Designing Woman (Vincente Minnelli, 1957)

DESIGNING WOMAN got good reviews and Lauren Bacall claimed it as a favourite role. When I saw it last night – and in spite of the visually gorgeous Warner Home Video version – I found it hard to understand why. It had all been done more expertly, with greater lightness and depth, in George Stevens’ WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942).It’s perhaps no accident that Bacall would be attracted to the role of Tess Harding, and have a big hit with it as a musical on Broadway in 1981.  If you can forget the controversial ending, Woman of the Year seems a masterpiece next to DESIGNING WOMEN. Bacall and Gregory Peck sink every joke here. They’re game but no cigar. No circus going on in THEIR heads when they say those lines either.

Minnelli makes everything look beautiful. Peck and Bacall ARE beautiful but…. In some ways this career woman vs sports writer offers an interesting exploration of masculinity but a tentative one that backtracks at every opportunity. Here, a choreographer played by the great Jack Cole, himself the choreographer of the film, defeats a whole mob of gangsters with dance steps…but he reassures everyone that he’s married and a father of three. And if you already haven’t gotten the message, he’s named Randy Owens. The film is an interesting commentary on appearances and very Minnellian for that but also a liminal step out of the closet that backtracks into it at the highest speed possible. The story is autobiographical and suggested by designer Helen Rose, my least favourite Hollywood designer. She has a great sense of colour but the dresses all bunch up in the most inappropriate and least flattering places. I was sorry I’d shelled out so much to get the film, however beautiful the version.

It’s perhaps a measure of the film’s limitations that it takes one cute poodle joke and doesn’t know when to stop:

José Arroyo

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