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Designing Woman

by Glenn Erickson Jun 05, 2018

 

MGM wasn’t the most current studio in 1957, as can be seen by this throwback to another era, a semi-screwball romantic comedy with big stars and directed in high style by Vincente Minnelli. Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall party like it’s 1939, and with the musical-comedy help of the irrepressible Dolores Gray, almost pull it off.


Designing Woman
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1957 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 117 min. / Street Date June 19, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall, Dolores Gray, Sam Levene, Tom Helmore, Mickey Shaughnessy, Jesse White, Chuck Connors, Alvy Moore.
Cinematography: John Alton
Film Editor: Adrienne Fazan
Art Direction: E. Preston Ames, William A. Horning
Original Music: André Previn
Written by George Wells
Produced by Dore Schary, George Wells
Directed by
Vincente Minnelli

 

1957 was definitely the end of an era at MGM. With next to nobody on the payroll, it could no longer claim to possess All the Stars in Heaven. Production head Dore Schary had won his battles with Louis B. Mayer five years before, but now he was on the way out too, likely gone before this personal production premiered.

That state of affairs is not obvious from the slick picture on the screen, supported by André Previn’s smooth as silk music score and the cinematography of the celebrated John Alton. The show’s class appeal stems from more than its top stars Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck. Director Minnelli’s name also resonated as quality goods, and MGM surrounds its stars with a nice choice of supporting talent.

Sportswriter Mike Hagen (Gregory Peck) meets Marilla Brown (Lauren Bacall) while stone drunk on a trip to Los Angeles, but apparently makes a good impression. Mike courts and marries her so quickly, he doesn’t learn that she’s a prominent dress designer until they’re back in New York. His poker cronies aren’t compatible with her hoity-toity fashion and Broadway associates, which becomes obvious when his card game smoker and her creative salon gathering clash. The plot thickens after the gangster Martin Daylor (Edward Platt) sics his number one thug Johnny O (Chuck Connors) onto Mike for exposing the fight rackets. Mike’s attempt to hide this problem becomes confused with Marilla’s jealous thoughts about Mike’s previous girlfriend Lori Shannon (Dolores Gray). To avoid the gangsters, Mike hides out in a hotel accompanied by Maxie Stultz (Mickey Shaughnessy) a punchy ex- boxer who sleeps with his eyes open.

The romantic comedy Designing Woman somehow earned the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1957. it’s a farce in a ‘forties vein — perfect for Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, or William Powell and Myrna Loy. It’s unlikely that anybody thought in terms of screwball comedy when making Designing Woman, but it’s all there. Writer-associate producer George Wells had ten years’ of experience with MGM musicals and Red Skelton. The script is just fine, if not exceptionally witty; the two stars do fairly well, too, but the result is no
Ninotchka. At one point Mike Hagen makes a joke about the goofy Maxie Stultz and Damon Runyon. Actor Sam Levene is involved too, but the gangland end of the show is strictly by the numbers.

The knockabout humor of Designing Woman requires the newlyweds to hide in bedrooms, throw shoes through windows and be jealous and confused at the same time. The script features a running gag of a poodle jumping into people’s arms, which isn’t exactly Oscar-bait material. It nevertheless works with both Bacall and actor Tom Helmore, but not but poor Greg. He grabs the leaping dog and stands there stone-faced, as if waiting for applause.

Lauren Bacall is a perfect fit in the comic situations. Her Marilla is alternately a living doll, a cuddly pussycat and a cookie so smart that Mike is an idiot to think he can fool her. This being the 1950s, the only marital advice Marilla gets is to just play along with whatever dumb fibs Mike is selling. Bacall was presumably filming Designing Woman around the time that her husband Humphrey Bogart was dying. The poise that made her so distinctive is fully in evidence.

Gregory Peck spends most of the movie trying to accommodate the kind of emasculating comedy being played by Tom Ewell and Tony Randall over at Fox, as neutered straight men to pneumatic Jayne Mansfield. Mike Hagen’s boss sends him around town carrying a cumbersome silver tea set, making him look awkward. Being that this is a Minnelli movie, even the decor picks on poor Mike Hagen, when he realizes how drab and ordinary his apartment is compared to Marilla’s swank designer digs.

 

When it comes time for fisticuffs, Mike does not save the day. In one scene Mike is given a Moe Howard nose-twanging by a menacing Chuck Connors. A year later, Peck would face Connors down in the mega-western The Big Country, essentially chasing the baseball player- turned actor straight back to television.

Remember how well William Wyler played comedy off Peck’s essential trustworthiness in Roman Holiday, when his newsman dares Audrey Hepburn’s princess to stick her hand in a stone idol. Wyler does the exact same thing in the next year’s The Big Country, having Peck pretend to be fainting from a gruesome story told by Jean Simmons. Both moments are perfectly tailored to Peck’s strengths.

Designing Woman’s most Laurel & Hardy gag sees Peck playing a slapstick slow-burn gag in a fancy restaurant. To express her displeasure as she exits, Dolores Gray’s Lori nonchalantly pushes a plate of ravioli right onto Mike’s lap. His reaction is — well, he sort of sits there, looking uncomfortable in flat kind of way. No real burn, just paralysis.

Only a few seconds later, Marilla takes Lori’s empty chair. Sensing Mike’s unease, she leans over and stares straight into his lap (we can’t see the ravioli) and says, “What’s that?” Bacall’s delivery is so right that it defuses a dirty joke while underlining it. The scene is rescued, by a dame.

