This weekend, the Music Box kicks off its latest weekend matinee program, which focuses on musicals. The lineup features some gold standards (Meet Me in St. Louis, 42nd Street) as well as a few lesser-known titles—I’m particularly interested in Silk Stockings, Rouben Mamoulian’s remake of Ninotchka. Kicking things off, appropriately enough, is Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, the oft-revived classic whose endless shelf life makes it one of the most rewatchable movies around. Donen himself is an interesting figure, a respected director who probably deserves even more credit than he already gets. His films are fun and flighty on the surface, but they also possess serious-minded yet subtly communicated ideas about art, image consumption, the craft of acting, commercialism, and dance as a pure form of expression. Like all great directors of his era he formulated weighty ideas and expressed them in ways that appealed to broad audiences, a serviceable and ultimately democratic notion. His best films close the gap between high-minded ideas and vulgar forms, forming a safe space for moviegoers of any stripe. Here are my five favorite Donen films.
5. The Pajama Game Though he technically codirected the film with George Abbott, who directed the original stage production, this musical has Donen’s mitts all over it. It’s a vibrant, subversive expression of a key issue in American politics by way of exuberant song and dance, indicative of Donen’s use of film genre as a conduit for larger ideas.
4. Charade This comic thriller has been dismissively described as “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made,” and while the film has elements one might compare to something by Hitchcock, the screwball rhythms and self-aware interludes are pure Donen.
3. Singin’ in the Rain One of the great pieces of film entertainment ever, and a self-reflexive ode to the cinematic arts. It’s a movie about making movies, and the way Singin’ in the Rain tends to bleed into the material it’s presenting is a metatextual marvel. Plus, the songs are really, really good.
2. Funny Face (1957) This spiritual companion to Singin’ in the Rain is a brash, antielitist defense of pop and commercial art that criticizes highbrow notions of beauty and value and the intellectual community’s almost puritanical opposition to perceived vulgar and crude forms. As Jonathan Rosenbaum writes, the plot is kind of dumb, but its implications are fascinating.
1. Two for the Road Donen’s best film, a meditative road movie that combines screwball characterizations with an Antonioni-esque treatment of marital angst and human relationships. The film is based around a series of time-shifting vignettes aided by Donen’s masterful use of montage and his ability to sustain a consistent emotional and intellectual current amid varying time and space. It’s an exceedingly stylish film, and perhaps a bit showy at times, but that’s Donen for you—the unabashed aesthete unafraid of appearing gauche for the sake of self-expression.