12 February 2010

Designing Woman

Designing Woman A Fun Fifties Treat
By Kristin Battestella

I don’t like today’s romantic comedies one bit. They’re all the same aren’t they? Thankfully, the classics got it right- as exampled in 1957’s Designing Woman.

Sportswriter Mike Hagen (Gregory Peck) and fashion designer Marilla Brown (Lauren Bacall) meet on a blissful vacation. After a whirlwind romance, they marry and return to New York, expecting their very distinctly separate lives to merge just fine. But of course, the couple realize they have nothing in common- and former flames Lori Shannon (Dolores Gray) and Zachary Wilde (Tom Helmore, Vertigo) put a wrench in the romance, too- along with crooked boxing bookie Martin Daylor (Edward Platt). Can the Hagens survive- or will the world of sports and fashion collide?

To the uneducated classic film novice, Designing Woman doesn’t seem like the big picture in either of its stars’ repertoires. However, director Vincent Minnelli (Gigi, An American in Paris) and Best Screenplay Oscar winner George Wells (Till The Clouds Roll By, Take Me Out to the Ball Game) craft a delightful battle of the sexes. Yes, it’s stereotypical- you couldn’t very well have a female sports reporter and a male designer back in the day- but there isn’t anything pissy here, no interfering sexual subtext or heavy handed statements about Mars and Venus. The narration between the characters may be unusual to the modern viewer, but the lighthearted inner monologues are also a treat. Today if we get a character’s thoughts, it’s usually depressing and moody. Designing Woman isn’t afraid to take the wink, wink to the audience, and it’s still refreshing fifty years on.

Who doesn’t like Gregory Peck, honestly? Surely classic viewers adore him, but there’s nothing modern audiences can’t enjoy, either. Designing Woman’s tongue-in-cheek style shows us some more wit and humor than we see in some of Peck’s more noble roles like To Kill A Mockingbird, The Gunfighter, or Gentleman’s Agreement. But of course, he is up to the challenge. His stoic style works great as an irritated husband, but his everyman style is still charming. There’s even a few great jokes and physical comedy fun from an actor whom we generally expect fine dramatic performance. Most of the other men in the picture are otherwise the usual stereotypes- the crazy editor Ned (Sam Levene, Crossfire) and the brain dead boxer Maxie (Mickey Shaughnessy, Jailhouse Rock, From Here to Eternity). However, Mike’s sardonic analysis of these players keeps Peck’s performance fresh and relatable. How could you not like Gregory Peck, honestly?

Designing WomanSadly, you would never know Lauren Bacall’s off screen tragedy by her performance here. Her professional air, sexy confidence, witty charm, and great zingers excellently hide any despair over husband Humphrey Bogart’s cancer. I dare say you could almost forget the famous Bogie and Bacall because Bacall (The Big Sleep, How to Marry A Millionaire, Key Largo) and Peck are so delightful. Bacall’s Marilla is at odds with the man’s man Peck, but they also have great fun and laughter together. Perhaps because the emphasis here is on the fashions, we don’t get many close ups of our leading lady. Bacall’s eyes are still enchanting, however, and that husky voice makes us believe that if anyone needed to whip Gregory Peck into shape, Lauren Bacall could do it.

Dolores Gray (Kismet) is sweet and capable as Mike’s prior flame Lori Shannon, but we might expect a bigger name as the song and dance femme fatale. Likewise, we might think of a better villain than Edward Platt (Rebel Without A Cause) as Martin Daylor. These players serve their parts just fine, but perhaps it is better that there’s no secondary folks stealing our star couple’s thunder. Though not a musical per se, there are a few standard numbers in a fun, film-within-a-film frame style. The breaking of the fourth wall is great, too. I’ve seen many old movies in my time, but recently I’ve been impressed with the wondrous powers of fifties Technicolor again. Today’s pictures can be so dark and depressing or digitally saturated and filled to the brim with computer imagery. It’s refreshing to see bright suits, colorful fashion, and brightly decorated mid century sets. Naturally, Designing Woman is about a fashion designer, so we get a peek at some sweet, timeless styles: Fedoras and pillbox hats, gloves, stoles, and those weird fifties cape coats that would look so dumb today, but look great here. It’s also nice to see sexy costumes that show off women’s hips and curvy bodies. And could we also take a moment to enjoy $5 being enough for a cab?

Outside of being the perfect time capsule of colorful mid-century New York hijinks, there’s nothing wrong with Designing Woman. Modern audiences who love the nostalgia and charm of old will delight here, and contemporary romantic comedy fans should take up a viewing to see how the genre’s supposed to be done. Those who’ve already fallen in love with Gregory Peck or Lauren Bacall can love with the great pairing and performances in Designing Woman today.

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