Monday, December 1, 2014

Lauren Has Designs on Gregory

The theme of marrying in haste and repenting at leisure is again explored, this time in Designing Woman (1957), a romantic comedy starring Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall.  Peck is Mike Hagen, a sportswriter who is on assignment in California.  He's been out drinking, and awakens hung over and unable to recall whether he filed an important story.  Later that day, he re-meets Marilla Brown (Bacall), with whom he spent his night of drinking.  She, however, stayed sober, helped him to write his story (and filed it), AND has been carefully holding the $700 he gave her in his stupor.  They spend a romantic two weeks together, and end their vacation by marrying.  Mike is blissfully unaware of pretty much anything about Marilla, but on the plane ride home, after she excuses herself and returns in a high-fashion dress, he begins a learning experience.  Marilla is a highly respected, and highly paid, fashion designer.  Mike's shabby apartment would fit into Marilla's bedroom, and Marilla's friends are NOT the kind of people with whom Mike associates.  Thus, their newlywed bliss begins to deteriorate as each is forced to inhabit the world of the other.
Some interesting background information on Designing Woman is available from this TCM article.
Originally, Grace Kelly and James Stewart were slated for the leads, but then Grace got married, and Jimmy opted out (He had really wanted to work with Kelly; after the film's release, he said he was sorry he had turned down the role). Bacall consented to do the role, despite that fact that her husband, Humphrey Bogart, was dying.  Bogart encouraged her take it; he died four months before the film's release.  Gregory Peck commented on her professionalism during this trying period in his tribute to Ms. Bacall.

The story for the film came from Helen Rose, the costumer for the production.  The wardrobe here is outstanding.  Bacall's quick change in the plane from tourist to professional is one noteworthy example of Ms. Rose's talent.  The costume defines the character for the audience - Marilla's flair skirt and casual blouse change to a tailored dress and matching hat.  Another example is her costume for the scene in which she meets Mike at the fights.  Her professional outfit immediately places her as a fish out of water in this extremely funny episode.  One of my group recalls seeing pieces of Ms. Rose's personal wardrobe, which were donated to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

Another thing to notice in the film is the amazing set decoration; the contrast between Mike and Marilla's apartments quickly establish the conflict that is to come.  And Marilla's apartment is a showpiece - down to exquisite door knobs (with star decorations on them).
A few words on the always fantastic Gregory Peck.  In Gregory Peck: A Biography, by Gary Fishgall,  the author relates that after seeing Peck's reaction to having a plate of ravioli dumped in his lap, George Burns - no slouch when it came to reacting to the ridiculous - was "in stitches".  Peck's responsed that it was "worth as much as the Academy Award" to have made Burns laugh. 

Besides Peck and Lauren Bacall, the film has an excellent supporting cast. Dolores Gray (Lori Shannon) was familiar to some of us from her appearance as the television personality Madeline Bradville in It's Always Fair Weather.  But Ms. Grey had a very limited film and television career - only 10 credits appear in IMDB, but two of her films are noteworthy: Sylvia (the Rosalind Russell role) in The Opposite Sex and Lalume in the 1955 version of Kismet.  However, Ms. Grey had an exceptional career on Broadway, winning the Tony for her appearance in Carnival in Flanders (she also has the record for winning a Tony a play with the shortest run - 6 performances!).  She gives us a memorable character in Lori, one that can stand toe-to-toe with actors of the caliber of Bacall and Peck.

Jack Cole, who plays choreographer Randy Owens was perfect.  Without giving too much away (slight spoiler here), the image of Randy taking down a cadre of villains, including Chuck Connors (as gangster Johnny O), who is twice his size, is an absolutely perfect touch.  It was one of my favorite scenes in the film.

Many TV favorites are featured in the film, including the aforementioned Connors, Edward Platt, the Chief of CONTROL from Get Smart as gangster Martin J. Daylor, Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley from The Dick Van Dyke Show) as a newspaper reporter, and Dean Jones in a small role as an assistant stage manager.

The film employs narration from Mike and Marilla to tell much of the story.  It's a interesting technique, and works well.  We leave you with this clip from the film, in which Bacall and Peck have a row: