Stanley Donen is miserable; The Edinburgh Festival DAY 5

As well he might be. It's been a long time since his last hit. Perhaps the retrospective at the Film Festival will cheer him up.
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On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Funny Face are among the most joyous films ever made, so it comes as a surprise to meet their director Stanley Donen, a small, sad-looking man, who seems to suffer, like Woody Allen, from a kind of Jewish angst. He now sees the world as polluted and as decadent as Peter Cook's devil predicted it would be at the end of Donen's comedy Bedazzled. "Everything is far noisier and less pleasant than it was," he complains.

Donen, at 71, has some cause to feel bitter. One has to go back as far as 1963 to the Hitchcockian thriller Charade to find Donen's last success. He has made just five films in the past two decades, and nothing since the crass Michael Caine comedy Blame it on Rio in 1984. He hasn't worked since the disastrous three-night stand on Broadway of the musical The Red Shoes, a few years ago, and he has recently separated from his fourth wife, the actress Yvette Mimieux.

Things are beginning to look up though, as Donen is being honoured with a retrospective of his work at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival. In addition, he has been asked to direct a film version of Love Letters, based on a two-handed epistolary stage play about an unrequited love affair that ends in a death. "I had to accept as I may never get a chance to make another picture," he explained gloomily. He is slightly bemused and obviously touched by the revival of interest in his films, fuelled by Edinburgh, a new biography, and a BBC documentary.

For auteurists, Donen's oeuvre is a difficult one to approach, mainly because two of his most famous films - On the Town and Singin' in the Rain - were co-directed by Gene Kelly. Then, in the Swinging Sixties, his non-musical work was a mixed bag of stylish thrillers (Charade, Arabesque), dark comedies (Two for the Road, Bedazzled) and starry but indigestible adaptations of stage hits (Once More with Feeling, The Grass is Greener), followed by a run of deserved flops.

While Donen's touch - bouncy cutting, fluid camerawork, an energising use of space - was evident in almost everything he did, it was the unnaturalistic character of the musical that allowed him to experiment in colour, split- screen techniques, trompe l'oeil superimposition, trick photography, and surreal settings. Later, he was to use these stylistic devices in "straight" films like the comedy Indiscreet (1958) - where Cary Crant and Ingrid Bergman appear to be in bed together thanks to an amusing use of a split- screen. The best of his films, of whatever genre, have a built-in choreographic dimension: Donen had been a dancer from the age of 10.

Stanley Isaac Donen (pronounced like Donna, not doughnut) was born in South Carolina in 1924. "My childhood wasn't very happy. It's a long, grim story about being a Jew in a small southern town..." In fact, he withdrew into making films with an 8mm camera his father had given him, and into movie theatres, where seeing Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio determined the nine-year-old to become a dancer.

Donen made his Broadway debut at 16 in the chorus of Pal Joey which starred Gene Kelly, before both of them arrived at MGM in 1942. After working together on the choreography of several musicals, Kelly and Donen got the chance to direct a great deal of Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), while the credited director, Busby Berkeley, was busy hitting the bottle. Producer Arthur Freed, the Diaghilev of the movie musical, was so pleased with their work he asked them to direct the classic shore-leave musical On the Town (1949). Conceived balletically, it was packed with innovations, such as the opening "New York, New York" number, filmed on location in that "wonderful town".

The partnership then came up with the apogee of MGM musicals, Singin' in the Rain, for which Donen can claim much credit, including the breathtaking crane shot as Kelly swings round and round holding his umbrella at arm's length in the title number. Contrasting the mediocre films Gene Kelly directed alone with those he made with Donen, it is natural to assume that Kelly needed his co-director for the overall conception. There was an inventive application of Cinemascope in the last of their collaborations, It's Always Fair Weather (1955). But Donen has said that Kelly was "a real shit" during the making of that picture, and the partnership ended. The two men avoided meeting each other again. (Kelly later married Donen's first wife, the dancer Jeannie Coyne.)

But Donen had triumphed the year before with his second solo musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which exuberantly uses the wide screen, displaying masculine movement at its best. Here was Donen at his peak, unencumbered by Kelly's arty, balletic intrusions. And imaginative colour photography dominates Funny Face (1957), from the opening "Think Pink" number to Audrey Hepburn in a bridal gown on the apple-green banks of the Seine.

Few other directors have given such pleasure to the eye and ear, the full appreciation of which can only be obtained on the big screen. To paraphrase Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain, Donen, looking back on his career, could say, "If I have brought a little joy into your humdrum lives, I know all my hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."

n Until 26 Aug. Film Festival box- office: 0131-467 7664