Classics in the Carolinas: Stanley Donen

Comet Over Hollywood is doing a mini-series of “Classics in the Carolinas.” I’ll be spotlighting classic movie related topics in South Carolina (my home state) and North Carolina (where I currently live and work).

Updated Feb. 23, 2019.

Stanley Donen in 1950

Stanley Donen in 1950

He directed and choreographed some of the most famous musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, including “Singin’ in the Rain.”

And he’s from my birthplace

Stanley Donen was born in 1924 in Columbia, S.C.-the capital of South Carolina.

He left the south for New York when he was a teenager.

Donen described his childhood as an unhappy one in a 1983 book by Joseph Andrew Casper.

His parents were of the Jewish faith. Though Donen did not identify with the religion, he was taunted by anti-Semitic classmates in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Due to the bullying he endured in his youth, Donen did not recall the city fondly in interviews.

“It was sleepy, it was awful, I hated growing up there, and I couldn’t wait to get out,” Donen said in the book Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies.

In his 2006 Turner Classic Movies Private Screenings interview with Robert Osborne, Donen described Columbia as a “small town.” At the time, Columbia was probably a small, but now, is the largest city in South Carolina.

“My family and I were Southerners,” Donen said in Silverman’s book. “Really, really Southern, and really, really American. My mother was born in Columbia, SC. My father was born in Augusta, GA, which is just over the border. His father died in Beaufort, SC, and my mother’s mother and father–that is, my maternal grandparents–are buried in the same town where they were born, Columbia, SC.”

Donen and Gene Kelly watch Michael Kidd sing in "It's Always Fair Weather"

Donen and Gene Kelly watch Michael Kidd sing in “It’s Always Fair Weather”

Donen would have been named after his grandfather, Issac, but his mother felt Issac would make for a bad life in the south, so he was named Stanley instead, according to the book.

“Columbia was a town with a wonderful group of Jewish people. It’s just that there weren’t too many of them,” said a childhood neighbor, Betty Walker in Silverman’s book. “They were really outnumbered.”

After school to escape from his unhappiness, Donen went to the movies.

“I saw Fred Astaire in ‘Flying Down to Rio’ when I was nine years old, and it changed my life,” he said in the Casper biography. “It just seemed wonderful, and my life wasn’t wonderful. The joy of dancing to music! And Fred was so amazing, and Ginger— oh, God! Ginger!”

After watching Astaire and Rogers, he started taking dance lessons in Columbia and performed at the Town Theater.

His mother encouraged him to move to New York and in 1940, at the age of 16, he found himself as a chorus boy in “Pal Joey” with Gene Kelly as the lead. Kelly asked him to be the assistant choreographer and the show’s stage manager.

In 1943, Donen went to Hollywood and helped choreograph the film “Best Foot Forward” starring Lucille Ball. Donen was the stage manager for the play on Broadway, which starred Rosemary Lane. When the film rights were bought by MGM for the play, Donen went to Hollywood along with some of the play cast which included June Allyson and Nancy Walker, according to Allyson’s autobiography.

Donen’s Hollywood choreography career continued with movies like “Cover Girl” and “Living in a Big Way.”

The first film he directed in Hollywood was “On the Town” (1948). He continued on directing some of the most famous Hollywood films including “Singin’ In the Rain” (1952), “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954) and “Charade” (1963). Stars he directed include Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Sophia Loren.

Deborah Kerr, Stanley Donen,  and Robert Mitchum

With Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum for “The Grass is Greener”

Though Donen’s life in Columbia wasn’t a happy one, he influenced one woman with her dance career. Naomi Calvert, who co-owned the Columbia dance institution Calvert-Brodie dance studio, studied under Donen as well as Tim McCoy, who helped Vera-Ellen.

She co-owned a reputable dance studio in Columbia called Calvert-Brodie, along with Ann Brodie, for over 30 years. Calvert passed away in 2016.

My oldest sister attended Calvert-Brodie and looking back on home videos of dance recitals, the recitals were like a mini “revue” or “follies.”

These weren’t children bouncing their hip and shaking their finger at the audience. These were themed dance recitals, such as a patriotic theme and a circus theme. They would begin with an opening number. The circus show was complete with a person on a trapeze, and the patriotic show had little girls tap dancing with drums. My oldest sister, Erin, had a tap solo.

Clearly, Mr. Donen influenced her craft.

Though my father grew up in Columbia as an Army brat and we lived there as a family for six years, it isn’t the Pickens family’s favorite place either.

Though it’s the capital of the state, many people call Columbia “the arm-pit of the South.”

While Donen didn’t remember his hometown fondly, I’m also disheartened to see that he often isn’t remembered by his birthplace either. For his 90th birthday in 2014, a non-profit movie theater held a film retrospective, and in 2017 he was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. Otherwise, any recognition is few and far between, even by The State newspaper on the day of his death.

The town that mistreated him in his youth has also unfortunately forgotten one of the most vibrant film directors of film history.

 

The end. On the set of "Indiscreet" with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant

The end. On the set of “Indiscreet” with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant

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Another star faded: Betty Garrett

Betty Garrett, star of “On the Town,” dies Sunday

The perky, pretty and talented Betty Garrett died on February 13 at the age of 91.

I was surprised to see that she was only in a hand-full of movies, most of which I had seen.  But even though Miss Garrett was only in six notable classic movies, the roles and her marriage make her unforgettable in Hollywood history.

Garrett was in what is considered one of Hollywood’s best musicals: “On the Town” (1949). Garrett stars along with Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin and Frank Sinatra in the film about three sailors on leave in New York.  Ann Miller says in a TCM interview that she realized in her “Caveman” dance in the museum, that she had the most impressive group of back-up dancers than any other musical during that time could have.

Garrett plays a plucky, man chasing female cab driver.  Garrett is a great singer and dancer but often was typecasted as the man crazy, love hungry female.

Husband and wife Larry Parks and Betty Garrett in 1955

In both “On the Town” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1949), Garrett harasses Frank Sinatra (when he was seemingly cute and sweet) for love.  In “Neptune’s Daughter” (1948) she chases Red Skeleton. At least Mickey Rooney is the one after her in “Words and Music” (1948).

Though her film career wasn’t as huge as Bette Davis’, Garrett also had stage and TV success; even often appearing on the 1970s television show “Laverne & Shirley.”

One reason Betty Garrett’s career was brief, was due to her husband’s Communist Party ties from 1941 to 1945, according to her New York Times obituary.  Her husband, Larry Parks-star of “The Jolson Story“- admitted the ties before the House of Un-American Activities in 1955.  The two actors married in 1944 and were married until his death in 1975.

Betty Garrett is one of those actresses who may not have always had the biggest role in a movie-she was fourth billing in “Neptune’s Daughter“- you always remember her from a movie.

She left a mark in Hollywood with her flashing blue eyes, shining curly hair and vivacious singing.

Farewell Ms. Garrett, you will be missed. 

RIP Betty Garrett, you will be missed

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