Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky temporarily satiates Addison Dewitt's Dolores Gray fetish with this long-overdue look at a screwball comedy classic.
"We never argue anymore. And when we do, it never lasts more than a week or two."—Marilla Hagan (Lauren Bacall)
Now what about that ruckus in Boston, the one you heard about? Well, Mike Hagen (Gregory Peck) is going to tell you all about it. Okay, maybe, not all, but what he leaves out will be filled in by his ex-girlfriend Lori (Dolores Gray), his wife Marilla (Lauren Bacall), her ex-boyfriend Zachary (Tom Helmore), and…
We'd better start at the beginning.
Mike Hagen, New York sportswriter, buys a round of drinks for the crowd in a Beverly Hills bar. When he wakes up with a hangover the next day, he finds that he has already met the sharp and sophisticated Marilla—and she is every bit his equal in wit and temper. Within the week, their whirlwind romance ends in marriage, and they head back to New York to settle into their lives.
Except, their lives do not want to settle. Marilla is a successful fashion designer, hanging with Gotham's elite. And Hagen is hot on the trail of corruption in the world of boxing. As Hagen puts it, "During the day, we lived in two separate worlds…At night, we made a world of our own." Between his rough, working class friends, her artsy and upscale friends, ex-lovers who do not want to let go, and a cadre of mobsters on the hunt for Hagen—well, is it any wonder this is all going to turn into a ruckus?
On the surface, Designing Woman looks like a playful fusion of every Hollywood romantic comedy cliché in the book. Mike Hagen's crowd seems to have walked out of Damon Runyon by way of The Front Page. The socialites in Marilla's circle are just as ridiculous and pompous as if this were Dinner at Eight all over again. Marilla's profession allows an excuse for ravishing costuming (the film's initial story idea is credited to costume designer Helen Rose, of course). Throw in a Broadway musical (and a couple of sprightly dance numbers), and Designing Woman is a hodgepodge of genres.
But what makes all this work so exceptionally well is the talent behind the film. Vincente Minnelli handles the camera with a confidence born of both his experience and his enthusiasm. Watch the early scenes of Hagen and Marilla, before their marriage: every shot has them visually separated by an umbrella pole, sailboat mast, flagpole, or some other vertical line. We get the impression that these two people, though they think they are in love with each other, are emotionally separated. They are in love with the idea of being in love—and they do not really know each other at all. But we also know, this being a romantic comedy, that within their fiercely independent natures lurks a softness that will come out by the end of the picture, and true love will blossom.
Well, maybe there are soft spots. Minnelli deftly avoids melodrama and keeps the wit dry. The he said/she said structure of the film allows plenty of jokes about misunderstanding, but it also points up the distance between Hagen and Marilla (and the other narrators) even as they seem to draw together. Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall are ideally matched here and exhibit crisp comic timing: their gravelly patter gives the screwball elements of the plot a necessary cynical edge. This allows Minnelli to give the film a realistic feel, marking the frustration of the characters in a world that only skirts the edge of Hollywood fairyland.
For example, Hagen takes his new wife to a prizefight, depicted rather realistically (Peck dryly remarks at one point that the spectators hold newspapers in front of their faces to avoid blood spatters). Bacall slowly cranks up Marilla's visible dismay at the gruesome fight, the hoodlums lurking about her husband—until she suddenly explodes. Earlier in the film, in a brilliant comic sequence, wild Lori dumps a plate of ravioli in Hagen's lap. He calmly asks the waiter for a pair of pants and ends up spending the day in bright green busboy pants. In the hands of a less adept cast and crew, all this slapstick would be played over the top, but Minnelli lets each small comic moment build with expert timing. Even Andre Previn's bouncy score is not overused and never punctuates the action like a live-action cartoon.
Warner Brothers presents Designing Woman in a bright Cinemascope print rich in color and detail. The sharp anamorphic transfer only enhances Helen Rose's shimmering costume designs. Unfortunately, Rose does not come off quite so well in the "mini-documentary" offered as a bonus feature (along with the usual theatrical trailer and a couple of mini-biographies). Not really a documentary at all, this five-minute segment is a black-and-white promotional film designed for local television stations. Rose sits at a table, silently pretending to listen (while the local reporters "ask" pre-scripted questions), and offering canned responses on Hollywood fashion design, like "a woman should be a beautiful jewel." I suspect Marilla Hagen, with her edgy sophistication, might balk at such an oversimplification. In any case, Designing Woman is quite like a beautiful jewel itself: shiny, polished, and entertaining—and it has held its value well over the years.
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