Lauren Bacall's husband was dying when she made Designing Woman in the fall of 1956. With this in mind, the film's aggressively light tone is a kind of miracle, but credit has to be given to director Vincente Minnelli – and to Bacall, of course. It's a silly, brightly coloured bauble of a film, hardly a highlight of the careers of either the director or the actress, but it was precisely the movie she needed to make at a difficult time, and Bacall always recalled it fondly.
Humphrey Bogart had ignored the symptoms of esophageal cancer until surgery was required, and his decline after that was steady and relentless. Bacall's own career, as she would recall in her 1978 biography By Myself, was at something of a standstill just three years after the box office success of How to Marry a Millionaire. It wasn't the first time this had happened to Bacall.
She had recently finished work on Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind, but neither she nor her husband had much faith in the film. "I wouldn't do too many of these," Bogart told Bacall while reading a review. Bacall's movie career had stalled after her smash debut alongside Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944), and her husband had given it a boost by starring alongside her in three successive pictures – The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948).
Designing Woman began as a suggestion by the film's costume designer, Helen Rose – surely a rare genesis for a picture, though probably not unique – and Bacall plays Marilla, a fashion designer who meets Mike (Gregory Peck), a sportswriter, at the poolside bar in the Beverly Hills Hotel after he wins $1200 betting on a golf tournament he's in town to cover.
The film begins with Peck delivering his recollections about a "ruckus in Boston" to the camera while sitting at his desk in his New York newsroom, and cuts to Bacall and the rest of the principal players in the story in turn, either confirming or denying their willingness to discuss the events we're about to watch – or the truthfulness of everyone else's account.
Mike wakes up in Los Angeles with a hangover, his winnings reduced to a few bills and pocket change, unable to recall what he'd done the night before or even if he'd filed the story he was in Los Angeles to cover. Minnelli comically ramps up the side-effects of the hangover – sounds are amplified to blaring volume; Mike's eyes perceive the sky as pink and the buildings green – and Peck manages to stumble to the pool for breakfast to cook up an alibi for his editor to explain the blown deadline.
Marilla emerges from the pool to warmly greet him and return the $700 she says he gave her the night before. It says something about either the time or the general public perception of a sportswriter's morals that his blackout is played for comic effect, and that he immediately assumes that Marilla is a prostitute.
After a poolside call from his editor confirms that Mike had indeed filed his story, he returns to his table and Marilla relieved. She informs him that she'd helped him write and file the story at a dive forty miles north of the city, and that the seven bills were his payment for her help. She refuses to keep it, so he convinces her to help him spend it in the time they have left in the city, which expands from a single night to eight days, at the end of which they get married by a justice of the peace in Arizona.
It's a classic "meet cute" – if you ignore the alcoholic blackout and the call girl intimation – which quickly turns into an "opposites attract" story when the newlyweds head back to New York City. She changes into a chic black ensemble on the plane, and after a quick tour of his small but very masculine apartment downtown – Marilla describes it in voiceover as reminding her of the shoebox her little brother kept his collections of string and marbles in as a boy – they head uptown to her very large apartment in a building where the doorman dresses in fox hunting livery.
Mike describes it as "chic," and admits that he'd never until that moment had a reason to use that word.
They're very different people, as are their friends. Hers are artists and fashion and society types; his are mostly working-class mugs from the newsroom and the boxing ring, and include Maxie Stultz (Mickey Shaughnessey), his "best friend", an addled ex-boxer with a face like a half dozen pig's ears. Their incompatibility is showcased in a long, cacophonous scene where Mike's poker night is scheduled on the same night as a get-together of her theatre friends.
Most problematic of all are their exes. Hers is Zachary (Tom Helmore), a suave theatrical producer; his is Lori (Dolores Gray), a wildly glamorous dancer whose picture Mike tries and fails to hide when Marilla visits his apartment. She's up front about Zachary, but Mike decides to avoid telling his wife about Lori – a decision that backfires when Zachary casts her as the lead in his new show and persuades Marilla to design the costumes.
Helen Rose's idea was turned into a screenplay by George Wells (The Stratton Story, Summer Stock, Where the Boys Are), and originally written with Grace Kelly as Marilla. "She got the prince; I got the part" Bacall said later. She was desperate to play Marilla, and in By Myself claims that she got it when she told MGM producer Dore Schary that she'd cut her salary in half.
It was "a lovely, funny script, a terrific part, and I was happy about working. Felt lucky to get it. I wasn't sure about leaving Bogie to work, but he wanted me to," Bacall wrote. He visited the Beverly Hills Hotel set with their children, and moored his boat, Santana, in the marina where another early scene from the picture was being filmed, inviting Peck on board for lunch.
"It was a romantic movie," Bacall recalled, "and I seemed to be constantly running toward Greg or away from him, so I had emotional and physical release to compensate for keeping everything inside at home."
Peck had met Bacall for the first time years earlier in New York City, when he was a young actor on Broadway and she was a stage-struck teenager working as an usher to get in to see the shows. Even then, she was able to make an impression that Peck would recall decades later.
In addition to the farce of the exes, Mike's life is complicated by the stories he's been writing about Martin Daylor (Edward Platt), a crooked boxing promoter who's eager to persuade Mike to try exposing another corrupt sport, using his henchman Johnny "O" (Chuck Connors) to do the physical intimidation for him.
Just when Mike and Marilla's relationship reaches a breaking point, his editor tells him to hole up in a cheap hotel for three weeks to finish his stories on Daylor, filing his stories from different cities as a cover, with Maxie as his roommate to provide protection. In the meantime everyone around them is aware of the pressure his lie has put on their relationship, though Zachary and Lori are content to let it simmer, distracted as they are by their own budding romance.
The picture is full of great character actors who later viewers would know from television. There's Platt, who'd play the "Chief" on Get Smart, and Jesse White as Charlie, a snitch peddling betting tips and low-life scuttlebutt, better known later as the lonely Maytag repairman in a TV ad campaign that ran for over two decades.
Then there's Richard Deacon as Larry, one of Mike's poker-playing cronies, now famous as punching bag TV producer Mel on The Dick Van Dyke Show. And keep an eye out for Dean Jones as the stage manager of Zachary's musical during its out-of-town opening in Boston.
Dolores Gray's Lori was oddly familiar, mostly because her role is an only slightly toned-down reprise of Madeline, the manic and self-obsessed musical diva she played in It's Always Fair Weather two years previous. Minnelli had obviously enjoyed working with her on his re-make of Kismet a year before Designing Woman was shot, where she'd starred alongside Ann Blyth and Howard Keel. More a stage than a screen actress, Gray nonetheless oozes a sort of hypertrophied bombshell glamour that wouldn't survive the decade except as a broad parody – in the movies at least.
But the gem hidden in the cast is Jack Cole as Randy, the hyperactive choreographer on Zachary's show, and part of Marilla's coterie of abrasive friends. Cole is a legend in the dance world, an innovator and an influence since he began his career dancing in Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn's Denishawn company in the '30s.
Cole moved from modern dance to night clubs, and choreographed his first movie with the Cole Porter musical Something for the Boys in 1943. He moved effortlessly from jazz to Latin to Indian dance styles over his long career, studying flamenco with Rita Hayworth's uncle and partnering the starlet in Tonight and Every Night (1945).
He would work closely with Marilyn Monroe on "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend", her showcase number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and it was claimed later that director Howard Hawks left the direction on that film's musical numbers to Cole. Gwen Verdon got her start as his assistant choreographer, and it's fair to say that Cole was essentially Bob Fosse before Bob Fosse assumed the role, though his influence is really only known to dance aficionados today.
Cole's Randy is a lunatic, constantly in motion, and during an argument Mike disparages his masculinity, which prompts Randy to pull out his wallet, show off pictures of his wife and football-playing son, before offering to punch Mike's lights out. (If you know anything about dancers, you know that someone like Cole could make good on that threat.) Mike and Marilla eventually realize that Randy is the Maxie among her friends, and Minnelli gives Cole's character a nice payback at the end, when he beats the daylights out of Johnny "O" and Daylor's thugs after they try to kidnap Marilla from the theatre in Boston.
Designing Woman is minor Minnelli, though it has all the trademarks of his best films, from scenes that put characters in apparently chaotic but controlled motion to the wild palette in glaring Technicolor – Lori's apartment is a particular highlight, decorated in red and blue prime colours that bleed together in the camera to a deep, throbbing purple.
Helen Rose's costumes justify the pivotal role she had in creating the film; they're practically characters on their own, and even get a moment to shine in a fashion show scene. For film fashion bloggers, the film is a frothy treasure trove, and an inexhaustible source of screencaps celebrating Bacall's wardrobe, and high '50s style.
There are great lines, like my own favorite, where Mike confidently tells us in a voiceover that "Liquor, I have found, makes me very smart." In By Myself, Bacall says hers is "Open your eyes, Maxie, and go to sleep."
But like most farces, the film would be over in ten minutes if one character had declined telling a single lie. If you're in the mood for this sort of thing, Designing Woman is a delight; if you're not, it can be unendurable.
Humphrey Bogart died in January of 1957, four months before Designing Woman was released. "I doubt that many producers thought of me as an actress at that point," Bacall wrote. "I had been so much Bogie's wife that last year – except for Designing Woman, I had not been near a studio. And no one seemed to be breaking down the door for my services. I hated that casual sloughing off of me – or of anyone, for that matter."
Later that year Harvey, the boxer that had been a wedding gift for Bogie and Bacall, died. The dog had been ill while Bogart was dying. "I was destroyed, collapsed in tears," Bacall remembered. "My Harvey – another big part of my married life gone."
It had been a terrible year, but you wouldn't know it watching Designing Woman. While she'd make two more films before the decade was over, Bacall would pivot away from Hollywood in the coming decade. She made just three films in the '60s while moving her family to New York City and returning to the Broadway stage that was her first love, and hit productions of Cactus Flower, Applause (a musical remake of All About Eve) and Woman of the Year.
For Bacall, Designing Woman would be the end of a lot of things, but the film was also one of the last high-water marks of a world where the adults were in charge, at the centre of a culture guided by their taste and experience. The '50s as the zenith of postwar grownup culture would persist at least until the Beatles arrived in America for their first tour, but Designing Woman, with its bars and benders and men who idolized men like Bogie; hemlines, mature women and theatre cliques was something like the beginning of the end.
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