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.


While on an out-of-town assignment in California, New York sportswriter Mike Hagen (Peck) parties a bit too hard one night and finds himself with a honey of a hangover the next day. Bits and pieces slowly come back to him, causing a panic when he remembers that a) an incredible golf tournament happened
yesterday, b) he's not sure he wrote the story concerning it for his paper, and c) he's lost the $700 he won last night. Panicked, Mike tries to collect himself by the hotel pool, where stunning Marilla Brown (Bacall) is taking a dip in a great yellow swimsuit. Puzzled by this woman waving at him, Mike ignores her
until she joins his table and hands him his $700. He thinks it might have been payment for, um, services, but after receiving a phone call from his editor Ned Hammerstein (Sam Levene) that confirms he did indeed send in his story, Mike realizes that Marilla helped him write his column after they met in a
bar. He then gave her the money as a sign of gratitude, but her refusal to keep it leads Mike to suggest that they spend the money together, resulting in a fun montage of various dates. They lounge on a rented boat, which is when Mike finds out Marilla is a fashion designer; they watch a dolphin show at Marineland and do the general getting-to-know-you, Marilla revealing that she eats "like a fool" when she's in love -- cut to them at a restaurant and her ordering multiple items, the realization of her feelings dawning on both of them in a cute, albeit embarrassing way. One night as they smooch in a car overlooking Los Angeles, Mike proposes and they're married right away.

After a "honeymoon of exactly twenty and a half hours, we flew to New York, our arms locked the whole way -- except for breakfast. Marilla needed two hands for that." They stop by Mike's apartment first and it's not quite what Marilla hoped for, being small, unkempt, and filled with all sorts of items. Noticing the despair on his new wife's face,
Mike agrees to move into her apartment instead. Their honeymoon has definitely come to an end when their embrace is interrupted by a call from Hammerstein to come to the office. Left to pack Mike's things by herself, Marilla comes across a torn photo of an unknown woman, something Mike discreetly did before Marilla could see it. Because she doesn't know how long since the photo was ripped up and the piece containing the woman's face is missing, Marilla just shrugs her shoulders and forgets about it. This may come back to bite the couple later on. Just maybe.

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.

Naturally, Marilla enters at this point, having telephoned his office to find him. Not wanting her to know about Lori, Mike acts like the spilled ravioli was his fault and goes to change pants. Marilla's no dummy, spotting Lori's plate and realizing that Mike a lunch guest he wasn't divulging. Like the picture she found, though, she decides to ignore it,
not wanting to spoil her second day of marriage. Arriving at Marilla's apartment building, Mike is surprised just like Marilla was when she saw his. This is a nice way to show how the newlyweds don't really know each other, especially since most of their
relationship took place away from their natural habitats, if you will. Whereas Mike's place was kind of dingy and unpretentious, Marilla's is opulent and pricey, as we see right away by the snobby, top hat-wearing doorman who is shocked by the hilariously short pants Mike had to borrow. Upstairs, the apartment is spacious, vibrant, classy, and oh god, I want to live there so bad.
Although it's not really his style, Mike is impressed too. However, he's not too pleased when Marilla moons over an antique coffee table that is a wedding present from Zachary Wilde (Tom Helmore), a theatrical producer and an old beau of Marilla's. Amused, she seductively embraces her husband and bites him on the ear, a recurring thing she does to... ignite passion, shall we say? (Sorry I'm so awkward.) Once again, their intimacy is interrupted when a huge group of Marilla's friends jump out and throw her a surprise wedding shower. Thoroughly ignored by everyone, Mike winds up talking to a rather witty, likable man, only to find out that his new friend is the infamous Zachary Wilde.

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.

At her office one day, Zachary hassles Marilla about designing clothes for his upcoming Broadway show. She claims she's too busy, but when the show's choreographer Randy Owen (real-life choreographer Jack Cole) slyly accuses her of not being up to the task, Marilla takes the bait and accepts the job
offer. She invites the show's crew to her apartment for a table reading, unknowingly scheduling it the same night Mike invited his friends for their weekly poker game. The two groups clash like you wouldn't believe and the whole evening is a disaster. The show crew is loud and boisterous, often
disturbing Mike and his friends; Marilla is terrified when she meets Maxie (Mickey Shaughnessy), an ex-boxer who took way too many hits to the head ("Who's that man with no nose?" "He has a nose -- it's inside!"); Randy eccentrically dances to the confusion of Mike's friends, eventually knocking over their poker table. 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 at the door. Mike is ashamed,
especially when Randy shows him a photo of his wife and three kids and challenges him to a fight, proving that Mike shouldn't judge someone without knowing more about them. 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.

For three weeks, Mike calls Marilla and acts like he's in a different city every time, utterly confusing poor Maxie. Finally, Marilla becomes so fed up with the situation, she tells Mike she's going straight to Lori to ask her point-blank what the deal is. Scared of what will happen, Mike tricks Maxie into thinking
it's bedtime and then sneaks out to see Lori once Maxie falls asleep. He concocts a highly improbable story for Lori to tell Marilla to explain how they know each other, a story that is pretty eye roll-worthy. Lori thinks so too, but before she can talk some sense into Mike,
Marilla calls and asks to come up, claiming that she forgot her purse and so didn't have any cab fare to get home. Mike hides in Lori's bedroom, but he's incessantly bugged by Lori's poodle. While the dog tries to play with him, Marilla decides to not question Lori after all. Before she can leave, though, the dog comes into the living room with one of Mike's shoes -- of course it's Mike's most recognizable shoe, a loafer with a hole in it that he only wears when writing. Marilla is less than thrilled, and the couple carry their loud arguing out onto the street as Marilla hails a cab and gets away as quickly as she can.

Meanwhile at the motel, Maxie wakes up and searches downstairs for Mike, accidentally spilling his secret to Charlie, a weaselly guy who occasionally sells information to Mike. Seeing an angle, Charlie finds out that Daylor is planning on kidnapping Marilla at the show's Boston opening that night since he can't find Mike. After he's told
about Marilla's danger, Mike and Maxie take a plane to Boston. Backstage at the show, Marilla is needed to fix one of Lori's costumes, a pretense Lori uses to confront Mrs. Hagen and tell her the whole truth. This is pretty brave considering Marilla wields a pair of scissors and angrily snips away at the dress as it's on Lori. Eventually
they come to an understanding and Marilla is anxious to get back to New York. 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.





With love,
Michaela

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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.

Comments

  1. "Designing Woman" is such fun. Gorgeous to look at, witty and laugh-out-loud funny. Life should be like that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed! I often find myself wishing I could live in a Technicolor MGM film. It's too dreamy.
      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  2. Hey Michaela, this sounds lovely, and wonderful coverage. And I agree with you and Patricia, life should be like an MGM film....😉
    summer

    ReplyDelete
  3. Designing Women is a wonderful movie. I wish Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall could have done more movies together.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I feel your pain. They just fit so well together. It makes you wonder what took Hollywood so long to pair them up.
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
  4. Okay I just finished this film, it is hysterical! I'm not sure if I love the poodle or the choreographer more! Sides still hurt from laughing so hard! Thanks for covering this film, it was so much fun! ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No problem, glad you enjoyed it! Randy Owen is amazing. I love that Jack Cole plays him. Thanks for letting me know what you thought of it!

      Delete
  5. Ack! I've never seen this film!!! I can't believe what I've been missing – I mean, just LOOK at that gorgeous wardrobe.

    Thanks for this wonderful review – and the prompt to watch this ASAP! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Happy to help! I think you'll have great fun watching it. Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  6. Great pic for the blogathon - this is such a fun film and I really enjoyed reading your review. To echo some of the other commenters, I first loved this for the fashion but that sells it a bit short - this is a wonderful movie!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is indeed! I think there's a little something for everyone in it. Thanks for the comment!

      Delete
  7. I've only seen this once, long ago, but when I found a copy the other day, I instantly snapped it up, and I can't wait to see it again! Your review is great, and I'm so glad there are other people who really like this somewhat obscure comedy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's been great seeing so many other people say they enjoy this movie -- you're right, it has become obscure, which is frankly crazy when you watch it. Good instincts on snatching up a copy!
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
  8. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon with such a great entry. Loved it and love Designing Woman. Glad you did this one.

    I would also like to invite you to participate in my next blogathon. The link is below with more details

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2015/09/24/announcing-the-silent-cinema-blogathon/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, I enjoyed participating! I'll definitely check out your blogathon and see if there's anything I can come up with.

      Delete

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