Film Flick: Designing Woman

Friday, March 10, 2017

The story MGM  likes to tell about Designing Woman is that costume designer Helen Rose came up with the idea of making a film about a fashion designer. While this may or may not be true, some accuse it of being a little more closely related the Spencer/Hepburn vehicle Woman of the Year than this costume designer's dream. Certainly, the two films do share some basic plot characteristics.   Both involve an earthy sports writer and an intellectual woman getting married and discovering how little they have in common. But both the details of the story, and the style of the films differ greatly from there.

Mike Hannigan  (Gregory Peck ) meets a Marilla Brown (Lauren Becall) on vacation and ends up in a whirlwind romance and marriage. However, on returning to New York, they discover everything from their social spheres to their daily pursuits, to their bank accounts seem to be opposites. What's already a tense situation becomes more awkward when exes get involved and- oh yeah- the mob.

Furthermore, where Woman of the Year was most definitely 1930s screwball comedy- with witty banter and a fast pace- Designing Woman has all the hallmark signs of 1950s filmmaking. First, it is  filmed in Cinescope with many large, sweeping sets and colorful, decadent  woman's clothes. There is even a literal fashion show in the film. Luckily, Becall's past as a fashion model meant she was made to wear beautiful clothes, and the second leading lady, Dolores Gray, had a body built for evening gowns as well. Designing Woman also has less of the quick banter. Its comedy is more broad and physical, which might not have worked with lesser actors, but Becall and Peck do it tremendously. Another unique conceit of the film Designing Woman is that it is narrated, in turns, by five of the main characters talking directly to the audience. This adds a delicious dichotomy  when what the character are saying doesn't match what they are thinking. It is not, perhaps, as laugh out loud funny as Woman of the Year, but this style brings a charm all its own.

One of the main draws of course, is seeing two of Hollywood's greatest play opposite each other. Gregory Peck is so effortlessly charming, and Becall's sultry voice means she can vacillate between sexy and funny with ease. These two also have chemistry, with some steamy gestures that would have seemed against the Hayes Code were it not for the fact the characters were married. Why they weren't cast as a pairing more often remains a mystery to me! So it is perhaps surprising to learn that James Stewart and Grace Kelly were originally considered for the parts,  but when Kelly became betrothed to Prince Rainier of Monaco, Stewart decided not to take the role.

"She got the Prince, I got the part," Becall is supposed to have said on the matter. In fact, Peck was cast first. He was against type, seeing as he had not really done a comedy since Roman Holiday. Part of the deal was that he got final approval of the choice for leading lady, but then he and  Becall were friendly, so it wasn't much of an issue when she was cast. Both recalled the film fondly, and for Becall filming Designing Woman had a special appeal.Her home life at the time was very stressful since her husband, Humphrey Bogart, was terminally ill. She explained in her biography, that the part of Marrilla, with all the broad physical comedy and yelling dramatics, allowed her an emotional outlet, so that she was able to keep a calm and stable demeanor for her husband and children at home. Perhaps in tribute to her own successful marriage, one of the scenes in Designing Woman has the song "How Little We Know" playing in the background. This is the same song Lauren Becall sang in her first film, To Have and Have Not, where she met and fell in love with Bogart.

It can be hard to be a remake- or even to be thought to be a remake!- as there will always be some who cannot help but compare. However, in my opinion, if such a comparison has to be made, I might prefer this gentler tale of opposites attract. Maybe it is just the clothing that draws me in, maybe it is the charm of Peck and Becall but Designing Woman seems designed to delight! 

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