Designing Woman (1957, Vincente Minnelli)

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Not for nothing are the ’50s remembered as the peak of slick, adult American comedies such as those starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day or Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, but a close look at many of these films reveals them to be more hollow and juvenile than their reputations often suggest. Much of this is due more than anything to the passage of time, which is likely the case with Designing Woman, an MGM production riding on the coattails of other films’ successes that’s noteworthy for, more than any of its actual comedic elements, its sense of style. As in seemingly every sitcom or motion picture of this type from the period, the central character of Marilla Hagen — played winningly by Lauren Bacall — is some sort of a designer, in this case a costume artist for stage productions; as in seemingly every love story made in Hollywood before the late ’60s, the concerned couple (the other half is Gregory Peck; don’t say I didn’t warn you) meet on holiday and then marry in a whirlwind, only to work out the kinks and hiccups of living together afterward. It’s no wonder these films come across now as astonishingly vapid, as this is demonstrably a ridiculous way to put together a cooperative and mutually supportive life, but is this an advice column blog? No, it isn’t.

Director Vincente Minnelli, far better known for musicals, seems lost at sea trying to fashion a pure, sophisticated relationship comedy (or is it an ensemble comedy? who knows?) as much as he did attempting gritty Billy Wilder cynicism in The Bad and the Beautiful. Can it be a coincidence that the most delightful moment in Designing Woman is a song sequence that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie? The extra problem Minnelli brings to the table is that, like so many Hollywood directors in future decades, he mistakes unruly zaniness — often violent zaniness at that — for humor. Gone is the depth and wit of Wilder and Lubitsch, replaced with mostly sledgehammer goofiness. It’s standard lofty mismatched-love stuff right out of bad standup comedy: she’s got weird elitist artist friends, he likes to go to boxing matches. Women like clothes, men like punchin’. Through the typical movie-glamour pratfalls of journalism, he manages to get mixed up with the Mob, and overbeaing “hilarity” ensues, replete with both Three Stooges slapstick and Mr. Ed-like marital catastrophe, with not even the balletic charm of a Blake Edwards film.

There are quite a few big laughs, especially in the first half when the film periodically resembles the touchstone George Stevens comedy Woman of the Year, complete with regressive sexual politics that are thankfully less the subject than a source of background tension. But you don’t have to know much about these two movies beyond their cast lists to suspect that Peck and Bacall don’t have the chemistry of Tracy and Hepburn. To some extent, that’s compensated for by the liveliness of some of Minnelli’s choices; by now, the use of widescreen in handsome productions like this has become more organic than labored. It’s in this manner that the film’s being steeped in its time adds to its charm substantially, and there are a few great uses of unusual, then-modernist sets, visual gags and screwball moments that seem more immersive in this format. (Jesse White steals all of his scenes as a fussy Mr. Bob-like choreographer, and these moments clearly wouldn’t work as well in Academy.) Note especially the bizarre but natural way Minnelli expresses Bacall’s thought process when she realizes where she’s seen the mysterious, alluring model Lori Shannon (Dolores Gray) before — in naughty photos lying around her husband’s apartment. Or the way that the characters introduce themselves directly to the audience, which makes this look right off the bat like a stranger and riskier film than it is.

Woman of the Year bothered me even though I found it hilarious, because I was so uncomfortable with how it clucked its tongue at the idea of a married woman finding fulfillment in her career, but I almost prefer that antiquated notion to the way Designing Woman progresses with the same basic story — by mostly forgetting about it in favor of some weak mobster comedy that has no dimension whatsoever (despite the fun appearance of Edward Platt as a corrupt boxing agent), then discarding that so it can half-heartedly wrap up the romcom parts. It seems very rushed but also somehow too long at just shy of two hours. Meanwhile, Bacall is saddled playing up histrionics that just aren’t believable — would a person as sophisticated and sane as Marilla really create every kind of shambolic ruckus over the fact that her husband may have once been in love with someone else before they even met? I just don’t get it — it’s very Hollywood and a false conception of romance, whirlwind or not. (Lame ripoff of The Awful Truth in the third act, too.)

And yet! This features the best performance I’ve ever seen from Gregory Peck besides his work as the villain in The Boys from Brazil; I’ve trotted this out elsewhere but he has always been one of my least favorite “classic” actors, yet his comedic work here has a relaxed and expressive quality that surprised me. Perhaps it’s because, as in Brazil, he’s not playing a character we’re expected to find some sort of immaculate hero. Secondarily, I really appreciated the number of genuinely risque adult jokes, which give the hectic lust in the central relationship at least a little credibility, and you must get a kick out of the castration fantasy in the ravioli scene (boy, that must sound bizarre if you haven’t seen this). So if you can discard the weak characterization, the weaker story, and the length, you’ll at least admire the frothiness of it all. It’s a fun movie and if you dig comedies from this era, you’ll find it pleasant and a bit above average. But Best Screenplay? Good lord, people.

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