensively. And although Kelly's dancing was much different, Donen still felt inspired by Fred Astaire. Donen was interested in street dancing instead of dancing on point. He liked the realness of dancing in every day situations. On the street, in a barn, on a field, wherever. As long as it was in a real location and not just a stage or a dance studio.

Donen really impressed me with his candor and frankness. People tried to kiss up to him but he wasn't about to let anyone be his sycophant. Listening to him talk was truly remarkable!


Here is some secret footage... Shh!

Part of Donen's intro

RE: Dancing & Masculinity

RE: What dancing means to Donen

to be continued...


  1. Fantastic article! You're lucky to meet him. Now think of a question!

  2. Moments like these are totally cool. I attended California Institute of the Arts and took a seminar that brought in people who had worked at the Disney Studio and for them to discuss their work. It was an unbelievable experience listening to the animators of Disney's classics (Fantasia, Lady and the Tramp, Bambi, etc.) talk about what they did and how it all went down.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this, Raquel! You and Carlos are so lucky to have seen Mr. Donen. He has always been one of my favourite directors and, in fact, he directed my favourite musical of all time (the aforementioned Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and co-directed my second favourite (Singin' in the Rain). He is truly a remarkable man and I never miss an interview with him on TV. I still remember when he accepted his Oscar--he even showed off his dance steps!

  4. That's wonderful, congratulations!!! SEVEN BRIDES is my very favorite movie, period. I was lucky to see a screening with several cast members at the Academy a number of years ago, and to have seen Jane Powell and Howard Keel on various occasions (including when they costarred on stage in SOUTH PACIFIC). So delighted you had the opportunity to see this great film on the big screen *and* see Mr. Donen in person!! Thanks for sharing the experience!

    Best wishes,

  5. That's a great opportunity, and I'm glad you took advantage of it. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your experience! This was really interesting to read. I agree with Stanley Donen's views on contemporary films, especially about the disconnection. Wow, thanks Raquelle!

  7. Tommy - Thank you!

    Bill - That sounds like an amazing experience. When something like that comes around, it just has to be taken advantage of.

    Mercurie - I think you would like him. He's got this wonderful no-nonsense style about him. He's not afraid to tell you what he thinks.

    Laura - I can see why this is your favorite movie because it's just that good! Thanks for the link to your review.

    Princess - Thanks!

    Lolita - Thanks! I feel like a lot of us would a gree with Donen on that point.

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  9. Wonderful! I love the film clips! It feels like I was sitting in your pocket watching. Donen is such an interesting director. I would have asked him lots of questions on the research for Singing In The Rain...
    I see that his latest directing credit is for a Lionel Richie video. To me that is a sad ending to a career that began with On The Town 1949...


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