Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Stanley Donen in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (1954)

Scene from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Stanley Donen
Film: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Director category (1954):
- Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) *Winner
- Alfred Hitchcock (Read Window)
- George Seaton (The Country Girl)
- William A. Wellman (The High and the Mighty)
- Billy Wilder (Sabrina)

Before I get too deep into this week's Runner-Up, I would like to ask a question: can you name the best movie musical directors? Depending on your investment in the genre, you'll likely be able to name the big ones. There's of course Vincente Minnelli, Bob Fosse, Jacques Demy, Mark Sandrich, Busby Berkeley, and even most recently with Rob Marshall. This is only on the cusp of the various directors whose work you'll know without knowing names. Of course, most people are quick to notice Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. It's the directors of the time who had the thankless task of making it look great. The one who I feel gets left behind more often than not is Stanley Donen, who I assure you can fill up quite a few Runner-Up columns in time. If nothing else, he rivals Fosse for sheer perfectionism in spectacle.

To give a quick and obvious revelation: I know that Seven Brides for Seven Brothers isn't likely the film that readers would immediately choose when discussing Donen. That honor actually belongs to a film that he co-directed with Kelly called Singin' in the Rain, which has been written to death as to how it missed out on a Best Picture nomination. True, its legacy is irrefutable, but the thing is that Donen had been doing great work since his directorial debut with On the Town. It was a lighthearted musical, sure, but it's one of those upbeat, carefree attitude type of musicals that everyone likes to reference but nobody can recall the name of. With a great cast and a cinematic style that mixes action and color with music so wonderfully, it set him up for a pretty great career. I would even recommend his dramas, including Two for the Road (which I'm sure to discuss at some point) and Charade.

Yet the biggest irony comes with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (I will refer to it as Seven Brides from here on out). The film saw the director improve upon his style and made one of his most assured works of his career. While the subject, specifically in regards to feminism, is tragically dated, it's such a wonderful spectacle of a musical with memorable music and a barn raising dance that counts as one of 50's cinema's greatest moments in choreography. For all of this value, the film has largely been considered second tier and largely forgotten by contemporary audiences. However, it was Donen's strike at the Best Picture category. The film had five nominations and one win for Best Original Score (deservedly so). However, Donen himself wouldn't actually get a nomination that year for Best Director. In reality, he never did.

While the Oscars are by nature subjective and occasionally prefers popularity to talent, there's something to noticing that every other major musical director of the era got some recognition. Minnelli won Best Picture with An American in Paris. Berkeley had a surprising three nominations. Even Fosse, who was constantly in the Best Picture race, won Best Director for Cabaret. Meanwhile, Donen's work hardly got any recognition during his lifetime. Yes, his films constantly received Oscar nominations, but as a director who innovated how musicals were shot, he ended up with "13 wins and 9 nominations" according to IMDb. Yes, this does include an Honorary Oscar. However, one cannot help but wonder why he never stood a chance competitively.

All of the clues as to why Donen was great can be found in Seven Bries. For starters, his early work very much fit the MGM musical mold. There were colorful backdrops and sets. In fact, the titular seven brides and brothers all had distinguished colors. Despite the vastness of the characters, they're never mistaken for each other because of this. While one could argue that maybe the cast wasn't the most charismatic of actors, that doesn't mean that they didn't have a chemistry with each other that brought out the humor and energy that was necessary to make a film like this work. Main brother Adam (Howard Keel) is a great masculine archetype whose manliness is questioned by the confident Milly (Jane Powell), who he randomly decides to make his wife when visiting town one day before returning to his home in the woods. His brothers are even more the caricature of primitive men, of which Milly does her best to turn into gentlemen. 

Considering that this was an original musical for the screen, one cannot help and admire how immediately assured it is. The music may be focusing on mundane topics, but they're so full of personality and humor that they're rarely dull. It also helps that Donen's direction goes above and beyond to make the few dance routines shine. Even a small number in which the captive brides sing about their impending marriages has an orchestration to it that stimulates everything around it. Even if the film feels oddly dated socially, it still manages to be a great achievement in direction. The songs are fun, the images are colorful, and you are times becoming dizzy from how well everything is shot. The aforementioned barn raising dance manages to shine as a centerpiece by providing choreography that spans over six minutes and sees dances being performed in intimidating locations. It's the type of dancing that works because of the camera's manipulation. On a stage, it likely wouldn't be nearly as complex; or risk insurmountable injuries.

Seven Brides isn't necessarily a great musical whether you base it off of subject or music. Then again, few films of this style could be pulled off by just any director. It takes someone with assurance and a sense of choreography to pull these moments off. It may be difficult to accept this, especially if you're only a casual admirer of movie musicals. However, one can easily look at one that is poorly choreographed, such as 1956's Carousel (a good movie, but not for the dancing), and see how thought out movement makes a difference. While Fosse would do this better than Donen with Cabaret and All That Jazz, there's something to the immediacy that Seven Brides has. For a story that isn't necessarily complex, it still manages to entertain. Frankly, that goes a long way for a musical and should be greatly considered. Donen would only continue to make more elaborate set pieces in Funny Face, meaning that this was far from the last time that he could've gotten into the Oscar nominated circle.

As in most cases with The Runner-Ups, I am also aware of what ended up making the cut. Suddenly Donen's exclusion begins to make some sense. While he did phenomenal work that should've promised him a nomination at some point, he was up against a tough bunch that included some directors' most iconic work (specifically for Elia Kazan and Alfred Hitchcock) while others were enduring pop culture pieces (Billy Wilder) or mere legends (William A. Wellman). By this extent, Donen's Seven Brides isn't any of these. Even people will be quick to remind me that Singin' in the Rain is more deserving of a spot here. Frankly, even On the Town has held up better in the zeitgeist. Still, it's peculiar that Donen never got an Oscar nomination while most other great movie musical directors did.

Unlike the previous entries on this list (specifically for Peter Lorre), I mainly will bring Donen back at a later date to discuss his work as a dramatic director with Two for the Road. While I think that his style is applicable to both styles, I think there's plenty to dispute even further why he was charismatic and important as a filmmaker. For the sake of Seven Brides, I think that it's important to note just how important the director is when shooting a dance number. Few are able to add scope and symmetry to the routines quite like Donen in the 50's. In a time where big spectacle was still around, it's intriguing to watch the genre move into a more natural setting and take on more creative stories. I think that Donen should be given plenty of credit. He did with that Honorary Oscar, but he's still someone that should've gotten something competitively.

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