It’ surprising the screenplay for Designing Woman (1957) won George Wells an Oscar, given its strange stew of marital conflict, mob threats, brain damage, fashion, and acrobatic fight moves. But there is a cleverness to it, and some insights about marriage one doesn’t usually get in a comedy. So while not exactly an amazingly tasty stew, it’s curious enough in flavor to keep you watching, and the fourth-wall-breaking format leads to moments of humor throughout, especially through the thoughts of the ex-girlfriend.
Of course, being a fan of complex heroines, I hoped Designing Woman would have a double meaning, that Lauren Bacall’s fashion designer bride had sneaky moves up her perfectly tailored sleeves. Alas, no such luck. Marilla (Bacall) is a sophisticated businesswoman, but traditional when it comes to her sports reporter husband, Mike (Gregory Peck). The two have married after a very short affair, and much of the story hinges around his utterly unnecessary concealment of a former flame, Lori (Dolores Gray), and Marilla’s anxiety about it. The couple is so prickly over this conflict that they endanger Mike’s life as he hides from the mob. (Mike, it seems, is more truthful in reporting than in life, and has ticked off a boxing fixer with mob ties.)
So here are my thoughts on the memorable moments of this Vincente Minnelli-helmed comedy: the flavorful additions, the questionable spices, the discordant ingredient that nearly destroys the whole, and a wonderful final pinch of flavor.
The Flavorful Moments
Confession to the Ex
Mike’s former girlfriend, Lori (Dolores Gray), adds wonderful comedy to the plot, which has gotten a little too sweet in the opening meet-cute aftermath. Mike keeps not getting around to breaking his marriage to her, and she, sharing her reflections with us, reveals, “He was so pathetic I had to help him out.” She generously delivers the breakup news, and then adds a jab he completely misses: “I’d have probably done the same thing myself if I’d found the right man.”
After she relieves him from hurting her feelings, she observes him to be as “grateful as a Saint Bernard.” Her initial euphoria over her own maturity and strength soon dissolves: “But then I made a mistake. I asked him to tell me about her, and he made a bigger mistake, he told me.”
Rolling her eyes, she listens: “I heard all about her eyes, and her hair and her figure….I heard all about her fine sense of humor, and her clothes, and the cute way she had of tilting her head when she laughed….After a while I knew her like a sister.” And of course, she gets a thoroughly justified revenge with a strategic placement of his ravioli plate.
The movie highlights the divisions between this high-class business leader and her working-class husband in various ways, most successfully with their apartments: his small and messy; hers refined, large, and including what he calls an “outside flunky.” Before he’s had time to look around his new place, all her friends arrive and rush her, barely registering his presence as he tries to excuse the embarrassingly short pants he’s wearing (his own being smeared with ravioli). Even when he leaves the room to change and returns, her distracted friends ignore him. And she is oblivious to his annoyance and embarrassment as she dons and then leaves behind his handsome form. The scene is perfectly orchestrated to reveal his disconnection and loneliness, and the way she’s suddenly made him feel alienated and extraneous in his own home and marriage.
In the aftermath, she’s dismissive of her career to soothe his ego, the embodiment of a bride worried about losing her new man. Luckily, she’s humbled herself enough to ease his insecurity (sigh, at least she doesn’t give up the career). The later party scene, with her rehearsal and his poker game colliding, is so cacophonous it’s actually hard to watch, but perfectly captures just how unalike their work lives are. Both of them are occasionally petty and jealous as they try to navigate in one another’s worlds, and yet come back together through their feelings for one another. The movie never suggests this union will be easy, and there’s something refreshing about that, and–unlike many romantic comedies–very honest.
The Fight Scene
The hilarious antics of the final fight scene make for good comedy. It’s well orchestrated, especially a brilliant final touch (see below). In a favorite moment, Mike observes that his wife doesn’t know how to help, as she can’t identify who is on Mike’s side, and who is not. I loved this reflection, as it echoes my reaction to every bad action sequence I’ve seen in the past decade. I so often can’t tell characters apart once the fists or legs start flying.
I don’t expect PC treatment of subject matter in my 50s films, but usually, I can cringe a bit at unfortunate touches and move on. Unfortunately, much of the comedy of Designing Woman hinges around making fun of a former boxer’s brain damage. Yes, you read that correctly. Maxie (Mickey Shaughnessy) is tasked with protecting Mike from the mob, but can never quite figure out what town he’s in, or what it is he’s supposed to do. Mike is by turns exasperated with him and condescending toward him. Marilla’s not much better, and sometimes worse. Mickey Shaughnessy’s performance is, unfortunately, often convincing, making his character’s brain damage poignant when the actor’s going for funny. The only way to enjoy this comedy is to block out whenever he’s on the screen, which is often.
The Brilliant Final Touch
Early in the film, in a typical bro kind of way, Mike objects to the effeminate dancing style of Marilla’s friend and colleague, musical director Randy (Jack Cole). You can just hear the homophobic chains in Mike’s mind churning as he watches those fluid, flamboyant movements, even before he imitates him to Marilla. But when the mob is beating up Mike and his friends, Randy appears and starts taking out half of them with his dance moves. I haven’t seen dance fighting this fun since Kevin Bacon’s in Footloose.
It’s in this moment of brilliance that you know Minnelli’s at the helm, and you’re so glad. I only wish we’d seen more such flourishes of his style because I could watch that clip over and over again. There, as elsewhere, I was more interested in the musical Marilla was designing for, than the marriage she was trying to save. The problem is, I think Minnelli was too. Luckily, there’s enough of the lovely costumes (and how Bacall wears them), enough of the self-absorption of those running the musical (who find the mob fight merely distracting) to intrigue and entertain. And of course, you can always rewatch Randy….