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Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and…

Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his Movies

by Stephen M. Silverman

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The Book Report: Really now, how mysterious is the subject treated in this book? It's a professional biography/filmography of the life of ace director/former wunderkind Stanley Donen, of "Singin' in the Rain", "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers", "Indiscreet" and "Charade" fame. Being a professional biography, don't expect his personal life to come under salacious scrutiny, or hear whimperings and moanings from ex-wives (five!) or sons (three). Darn it.

My Review: The author knows his subject. Personally. And it shows: The anecdotage of any Hollywood player can come across as a personal hagiography, and so the trend towards memoir ("I remember") by these folks. Donen clearly cooperated with the author, and clearly smoothed his path to the major players in the Donen life story. There is some sense of stuff not gone into that a less involved and more prurient biographer, one bent on delivering the sense of the man to the detriment of the sense of the player, would have pursued. In some ways that feels like a loss to me, but overall I really was not aware of the small smears of whitewash that might or might not have been applied to certain passages in Donen's remarkable career until I had sat down to cogitate for this review.

From unpromising beginnings in middle-class Columbia, South Carolina, Donen ran far away to glamourous exciting New York City at age 17. He was in every right place at every right time for the next 20 years and became a close work associate of Gene Kelly's, leading him to Hollywood and to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, THE place for a dancer/choreographer/aspiring director to break into the biggest time musicals anywhere ever. There he worked on a long series of projects for Arthur Freed, a legendary producer of MGM's top-flight musicals. It was a good association, though Freed seems never to have fully appreciated the talent and the drive of Donen. He wasn't above making use of the man, though, and it's to our lasting benefit as filmgoers that he did.

At the end of the rainbow for musicals, about 1958, Donen had already read the tea leaves and fled Hollywood for London. There he produced and directed some of his best and worst stuff: "Indiscreet" (mature love affair between equals) and "Charade" (delightful caper dramedy about secrets, lies, and how gorgeous Audrey Hepburn was), some of the best work ever, both starred Donen's friend Cary Grant and are even today delightful and watchable. "Arabesque" and "Staircase", Donen's remake of "Charade" without Grant or Audrey Hepburn, and his sole effort at directing a story about gay men, were the pits.

But the two films that, I venture to say, will be remembered by cineastes long long after you and I are dead, are the 1957 musical "Funny Face" starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, and "Two for the Road" starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. Both are *achingly* romantic. Both are gorgeously filmed, well acted, and far deeper than a casual glance at their stats will show. And both get a good long treatment in the book, the author and the director seeming to agree that here are monunments too large to ignore. The only other film so treated is "Singin' in the Rain," which has emerged as a major classic since the 1970s. And in every case, the stories told and the pitures painted are satisfying to the fan, and informative to the curious reader. In fact, that can be said of every part of the book.

I have to say that I'd've given the book a higher rating if it had gone into more personal detail...not prurient stuff, but more about Donen's off-set, off-screen life...than it does. I can understand the choice made by the author to focus on the *work*--probably required by the man written about, is my guess--but a **little** more than cursory mentions of marriages and divorces would not have come amiss.

The book has photos throughout the text, which I prefer to photo inserts, even though there is some sacrifice of quality. It seems worth it to me, I like seeing the photos near to the anecdotes they amplify. Recommended to film buffs, fanboys, and serious readers of movie-biz books. It's too light on fizz for the celeb-bio reader. ( )
5 vote richardderus | Jun 16, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679414126, Hardcover)

The more you learn about Stanley Donen, the more he appears to be the Orson Welles of the film musical. Like Welles, he produced his greatest successes at the very beginning of his career, going on to create daringly original films that did not fully satisfy critics and audiences. Born in 1924 in Columbia, South Carolina, he befriended Gene Kelly early in life, became a choreographer for MGM Studios in the 1940s, and rose quickly through the ranks. Before he was 30 years old, he had directed On the Town, Royal Wedding, Singin' in the Rain, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. His later experiments with his medium yielded cult classics such as It's Always Fair Weather, The Little Prince, and Movie Movie, as well as the nonmusical Charade and Two for the Road.

Stephen M. Silverman, the author of this biography, is enthusiastic about Donen's work to the point of ferocity. He defends almost every film Donen himself believed in as a masterpiece and belittles Donen's rivals at MGM, particularly Vincente Minnelli. But Silverman's passion for his subject is infectious and his approach lively. He narrates much of Donen's life by looking at it through the eyes--and the commentary--of the people who knew him. Particularly engaging is his account of how Singin' in the Rain was made. It is full of juicy commentary by Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse, Donald O'Connor, and Donen himself. Audrey Hepburn's warm introductory appreciation is one of the last pieces she wrote before her death.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:42 -0400)

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