Designing Woman (1957): Minnelli’s Oscar Winning Comedy, Starring Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall

Vincente Minnellis “Designing Woman” began as a sketch by Metro’s costume designer, Helen Rose. Rose’s story is basically lifted out of George Stevens 1942 classic comedy, “Woman of the Year,” which represented the first teaming of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

The “new” film concerns a sleek designer (Lauren Bacall, in the Hepburn role) and a rumpled sportswriter (Gregory Peck, in the Tracy role) who wed in haste, only to realize their “irreconcilable differences,” and the incompatibility between her chic friends and his crass cronies. Complications arise with the reappearance of the groom’s old flame, a musical star. More than the tale itself, the studio liked the snappy title, hoping that with the right stars Designing Woman would be a success.

Minnelli decided to cast against type Gregory Peck as the groom. Hardly skilled as a comedian, Peck, who had just made dramas like “Moby Dick” and “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” found it a refreshing change of pace. Peck’s deal guaranteed leading lady approval, and he supported Minnelli’s choice of Lauren Bacall, with whom he was friendly.

Bacall had previously replaced Grace Kelly once, on Minnelli’s melodrama, The Cobweb. Though not flattered for being a replacement, Bacall needed to work after a long and intense period of taking care of her dying husband, Humphrey Bogart.

As the vamp, Dolores Gray substituted for the originally cast Cyd Charisse. For the heroine’s choreographer pal, a neurotic, effeminate artsy type, Minnelli selected choreographer Jack Cole, even though he had never acted before. Cole was also asked to choreograph the films dance numbers, as he had done for Minnellis Kismet.

“Designing Woman” receives a glossy treatment from cameraman John Alton, who had just shot Minnelli’s “Tea and Sympathy,” Preston Ames, who designed the requisite Manhattan glamour, and Helen Rose, who was in charge of the elegant costumes. Shooting began on September 10, 1956 and concluded ten weeks later, with only two exterior locations, at the Newport Beach harbor and the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Aiming to recapture the glamour of Hollywoods 1930s and 1940s screwball comedies, the film has the glossy look of studio-manufactured entertainment. “Designing Woman” boasts high production values at the expense of an original script. However, in one of Oscar Awards inexplicable scandals, George Wells’ shopworn script was honored with Best Original Screenplay, in a year that saw competition from Fellinis “I Vitellloni,” “Funny Face,” “The Tin Star,” and “Man of a Thousand Faces.”

The story features a gallery of types familiar from 1930s comedies: tart-tongued working- women, Runyonesque gangsters, scrappy editors, and so on. The plots gimmick is a throwback: Protagonist Marilla (Bacall) gets angry not at the prospect of an actual affaire between her husband and the voluptuous dancer Lori Shanon, but at his past affair with Lori.

Minnellis reliable tempo and droll sense of chic sustains the movie, even though it lacks that zesty wit and energy of the old comedies. Minnelli saturates the screen with glamour, which contributes to a fluffy pleasurable fare.

Mobsters threaten Mikes life to squelch a hot story, but they are soft-spoken gangsters, deferent to the ladies; the worse they can do is to punch Mike’s nose. They are certainly not as dangerous as his spurned fiance, Lori Shannon, who dumps a spaghetti dish into the lap of Mikes suit over lunch.

Peck is too squeaky-clean and well groomed to play a working journalist. Since neither Peck nor Bacall are deft at physical farce, the slapstick that Tracy and Hepburn or Cary Grant and Hepburn could effortlessly do falls flat here. There are semi-funny scenes, such as the one in which Marilla nearly collapses at the boxing match, or Mikes parody of choreographer Randy’s body language. As noted, a similar scene appeared in Tea and Sympathy, when the effeminate Tom is taught how to walk like a real man.

Occasionally, Minnelli succumbs low-comedy tricks. Mikes self-appointed bodyguard, Maxie (Mickey Shaughnessy), is a paranoid pugilist, who sleeps with his eyes open and is comatose when awake. When Marilla expresses distaste for the fighter’s profile, Mike says, “He has a nose. It’s inside.” This bit feels like a tribute to Aldo Rays role in Cukors 1952 comedy, Pat and Mike, with Tracy and Hepburn; its no coincidence that Pecks hero is called Mike.

But Minnelli gives Designing Woman a visual playfulness, with energetic camera movements and other visual tricks. Once again, Minnelli’s flamboyant touches turn a stale comedy into a more lavish and polished fare than it has the right to be. One scene stands out: Seen through Mike’s hangover, Beverly Hills is a psychedelic landscape of chartreuse palms against pinkish skies. In another scene, jump-cut close-ups punctuate Marilla’s realization that the girl in Mike’s torn photo is Lori, the star of the show shes designing.

Minnelli’s favorite prop, the mirror, is the focus of an elaborate camera set-up. When Lori pauses to adjust her makeup, Marilla’s reflection is seen, wearing one of Minnellis a red, red suits, which easily upstages Lori. The camera tracks backward as Marilla bursts into the restaurant, while Lori examines the bride in the background.

The theatrical milieu allows for a musical number to be staged with some verve and wit. For the big moment of Dolores Grays the queen of TV variety, Minnelli employs two choruses. Minnelli enjoys repeating the recurrent theme of performers grace under pressure. A run-through of “There’ll Be Some Change Made,” during which star belts out her song and makes love to the camera. Running between two sets in a dash, she changes from a great lady in pastels to a siren in sea-foam lame, while studio minions fiddle with her accessories. The TV camera and microphone boom underscore the song with rolling movements of the own.

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