Bacall and Peck's worlds clash in... Designing Woman (1957)
When you're a classic film fan, finding out about certain movies is like finding a hunk of gold -- you're exhilarated and giddy, and you can't wait to tell everyone you know about it, regardless of whether they care or not. When I discovered that Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck made a romantic comedy together, I was all sorts of excited. And then you add the fact that Vincente Minnelli directed it -- perfection. Designing Woman is like the best Tracy/Hepburn movie that Tracy and Hepburn never made, and it seriously gets better with every viewing.
Before I dive into the film, I want to talk about the interesting framing device it employs. The majority of the movie is a flashback, with the beginning and the end featuring five different characters breaking the fourth wall as they talk directly to the camera. Throughout Designing Woman, each of these five people have alternating narration, which is surprisingly refreshing and well-done. It includes the audience in the story, as it feels like each of the characters are talking to you and you're all just hanging out, listening to a funny anecdote. It creates a warm atmosphere and makes the experience of watching it that much more fun.
At the office, Hammerstein informs Mike that corrupt boxing promoter Martin J. Daylor (Edward Platt) has placed several calls threatening Mike's life due to the reporter's articles exposing Daylor's racket. Mike isn't really that concerned about it, but he is a little freaked out when he gets a memo about a phone message from a Ms. Lori Shannon. As it turns out, Mike and Ms. Shannon were casually dating at the time he married Marilla, him admitting that he hadn't thought about Lori at all as he was courting his wife. This proves the mighty power of Lauren Bacall when you see that Lori is played by the knockout Dolores Gray. Mike goes to break the news to her, catching her performing a number in preparation for a TV taping. I just love Dolores Gray; she always seems to be doing some grand musical number, superbly I might add.
Her rehearsal done, Mike takes Lori out to lunch at their regular spot. Lori can tell Mike is nervous, correctly guessing that he's found someone else. She's very gracious about it, but then she says she made a mistake: "I asked him to tell me about her. And he made a bigger mistake -- he told me. I heard all about her eyes and her hair and her figure..." Hearing Mike effusively gush about Marilla after just breaking up with her, Lori soon feels her good nature turn sour, her anger releasing when she tips his plate of ravioli into his lap. It's a hilarious scene as they silently let the moment sink in, Lori eventually leaving and Mike asking the waiter for a pair of pants.
After her friends finally leave, Marilla feels like she needs to walk on eggshells, recognizing that Mike isn't used to her social circle. Mike confirms this: "It's a shock. You marry a nice girl out in California, you think it might be quite a treat for her. Take the little girl east, show her the big city, have her meet a few people. Then you find out she already knows everybody in New York and she even owns a sizable chunk of it. It's a shock, bad for the ego." He then expresses surprise that she makes so much money from designing, which Marilla admits seems ridiculous but she loves everything about her job. They make up and for a month, everything goes smoothly -- Marilla even gains six pounds. They inhabit their own separate worlds by day, and keep to each other by night.
Once the guests leave, the newlyweds try to stay civil to one another, but Marilla just can't resist making a crack about Maxie. Mike retaliates by saying that Maxie is more of a man than Randy, as he then proceeds to recreate one of Randy's odd dance moves, unaware that the man came back to retrieve his script and is standing
It's a very interesting moment, particularly when you consider that director Vincente Minnelli encountered that prejudice all the time. Despite four marriages and two children, Minnelli was frequently accused of
being secretly gay, something I normally wouldn't bring up because it's really none of my business, but I feel like a lot of these accusations are based on superficial things and gossipy rumors. Honestly, I don't care how Minnelli spent his free time because he was an amazing artist regardless. Back to the movie!
In an unfortunate coincidence, Lori Shannon is chosen as the leading lady for Marilla's show. Lori knows who Marilla is, but Marilla is in the dark until Lori attends her fashion show and Mike acts considerably nervous around the woman. When Lori goes to pour Mike a cup of coffee and he jumps up thinking she's going spill something on his lap again, Marilla figures out that Lori was the one who dumped the ravioli on him.
It gets worse at rehearsal the next day when Lori strikes a pose similar to the one she did in Mike's photo and Marilla finally recognizes her. Back at the apartment, Mike is visited by some of Daylor's thugs, including the raspy-voiced Johnny O (Chuck Connors), who punches Mike a couple of times as a warning to stop writing about Daylor. Marilla comes home but remains unaware of the dangerous situation because Mike doesn't want her to worry about him.
As soon as the hoods leave, Marilla very angrily confronts Mike about Lori and he denies the whole affair. To be honest, I'm not totally sure why Mike doesn't 'fess up. He broke up with Lori as soon as he got back to New York and they hadn't interacted since then. His hiding the whole thing does seem a little shady, giving credence to Marilla's anger. I know it's a plot device, but it's a touch shaky in an otherwise marvelous script -- an Oscar-winning script at that.
