Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
The heyday of the screwball comedy was the 1930s and the early 1940s. It was a sort of escapist fare, sex comedies without the sex because of the Hays Code. The whole point of a good screwball was to pit a strong-willed woman against a strong-willed man, toss them into a crazy situation, and make ‘em fall in love. It was a good enough formula for a number of years when people wanted 90-120 minutes of escapism from crushing poverty. With Designing Woman, the question is how well it would work in the late 1950s.
Like any good screwball comedy, Designing Woman features a perfect storm of events, starting with our romance. Sportswriter Mike Hagen (Gregory Peck) goes on a bender at a golf tournament and wakes up the next morning wondering where the money he’d won on a crazy bet had gotten to. Even more importantly, he’s wondering if he filed his copy on the golf tournament and still has a job. He finds the answer to where the money went when he encounters fashion designer Marilla Brown (Lauren Bacall). He finds out the second when he talks to his editor Ned Hammerstein (Sam Levene). His story did get filed. Turns out he wrote it with Marilla, and he gave her $700.
She wants to give it back, but he won’t let her. Instead, he convinces her that the two of them should blow the money. They do, and of course wind up married. The trouble is that the two of them know nothing about each other. Marilla especially doesn’t know about Lori Shannon (Dolores Gray), Mike’s girlfriend. She also doesn’t know that Mike has been writing stories about Martin Daylor (Edward Platt), a boxing promoter with some crooked connections. Daylor wants the stories stopped, and he’s willing to go to some extreme lengths to get him to shut up.
It all starts cute and simple. Mike isn’t a fan of Marilla’s artsy and theatrical friends and is mildly upset that she evidently makes a ton more money than he does (which is why the end up moving into her apartment). Marilla isn’t a fan of Mike’s poker buddies and is scared of his punch-drunk ex-boxer friend Maxie (Mickey Shaugnessy). Just to make things more fun, Zachary Wilde (Tom Helmore), the man who wanted to marry Marilla but has instead hired her to design the costumes for his new show, has also cast Lori Shannon as the lead in his new musical. And, of course, Daylor’s thugs, led by Johnny O (Chuck Connors), show up now and then to rough up Mike.
Eventually, it all comes to a head. Marilla figures out that Lori and Mike used to be an item and is insanely jealous. Mike, refusing to drop the boxing stories, is forced to stay in a local hotel for three weeks while pretending to be out of town to keep Daylor’s goons away from him. It all comes together in the last 20 minutes or so, and of course, since this is a screwball and a romance, it’s all going to work out happily in the end. You didn’t really expect anything different, did you?
So let’s get to the specifics. Designing Woman isn’t believable in the least, and it doesn’t really matter at all because it’s not supposed to be believable. It’s a farce, so it takes things to an extreme. It’s also a film that would be quickly resolved if everyone wasn’t a little bit of an idiot as well, and that’s part of the fun. It’s gloriously goofy all the way through, which is precisely why it won Best Original Screenplay.
It also has some truly great comic moments. There’s a lovely moment when Lori dumps a plate of ravioli in Mike’s lap that is one of the best comedy moments of its decade, and the film closes with a brilliant fight scene highlighted with a dance fight number featuring Jack Cole as the show choreographer acrobatically kicking ass. Designing Woman also uses a series of voiceovers and fourth wall breaks to explain the story. They aren’t really necessary, but they work well in the narrative.
The whole cast works well with a single unfortunate exception, and even that one isn’t completely flawed. Lauren Bacall is near perfect, of course, because she always was. Evidently, Bogart was dying during the creation of this film, and you’d never know it. It might well have been therapeutic to work on something silly and frivolous for her. The one casting choice I have trouble with is, oddly enough Gregory Peck, who doesn’t seem fit for the role. Apparently, it was originally planned for James Stewart or Cary Grant, and I think either of them (particularly Grant) would have been far more at home in a light comedy like this one.
Still, Peck is serviceable if not his typical gravitas-filled leading man. And Designing Woman is a difficult film to dislike because of the spirit with which it tackles its ridiculous story. Really, what more do you want?
Why to watch Designing Woman: A nice throwback to screwball romances of the ‘30s.
Why not to watch: Gregory Peck seems a little out of his element in the genre.