BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“DESIGNING WOMAN: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION"
Blu-ray, DVD; 1957; Not Rated; streaming via Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: Mini-documentary with Costume Designer Helen Rose
THE WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION reached into the vault to remaster a film full of greats. Director Vincente Minnelli, stars Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck, and writer George Wells, who won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, pool their talents for the late ‘50s rom-com, “Designing Woman.
That Bacall and Peck star in two-plus hours of fluffy nonsense is an attention grabber. They give it their best, playing characters originally intended for Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart, according to TCM. They were magnificent together in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” and MGM planned to play on their charisma. Oscar-winning costume designer Helen Rose, who created the gowns for “Designing Woman,” came up with the idea from her enthusiasm for Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedies like “Pat and Mike” and “Adam’s Rib.”
Then Kelly left Hollywood to become Princess Grace of Monaco. Minnelli and Peck picked up the story, with the actor choosing Bacall as his leading lady. Filmed as her husband, Humphrey Bogart, was dying from lung cancer, Ms. Bacall remembers “Designing Woman” as one of her “happiest film experiences.” It was so different from her other roles, something to relax into, and she was able to stay close to Bogart during filming. TCM reports he took his last outing aboard his yacht in California’s Marineland, while Bacall and Peck filmed a scene on a sailboat. The movie was shot at Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Sadly, Bogart died before the film’s debut.
“Designing Woman” is about the whirlwind courtship of sports writer Mike Hagen (Peck) and clothing designer Marilla Brown (Bacall). The two New Yorkers meet in Los Angeles, fall in love and are married eight days later. Back home, they begin to know more about each other – and how incompatible they are. Mike lives in a bare knuckle, hard-drinking world of athletes and gangsters; Helen’s is full of designers, artists and actors, all drifting in and out of her stylish New York apartment. There’s also the dated-rub that Helen earns more than Mike, for which she apologizes. While packing Mike’s things for the move to her place, Helen finds a torn photo of a woman, and is instantly jealous. The audience is aware that this woman is in the Broadway production Helen is working for. She is Mike’s former flame, Lori Shannon (Delores Gray).
Both Mike and Helen hate the other’s lifestyle; Helen remains jealous and betrayed. Lori, when she finds out about the marriage, is righteously miffed. A subplot gets Mike on the bad side of gangster Martin Daylor (Edward Platt), who wants the journalist to stop writing about him – or else. That brings in Mickey Shaughnessy as ex-boxer Maxie Stultz, who’s been punched out three or four times too many, as Mike’s bodyguard. Chuck Connors plays Daylor’s lieutenant, Johnnie “O”. The comedy of manners and mistakes ends with a full out, back alley brawl played for laughs and pratfalls.
WAC used a 35mm Interpositive for its 2K scan, a tricky undertaking since the original Eastman filmstock has in-born issues. But, once again, the techs have worked their magic resulting in solid color and good detail. An overall softness lightens the lines in Bacall’s and Peck’s faces, making them look more age appropriate for the nonsense script. Color is toned down throughout. A wash of natural film grain is generally consistent, then enhanced in the final close-up between Bacall and Peck. Try as they might, Ms. Bacall was never an ingénue.
The film boasts 132 gowns – more than a gown-per-minute – and they all look beautiful. Texture gets a great boost in 1080p (2.40:1 ratio), and we can see the differences between fabric patterns, wool blends, silk, satin and fur. A smoky, action-packed boxing match scene obviously inspired the famous sequence in “Victor Victoria,” with Julie Andrews and James Garner, where she becomes sick when blood flies from the ring. Bacall’s Helen must also rush out, although blood-letting happens off screen. Still, the sense of place is here – as it is in the marina, newsroom, suite and backstage scenes. These all look like properly dressed sets with plenty of atmosphere. Smell the smoke at the ring and poker game; smell the cologne and hors devours in Helen’s party.
The original mono mix has been cleaned and upgraded to a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Dialogue comes through clearly, and party and fight sequences are mildly immersive, just enough to keep the fiction going. The score is by André Previn, who translated musicals “My Fair Lady,” “Gigi,” and “Porgy and Bess” to screen. Meanwhile, Dolores Gray struts her stuff in a beautiful green mermaid dress to jazz standard “There’ll Be Some Changes Made.”
Other than the trailer, which shows how well WAC has restored “Designing Woman,” there is a featurette with Costume Designer Helen Rose. To promote the film’s release, MGM created a showpiece that allowed local TV reporters to “ask” Rose questions, which she answered on film. The questions are no longer available, but the answers remain: “We try to bring out the very best [of the actors’ attributes] … Eleonore Parker has the most beautiful shoulders in Hollywood, so we put her in gowns that will show off this beauty. Elizabeth Taylor has an unusually tiny waist, and we point this up wherever possible. It isn’t a question of covering up a defect, but rather bringing out the very best.”
Rose also says that, after filming, costumes were then put on display in department stores and theater lobbies; worn by stars on personal appearances, and sometimes put in stock to be used by secondary players: “On rare occasions, the stars have been gifted with their clothes. We avoid this as much as possible as there are so many uses to which the clothes can be put.”
In a year when “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Sayonara” dominated the Academy Awards, it is unbelievable “Designing Woman” won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Yes – its script and humor is more dated than other classic offerings. But for those who love Bacall, Peck, and Gray as well the other filmmakers involved, it’s a fun outing.
- Kay Reynolds