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Savant Short Review:

Designing Woman

Designing Woman
1957 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 118 min.
Starring Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall, Dolores Gray, Sam Levene, Tom Helmore, Mickey Shaughnessy, Jesse White, Chuck Connors
Cinematography John Alton
Art Direction E. Preston Ames, William A. Horning
Film Editor Adrienne Fazan
Original Music André Previn
Written by George Wells
Produced by Dore Schary, George Wells
Directed by Vincente Minnelli

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Designing Woman is a slick MGM romantic farce that somehow earned the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1957. It no longer seems very funny, but it's certainly fun watching the classy, natural Lauren Bacall. Gregory Peck can be called a good sport in his role, and that's about it. Vincente Minnelli keeps things percolating, but the show has limitations - mainly its script, which is efficient but not much else. But there's the always-fun Dolores Gray, who Savant'll watch any day.


Sports writer Mike Hagen (Gregory Peck) meets and weds Marilla (Lauren Bacall) so fast, he doesn't find out that she's a prominent dress designer until they're back in New York. His card-playing cronies don't get along with her hoity-toity fashion and Broadway associates. The plot gets a double burner when a gangster (Edward Platt) sics thug Johnny O (Chuck Connors) onto Mike for exposing the fight rackets. This becomes confused with Marilla's suspicions that Mike is still carrying on with showgirl Lori Shannon (Dolores Gray). Add to this punchy boxer Maxie Stultz (Mickey Shaughnessy) who sleeps with his eyes open and decks anyone who looks at Mike cross-eyed, and there's enough trouble for everyone.

Well, it has great music. André Previn's score is as smooth as silk (and sounds as if Mancini's Mr. Lucky was copied from it) and gives the show a lot of class. Gregory Peck is as likeable as screen idols come, yet he's just not right for this kind of medium-to-broad comedy. He's not vulnerable enough to credibly take nose-twangings from punk Chuck Connors, who he chased back to television in the next year's The Big Country. The show has a running gag of a poodle jumping into people's arms (hey, that's Oscar stuff for sure) and it's at least amusing with everyone but poor Greg. The key scene backing up his courageous failure at this sort of schtick is when Dolores Gray dumps a plate of ravioli onto his lap in a restaurant. His reaction is - well, he sort of sits there, looking uncomfortable in flat kind of way.

Lauren Bacall is either treated more kindly by the script, or just has the touch. She sits down next to Peck, leans over and stares straight into his lap (we can't see the ravioli) and says, 'What's that?" Her delivery is so right that it defuses a dirty joke while underlining it.

Designing Woman has that kind of humor, the sort which requires the leads to get into a jolly impasse of mistaken circumstances requiring them to throw shoes through windows, hide in bedrooms, and be jealous and confused at the same time. Bacall gets through the sticky plotting and reversals by simply making it all look like fun. She's an uptown dame with a direct attitude and no airs, which makes her more appealing than stars far more conventionally beautiful.

The plot is too light to worry about details, like the fact that Marilla goes ballistic thinking that her hubby might have an old flame, whereas she openly admits having been courted by suave Zachary Wilde (Tom Conway clone Tom Helmore, getting ready for murder in Vertigo). Helmore's nothing to remember, but old flame Dolores Gray is. She's not quite the outrageous caricature of dazzling insincerity she played in It's Always Fair Weather, but she still has the gigantic CinemaScope smile and the lungs to belt out her songs. One tune, Music is better than words, would seem to a reprise from the earlier musical. She's as much fun as Bacall, and a formidable foil. You wish they'd work up a catfight to provide Designing Woman with an ending, but the plot calls for a standard punchout in an alley instead.

An air of cartoonishness keeps the show from even approaching class status. Mickey Shaughnessy's stoop act will appeal to 5 year olds, and solid hands like Jesse White, Richard Deacon, Edward Platt and Alvy Moore haven't much to do. They're all playing at a Marx Brothers level that doesn't mesh with the sophistication of the leads. Some okay technical touches are used early on for comedy effect, when Peck's hangover results in tiny sounds becoming unbearably loud, and Peck's POV of the skyline is an amusingly colored nightmare. This is one of those '50s films where everyone smokes like chimneys and drinks to ridiculous excess. Mike and Marilla meet cute on a drunk Mike doesn't even remember, but it's all meant to be the height of romance.

The script goes out of its way to address the contrast between Mike's poker-playing 'guys' and Marilla's showfolk friends, especially dance director Randy Owens. He's played by choreographer Jack Cole (Kismet, Some Like it Hot, Gilda). Randy's shown cavorting around rooms doing ballet moves and waving swishy scarves, yet he makes a big show of waving his family photos in Mike's face, indirectly asserting his straight-hood. Later on, of course, Randy's moves prove invaluable in a fight, where he humorously ballet-kicks all the thugs in the head thanks to some tricky choreographed fight silliness. It's clearly meant to confront the Hollywood edict that all theatrical dancers have to be limpwristed gays, but the gesture comes off as being vaguely anti-gay just the same. Peck gives Cole the good-buddy handshake at the end: yep, Mr. Street brawler, you can play poker with us 'boys' anytime - now that you're a confirmed bruiser.

This was a script that supposedly had everything - musical numbers & fashion for women, boxing matches & gangsters for men, funny dogs and Shaughnessy for kids. It's more or less what passed for romantic comedy in 1957, when MGM thought drek like a remake of The Women would be topical. George Wells had a good record at MGM with this kind of comedy, but none have developed much of a reputation. A couple of years later, the not-very-hip Doris Day sex romps addressed their issues much more directly: equality of sexes, jealousy, sex as a commercial commodity. As retro as they were, they were a big step upward for middlebrow comedy.

Turner/Warner's DVD of Designing Woman begins well, using clever original artwork on the cover ... instead of the usual collage of star faces. The transfer is only the tiniest bit faded, which is great considering the leeched look of earlier videos and prints I've seen. Like most Minnelli pictures in 'Scope, the pan'n scan versions of this were particularly bad, and this 16:9 image at least represents his framing properly. The sound is in mono, even though there is a Perspecta Stereo notice in the main titles ... a track configuration that's probably lost now, and wasn't true stereo anyway. The featured extra is a mock interview with costume designer Helen Rose, essentially an EPK-like set of answers with blank spaces in between for the questions to be filled in later. It's rather confusing - this woman who's supposed to be Helen Rose is first shown sitting down and addressing someone offscreen - named Helen.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Designing Woman rates:
Movie: Good-
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer, 'interview' with Helen Rose, costumer.
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: March 1, 2002

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