 

If Gregory Peck doesn’t catch fire with the comedy material, he certainly comes through as a romantic partner. Women of the 1950s found Peck so attractive, they’d probably accept his arm if he’d just fallen into a septic tank. In Damn Yankees, spinster Jean Stapleton swoons at the prospect of taking a trip downtown just to “go see Gregory Peck come in on the train.” So it’s likely that Designing Woman would get a pass even if Peck had no sense of humor at all.

Marilla openly admits having been courted by suave Zachary Wilde, played by the handsome, urbane and forgettable Tom Helmore. The actor is a less interesting, better-looking clone of Tom Conway. Film history keeps reminding us of his most memorable role as a suave murderer in the next year’s classic Vertigo.

The other supporting lead is more exciting. This is the last of four features that entertainer Dolores Gray made for MGM in just two years. Although Gray doesn’t make Lori Shannon as dazzlingly insincere as the character she played in her best movie It’s Always Fair Weather, she still has the gigantic CinemaScope smile and the lungs to belt out her songs. One tune, “Music is Better than Words”, is a reprise from the earlier musical. Gray is as much fun as Bacall, and a formidable foil. You wish the two women could have worked up a catfight to provide Designing Woman with an ending, but the plot calls for a standard punch-out in an alley instead.

The picture plays with cartoonish characters. Solid hands like Jesse White, Richard Deacon, Edward Platt and Alvy Moore pitch their characters somewhere between no-nonsense straight and broader farce. Mickey Shaughnessy’s stoop act, with his nasal voice, is endearingly good — Tex Avery appears to have used Shaughnessy as an inspiration for a recurring bulldog character, Spike. Perhaps as a nod to Frank Tashlin’s very cartoonish Fox films, a few Tex Avery- like comic exaggerations sneak into the script. Mike’s severe hangover results in tiny sounds becoming unbearably loud, and his POV of the skyline through bloodshot eyes is an amusingly colored nightmare. Marilla only recognizes Lori as a rival, when parts of Lori’s body reassemble themselves like the pieces of a torn photo Marilla had found.

 

The script plays up the contrast between Mike’s poker-playing ‘guys’ and Marilla’s showfolk friends, especially dance director Randy Owens. He’s played by the film’s choreographer Jack Cole, a major talent whose work can also be seen in Kismet (with Dolores Gray), Some Like it Hot and Gilda. Cole may have been Dolores Gray’s choice. He choreographed Kismet on Broadway as well, and Gray reportedly did not get along with choreographer Michael Kidd, of the MGM hit Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

One running gag featuring Jack Cole has good intentions. Randy is shown cavorting around rooms doing ballet moves and waving swishy scarves. When Randy catches Mike complaining about this, he makes a big show of waving photos of his wife and kids in Mike’s face, indirectly asserting his straight-hood. The ‘bold statement’ that all theatrical dancers are not limpwristed gays seriously backfires — Randy’s resentment is not that Mike demeans gays, but that he’s being mistaken for one. Randy’s dance moves prove invaluable in the climactic alley brawl, when he humorously ballet-kicks the thugs into submission with some tricky choreographed fight silliness. Mike then awards Randy with a good-buddy handshake: yep, Mr. street brawler, now that you’re a confirmed bruiser you can play poker with us ‘boys’ anytime. Suspect gays are apparently required to earn equal status by being more macho than the machos.

George Wells’ script tosses in a little of everything — musical numbers & fashion for women, boxing matches & gangsters for men, funny dogs and Shaughnessy for kids. Screenwriter George Wells had a good record at MGM with this kind of comedy but only a couple of his films hold up well, such as the charming Where the Boys Are. Two years later, the much sleeker Doris Day romantic comedies found a new commercial groove to update the form, addressing the sexual double standard and sex as a commercial commodity. Day’s pictures have slipped in and out of fashion as the years go by, but they were a big step upward for middlebrow comedy.

That reminds me, if George Feltenstein reads this, I’d like to know what has become of the 1959 David Niven – Shirley MacLaine comedy Ask Any Girl, written by George Wells from a novel by Winifred Wolfe? It’s been AWOL since an MGM VHS of almost thirty years ago. I don’t remember if it’s any good, but MacLaine was adorable in it.


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Designing Woman presents this personal Dore Schary production in high style. The color has also been brought back 100%, showing off designs that were surely approved by director Minnelli — the fashion show and Ms. Gray’s musical numbers are organized around strong color contrasts, but cameraman John Alton knows how to make soft pastels play off each other as well.

The mostly wide-view CinemaScope compositions make medium shots look like long shots, and only in the clarity of Blu-ray can we seek out the bits played by Madge Blake, Richard Deacon, Charles Horvath, Dean Jones, Sid Melton, Max Showalter and Mel Welles. Tight shots are few and far between, and some close-ups are affected by the CinemaScope Mumps — one view of Chuck Connors looks especially squashed out. On the other hand, when Lauren Bacall screams at the boxing arena, who can tell if her face is distorted?

The trailer jams in every bit of slapstick action, selling the show as comedy and Bacall as a romantic dish. The one featured extra is an interview with costume designer Helen Rose, where she must provide answers with blank spaces in between for the lame questions to be filled in later. Ms. Rose looks painfully uncomfortable. It’s confusing too — she is first shown sitting down and addressing someone offscreen who is also named Helen. Perhaps the film snippet survived because it was never used.

The MGM cover artwork harks back to the ’40s as well — it’s done in a style that flattered caricatures of MGM’s big stars.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



Designing Woman
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good + Plus; Excellent for fans of Bacall and Peck
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, ‘interview’ with Helen Rose, costumer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 3, 2018
(5745woma)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.