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Film Friday: "Designing Woman" (1957)

In honor of Gregory Peck's 100th birthday, which was on Tuesday, this week on "Film Friday" I am bringing you the first Gregory Peck film I ever saw. 

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Designing Woman (1957) tells the story of Mike Hagen (Gregory Peck) and Marilla Brown (Lauren Bacall), a sportswriter and a fashion designer who meet while they are both in California on business. After a whirlwind romance, the couple marries and returns to New York, where Mike abandons his small apartment for Marilla's East Side home. It is not long before the honeymoon desintegrates. When Mike's poker-playing friends arrive at the apartment for their weekly game, they clash directly with Marilla's production team that is busy designing costumes for a new Broadway show. Mike seems to be specially offended by the presence of coreographer Randy Owen (Jack Cole), whose virility he questions.

Starring in Marilla's new production is Lori Shannon (Dolores Gray), Mike's previous girlfriend. At a lunch meeting, he tries to explain his marriage to Marilla to Lori, who responds by dumping a plate of ravioli onto his lap. Mike tries to hide his former relationship from Marilla, but fails miserably. Complicating matters further is Mike's continuing series of exposés of the activities of crooked boxing promotor Martin Daylor (Edward Platt). Worried about Mike's safety, his editor, Ned Hammerstein (Sam Levene), assigns punch-drunk boxer Maxie Stultz (Mickey Shaughnessy) to protect him. Mike hides this from Marilla too; he checks into a seedy hotel with Maxie, saying that he is leaving town to follow the Yankees, which leads Marilla to think that he is continuing his affair with Lori. During the opening night of Marilla's show in Boston, Daylor's henchmen, led by Johnny O (Chuck Connors), unleash their plan and kidnap her. A backstage alley fight ensues, but Mike and Maxie barely fend off the mobsters. To their rescue comes Randy, who knocks out all thugs with his acrobatic footwork, thus establishing his masculinity. Months later, Lori is engaged to her producer, Zachary Wilde (Tom Helmore); Mike and Marilla are enjoying his marriage; and Maxie continues to insist he is making a comeback.

Mike Hagen: How is it that you can't accept the sight of blood on anyone except me?

The original concept of Designing Woman came from Helen Rose, the famed MGM costume designer who had won Academy Awards for her work in Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Daniel Mann's I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955). Rose dreamed up a romantic conflict that harkened back to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, this one focusing on a sportswriter and a high-styler fashion designer who fall in love and marry, despite wildly different outlooks and lifestyles. Written by George Wells, whose credits included several Metro musicals and comedies, it was conceived as a vehicle for James Stewart and Grace Kelly, who had previously co-starred in Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Rear Window (1954). Broadway hit-maker Joshua Logan was hired to direct and Dore Schary, who had succeeded Louis B. Mayer as the head of the studio in 1951, decided to produce the film himself. Designing Woman was Schary's first comedy and last picture for MGM; he was dismissed from the studio shortly thereafter. 

When Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco and retired from acting, Stewart and Logan bowed out of the production as well. Subsequently, Schary brought Gregory Peck back to Metro for the first time since The Great Sinner (1949) to play the male lead, Mike Hagen. A Berkeley graduate, Peck began his acting career on the Broadway stage, before moving to Hollywood in the summer of 1943. He made his screen debut in Jacques Tourneur's Days of the Glory (1944) and went on to receive four Academy Award nominations in his first five years of film acting for The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and Twelve O'Clock High (1949). Five year later, Peck starred is what is arguably his most iconic film, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), an adaptation of Harper Lee's novel of the same name, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor.

Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck
To replace Logan in the director's chair, Schary assigned Vincente Minnelli, an MGM employee since 1940. Best known for his musicals, such as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), An American in Paris (1951) and The Band Wagon (1953), Minnelli had also helmed several comedies, including Father of the Bride (1950) and its sequel, Father's Little Dividend (1952), as well as The Long, Long Trailer (1954), starring television hottest duo, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

When Lauren Bacall heard that the part of Marilla Brown in Designing Woman was available, she called Schary and "told him I could play it, wanted to, and when I cut my salary in half, he finally said yes." Peck's contract allowed him the right to approve his co-star and he readily agreed to Bacall, as did Minnelli. She later recalled, "I swallowed pride and anything else that got in the way to get that part. For some reason, a test was not mentioned, but Gregory Peck, the leading man, had the right to approve his leading lady, which he did, thank heaven." Decades later, Peck and Bacall reunited in the made-for-television film The Portrait (1993)

Since learning that Humphrey Bogart, her husband of twelve years and co-star in four films To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948) was gravely ill with cancer of the esophagus, Bacall had put her career on hold to care for him. She was apprehensive about leaving Bogart every day to make the picture, but he convinced her that the work would do her good. Indeed, she later said that Designing Woman "was one of my happiest film experiences. It had one of my all-time favorite lines 'Open your eyes, Maxie, and go to sleep.' It was also a godsend."

