Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall, Dolores Gray, Mickey Shaughnessy.
Directed to the hilt with his own designer’s eye by Vincente Minnelli and boasting an Oscar-winning story and screenplay by George Wells, 1957’s Designing Woman was supposed to be a James Stewart-Grace Kelly reunion pic, post-Rear Window, before it evolved into something else entirely following the stars’ departure from the project. Of all things, we’re talking a cosmetically gorgeous old-school romantic comedy that showed off — and for just about the only time — Gregory Peck’s gifts as a farceur, or, if you wish, flawless straight man to incessantly farcical goings-on.
For that matter, Designing Woman’s replacement co-star Lauren Bacall (brought in on after Kelly elected to marry that Prince guy, causing Stewart to bolt) had a surprise in store herself when she turned out to be funny as well. Adding to her challenge is Woman’s historical status as the picture Bacall was making when Humphrey Bogart was in his final months of dying painfully of cancer — which meant that, speaking just professionally, Bogart and Bacall never got to shoot a planned comedy that eventually became 1957’s Top Secret Affair. In that case, the roles were taken over by Kirk Douglas and Susan Hayward — two actors who then proved they couldn’t do farce, in case you think it’s all that easy.
Back to Minnelli-Wells. Somehow, at age 10, I more or less fell into seeing what was an unlikely-sounding pleasure for a kid who loved rock-’n’-roll, baseball and reading biographies about hoods during what was termed my “Johnny Stompanato era” by one or two at the time. But as it turned out, I loved the picture (and actually, there is a teeny bit of baseball plus a whole of shebang of hoods here — and besides, I’d liked Funny Face as well a couple months earlier). I even got my parents to take me to see Woman again the following summer at a drive-in (and in a double bill with Witness for the Prosecution, talk about a daily double).
Thus, it’s a longtime favorite — far more than, say, Father of the Bride as a Minnelli comedy (which looks drab and speedily knocked off by comparison) and to the Tracy-Hepburn team launcher Woman of the Year, which it resembles in a few respects. No non-European filmmaker could fill a CinemaScope frame with color-coordinated costuming the way Minnelli could, which has a little to do with why there are so many laughs here but everything to do with why every shot is a visual delight. Remember how sprightly and pigment-drenched the opening and also the “Drop That Name” number look in Minnelli’s underrated movie of Bells Are Ringing? This is the way Woman looks most of the time as Minnelli is always going the extra mile to punctuate a funny script with visual whip-cracks that romance the eye.
Peck is a New York sportswriter who marries a well-connected NYC fashion designer following a whirlwind courtship without realizing just what she does for a living. As a result, he and his poker-playing newshound cronies are forced to share their weekly apartment game (when it’s his turn to host) with an effete theater crowd from another planet once Bacall begins inviting them over. This occurs because she’s been hired to design duds for a Broadway show — one, turns out, in which Peck’s former squeeze (Dolores Gray) has been hired to star under the tutelage of a dance director (played by maestro choreographer Jack Cole) who gets on Peck’s nerves. Without engaging in spoilers, he comes in handy.
Adding to the stress is Peck’s targeting of a crooked fight promoter (Edward Platt, from Rebel Without a Cause and TV’s “Get Smart”) in a series of articles that results in Platt sending a few of the “boys” (one played by Chuck Connors) to the apartment for a dose of persuasion. This results in Peck’s being assigned a hopelessly punch-drunk boxer with unusually odd peccadilloes to be his bodyguard, and Mickey Shaughnessy is so uproarious in what is now probably a politically incorrect role that it was basically “1957” that enabled the actor to sustain his career. Contributing to this run were Shaughnessy’s turns in the Naval comedy Don’t Go Near the Water (perhaps understandably forgotten as having been a huge box office hit at the time) and as the cellmate who teaches Elvis his guitar basics in Jailhouse Rock. Cast as country singer “Hunk” Houghton, it is, in fact, Shaughnessy who first strums the C-chord for the initially green once and future King — pronouncing it, more or less in cathedral tines, as “a big one.”
Though the limitations of MGM’s Metrocolor can sometimes compromise the success of Warner’s admirably exacting Blu-ray standards, Designing Woman looks exceptionally good for its source and visage — presumably due to a combo of the negative’s overall health and Minnelli’s painstaking orchestration of color in the first place. I can remember even as a kid noting in my mind how sickening ravioli remnants looked (and still do) in one beautifully staged set piece, but I don’t want to spoil the gag. Other than to say that Peck plays the scene perfectly — and this coming directly after Moby Dick, an ambitious and not unimpressive movie where he nearly lost an acting leg from critics’ harpoons. The quality of his performance in that John Huston opus is at least debatable, but in Woman, he’s perfect. In terms of this kind of movie — my favorite Pecks are Twelve O’Clock High and The Gunfighter — I didn’t know he had it in him.
Mike’s Picks: ‘Designing Woman’ and ‘My Sister Eileen’