Escaping to the office, Mike is ordered by Hammerstein to hole up in a cheap motel to finish writing his exposé on Daylor; the newspaper will pretend he's on the road covering the Yankees so Daylor's thugs can't find him. Mike is also forced to be accompanied by Maxie, who is told to punch anyone who looks at Mike cross-eyed. The twosome go to the Hagen apartment to pack a suitcase for Mike, an ill-timed coincidence that causes Marilla to think that Mike is leaving because of their fight. Both of them spend a sleepless night, their first away from each other since they were married. At rehearsal one day, Marilla can't stand not being certain about Lori and her husband, so she asks Zachary to question Lori about it. Instead he asks Lori for a date, which she accepts.
She's grabbed by Johnny O, though their car luckily boxed in behind the theater by Maxie and Mike. A huge fight breaks out, which spirals out of control when Maxie starts punching out everyone, including some of the backstage crew who come outside for a cigarette and get knocked out before they can help.
Looking for Marilla, Randy comes outside just in time to see Johnny O knock her into a stack of boxes. In an amazing scene, Randy uses his great dance skills and high kicks to take down all of the bad guys, not even breaking a sweat.
The police arrive and Mike moves a box to find a pair of legs landing in his lap -- Marilla! She's willing to forgive him, but Mike insists on recounting his absurd story. Marilla knows it's a lie thanks to her earlier conversation with Lori, yet she accepts it with a smile to finally put to rest the whole affair.
They embrace, with one final ear bite for the audience. Back in the present day, Mike reveals that Daylor was arrested and then released eight months later only to fade into obscurity. Marilla says that she and Mike are still happily married, with the occasional fight lasting just a week or two. Lori and Zachary are engaged, and Maxie? He's planning a comeback.
Designing Woman, in case you couldn't tell, lets its leading man and lady play things a bit broad, which could have been a disaster but fortunately Bacall and Peck are excellent. I don't think either of them ever looked like they were having so much fun. I love seeing their funny faces, like when Mike invites Marilla to a boxing match and she can't handle the violence, so she just stands up and screams.
My favorite broad moment, though, is when Marilla comes home steaming mad about Lori. She tries to keep it calm and collected as she divulges her past romances, hoping it will inspire Mike to come clean. Sensing what Marilla is getting at, Mike purposely doesn't respond the right way, instead nonchalantly asking what they're having for dinner. Marilla lets loose, with Bacall using her whole body as she yells "Lori Shannon!" Horrified, Mike almost chokes on his cigarette: "For dinner?!" Gets me every time.
It's no wonder Bacall chose to do this movie while husband Humphrey Bogart was ill with cancer. It was actually during the production of Designing Woman that Bogart had one of his last outings -- he sailed his beloved boat to Marineland where his wife and Greg Peck were filming on location. It's certainly a credit to Bacall's professionalism that she was going through the worst experience of her life, yet she was able to deliver one of her best performances, and a hilarious performance at that.
Bacall and her great friend Peck are a fantastic team. They have the best chemistry and it doesn't hurt that they're gorgeous to look at. They're a pretty sexy coupling, bolstered by the constant kissing, ear-biting, and lounging in each other's arms. The physicality is so upfront, it's a little surprising... until you remember that Marilla and Mike are married, and so the censors could let them get away with it. You can also tell that Bacall and Peck just adored one another. If you have five minutes to spare, I highly encourage you to watch this piece Peck did about his friend for TCM -- it's sure to put a smile on your face.
Designing Woman was based off of a story idea from Helen Rose, the marvelous MGM designer. And boy, did Ms. Rose go crazy for this film! Lauren Bacall's outfits are so incredible, it's unfair. It seems like each scene, she's wearing a different ensemble, something Peck's character comments on when he firsts sees Marilla change into her glamorous New York clothes, saying it's the first of many wardrobe changes for his wife. I particularly love her canary yellow swimsuit with matching robe and swim cap -- her first outfit -- and her dress when the show crew and Mike's friends collide. It's got a purple skirt with white and black stripes, and then a white top with these colossal sheer sleeves. Just to die for.
With great clothes, a clever screenplay, wonderful acting from Bacall, Peck, and Dolores Gray, reliable direction from Vincente Minnelli, and a funny turn from master choreographer Jack Cole, Designing Woman is a must-see for me. It's just too good to be true.
|Okay, if I can't get Marilla's apartment, can I have Lori's? I already have the poodle! Also notice that whereas Marilla's place is mainly white, Lori's is predominantly black.|
This is my contribution to the Lauren Bacall Blogathon, celebrating the fabulous lady who could make hearts stop with just a glance. Please enjoy the other entries, which can be found here.