Peck and Bacall at the Beverly Hills Hotel
With a generous budget of nearly $2 million, Designing Woman began filming in mid-September 1956, on location at the Beverly Hills Hotel in California, for the opening scenes between Mike and Marilla. A former set and costume director, Minnelli gave the film the same lavish visual style of his musicals: "Technically, he experimented with color as when the hungover Mike sees mint-colored tree and 'Pepto Bismol' skies. his sickly vision is paralleled by the hearing distortion created by the magnified sound effects. Thematically, Minnelli resurected the chaos of backstage chaos producing on-stage and on-television continuity." 

The set of Designing Woman was a happy one. Peck admired Minnelli for "a wonderful sense of pacing, of keeping things moving, of not letting things get boring, keeping it dancing along." For his part, the director found that "Greg, the king of underplayers, was raring to go, like a banker at an American Legion convention. Pratfalls, double takes [...] he was ready to do it all. I never thought he would have to be held back."

Peck and Bacall became close friends during the making of Designing Woman. "Betty Bacall is one of my favorite people," he said years later. "No one else has her looks, her style, her way of moving and wearing clothes, her sharp mind." Peck became friendly with Bogart, who occasionally visited the set with his and Bacall's two children, Stephen and Leslie. One day, he even sailed his yacht, the Santana, to California's Marineland, where Bacall and Peck were shooting on a sailboat; afterwards, the three had lunch aboard the Santana. As Bogart's illness worsened, Peck took to visiting him at his home. In fact, he saw Bogart just a few days before his death. To cheer him up on that occasion, Peck launched into a joke. It was a long one and, even though he cut down the story as he went along, it could only be condensed so far. Finally, Bogart interrupted him and said, "If don't get to the end of this soon, I won't be around for the punch line." Bogart eventually died on January 14, 1957, two months after Designing Woman finished production.

Peck and Bacall on the set
Designing Woman premiered in Los Angeles on April 16, exactly a month before opening at Radio City Music Hall in New York, on May 16, 1957. Critical reviews were generally mixed. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times immediately noticed the film's "passing resemblance" to George Cukor's Woman of the Year (1942), starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and commended its "endeavor to generate the same kind of verve and general sardonic humor as flowed from that older comedy team." He considered that "some of the verbal exchanges between Mr. Peck and Miss Bacall have a nice little splash of wit about them. Good dialogue has been written by George Wells. But we wish Mr. Wells had not resorted to the ancient device of jealousy as the cause of the matrimonial trouble between his two sophisticates in New York [...] The direction of Vincente Minnelli keeps things moving tolerably until the end, when it bursts in a splurge of ostentation that is silly and in somewhat doubtful taste."

For their part, Variety wrote that Designing Woman was "deftly directed by Vincente Minnelli [and] it cleverly brings together the worlds of haute couture, sports (particularly boxing), show business, and the underworld." William K. Zinsser of the New York Herald-Tribune called the film "a two-hour endurance test," while the reviewer for The New Yorker thought that "Mr. Peck and Miss Bacall are far too earnest a team to be successful at this kind of comedy." Renowned comedian George Burns, on the other hands, applauded Peck's talents, commenting that his deadpan reaction to being covered in hot pasta had him "in stitches." Peck said gleefully, "Well, to me it was worth as much as the Academy Award, to have George Burns tell me that I could make him laugh." 

The film also failed to score with audiences, in part because it was competing with the latest Tracy-Hepburn pairing, Desk Set (1957), which opened in New York one day after Designing Woman. Variety's annual report on box-office grosses placed Designing Woman in 40th place among the biggest moneymakers of 1957, turning in $2,250,000. At the 30th Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in March 1958, George Wells received the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Surprisingly enough, Helen Rose, who created 132 costumes just for Lauren Bacall, failed to garner a nomination.

By Myself and Then Some by Lauren Bacall (2013) | Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography by Gerard Molyneaux (1995) | Gregory Peck: A Biography by Gary Fishgall (2002) | The New York Times review | Variety review


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