Designing Woman: Minnelli’s Kitsch or Style

Designing Woman began as a sketch by Metro’s costume designer, Helen Rose. Roses story was basically lifted out of George Stevens 1942 comedy, Woman of the Year.

The “new” film concerns a sleek designer (Lauren Bacall, in the Katharine Hepburn role) and a rumpled sportswriter (Gregory Peck, in the Spencer 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.

Casting Grace Kelly

George Wells was assigned to flesh out a full-length script to suit Metros star, Grace Kelly. But Kelly’s popularity and busy schedule forced delays in the film’ production, and Minnelli had to wait until Kelly finished shooting High Society and The Swan. Kelly’s Rear Window co-star, Jimmy Stewart, agreed to appear in Designing Woman. Initially, the film was to be directed by Joshua Logan, who was then hot on the heels of the success of Picnic and South Pacific.

What began as a modest retread of Woman of the Year, soon became one of Metro’s high-profile pictures, when Kelly announced her plan to marry Monte Carlo’s Prince Rainier and retire from Hollywood. Schary refused to believe her, but two months after her wedding, Kelly declined to return. After Kellys defection, the film lost Stewart and director Logan as well. Undaunted, Schary tried to assemble a new troupe of comparable prestige to Minnellis stature.

Minnelli was a better choice than Logan for such a tale in the first place. He 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.

Glossy Look

Designing Woman received a glossy treatment from cameraman John Alton, who had just shot “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 had the glossy look of studio-manufactured entertainment. Designing Woman boasted 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 Fellini I Vitellloni, Funny Face, The Tin Star, and Man of a Thousand Faces.

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.

Mike and Marilla first meet around the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. They move into her Park Avenue apartment with its chic white sofas and bleached antiques. Marilla wears black-jersey sheaths of her own design. Early on, shes seen pacing her studio, contemplating which white chiffon to choose for her collection. The sets and costumes represent a gaudy blend of Danish Modern and French Provincial. Marilla is a Minneli type heroine, a woman of refined taste; a Modigliani hangs over her marble fireplace.

Visual Tricks and Mirrors

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.

The film served as yet another demonstration of Minnelli’s philosophy that attention to detail should be paid, whether hes creating art or kitsch. Despite all the references to classic screwball comedy, the movie carries Minnelli’s signature. He invests the script’s stock situations with personal motifs, establishing a link between Designing Woman and his other films. Designing Woman climaxes with a free-for-all sequence, a sly wink at “The Girl Hunt” ballet from The Band Wagon, and ends by foreshadowing the bloody faun fair that will feature in his 1958 melodrama, Some Came Running.