Designing Woman (1957)

At the time I got married I was working on a freelance project. The project was nearly complete, but I needed to let my client know some last details. In the course of our meeting, I mentioned that I wouldn’t be available for the next month, because I was getting married and would be away. “How long have you known your husband-to-be?” the client asked after he’d congratulated me. When I mentioned three years, he grinned. “Good,” he said. “I went to a wedding the other day, where the couple had known each other three days.”

We had a laugh over that, and wondered how long that marriage would last. I was reminded, too, of the old adage about marrying in haste and repenting at leisure.

But, really, what risks do you run if you marry someone in the heat of the moment, without really knowing that much about them? What if you later find that you share very little in common? Or, worse, that there are downright scary people in your spouse’s life?

Designing Woman begins with one of those whirlwind romances that aren’t completely unknown in Hollywood. Michael ‘Mike’ Hagen (Gregory Peck) is a sports reporter who goes to a big convention in California, where he meets up with various old friends and happens to win $1200. That win, what with Mike being surrounded by friends, must be celebrated—by buying drinks for all of them. Not one round each, not two rounds each, but many more.

The next morning, a badly hungover Mike wakes up, totters down to the poolside, and is accosted by Marilla Brown (Lauren Bacall), a total stranger as far as Mike is concerned. But Marilla, who does not seem to realize (or not at first) just how hungover Mike is, keeps talking, and it turns out that they got to know each other the previous night. And that Mike gave her $700—which he now insists she keep.

Mike obviously thinks Marilla is a woman who expects payment for services rendered (what services she rendered he has no recollection of, but he assumes she did). Marilla, equally obviously, doesn’t want the money.

There’s a misunderstanding here, but Mike can’t see it, and makes his escape. He’s also got a sneaking suspicion that he failed to send in his copy to the newspaper he works for. If that’s what happened, he can kiss his job goodbye. He phones his boss in New York, and to his surprise, discovers that he did file his report.

The boss, Ned Hammerstein (Sam Levene) is busy trying to tell Mike something about the dangerous Mart Daylor, whose criminal activities in the world of prizefighting are being investigated by Mike. But Mike is too busy being relieved—and too busy wondering how he wrote his report, given the condition he was in.

Mike goes back out, and some talking later, discovers that it was Marilla who helped him write that copy; that journalistic assistance was what he paid her for. By profession, though, Marilla’s a fashion designer. They get chatting, Mike invites her out…

… and by the time the two of them catch the flight back to New York City from California, it’s as Mr and Mrs Hagen. Mike and Marilla are very much in love, and Marilla—who candidly admits that she overeats when she’s in love—is stuffing herself silly even as the plane comes in to land.

But culture shock hits as soon as Marilla enters her new husband’s apartment. This is the stereotypical bachelor pad: messy as hell, with books, newspapers, liquor bottles and other junk all over the place. Marilla, in a voiceover (all the main characters get occasional voiceovers to air their views) talks of how Mike’s home reminds her of her little brother’s shoebox, in which he kept odds and ends.

Fortunately for Marilla, she doesn’t notice—or not right then—a photograph of a seductively poised woman, which holds pride of place on a shelf in Mike’s drawing room. Mike, fortunately for him, spots the photo. While his wife is looking about, aghast, at the rest of the apartment, Mike whips the incriminating photo out of its frame, tears it to bits, and shoves the bits into his pocket.

Mike, however, hasn’t been careful enough. Some pieces of the photograph—showing part of the woman’s face, and her legs—get left behind and are picked up by an eagle-eyed Marilla. She’s suspicious, but brushes it away for the time being, the more immediate problem being to move to her own apartment, and to get back to work.

Meanwhile, Mike drops in at his office, where he’s given a rousing welcome and many cheers. A gruff and somewhat disgruntled-looking Ned Hammerstein hands over a silver tea service as a wedding present: it’s courtesy Mrs Hammerstein, and since Ned hasn’t the time or energy to gift-wrap it, he tells Mike to do that himself. Which Mike proceeds to do, using newspaper (naturally) while a colleague mentions the many phone calls that came for Mike while he was away in California: dozens from Mart Daylor, one from Lori Shannon.

Lori Shannon. Yes, that’s whom Mike must phone and meet as soon as possible, because this woman (Dolores Gray) is the theatre actress who is now Mike’s ex-girlfriend. He therefore phones her and they arrange to meet at their favourite Italian restaurant—and there, Mike hems and haws so much that Lori figures it all out for herself. She tells him she understands completely that he met and married the perfect woman, and it doesn’t matter. Then (in Lori’s words in the voiceover), she made a mistake: she asked him what his wife was like.

At this, Mike launched into such a long and starry-eyed ode to Marilla that even kind and understanding Lori couldn’t stand it any longer and tipped Mike’s plate of ravioli into his lap, before getting up and leaving.

Fortunately for Mike, since he’s such a regular at the restaurant and the staff knows him so well, his frantic plea for a pair of replacement trousers is attended to. Before the trousers (borrowed from one of the waiters—a man much shorter than Mike) can be brought to him, however, guess who turns up at the restaurant?

Marilla is pleasantly surprised to find Mike lunching here, and less pleasantly surprised to see what’s in his lap. He wriggles out of mentioning Lori but Marilla is intelligent enough—and already suspicious enough—to make an educated guess at who’s responsible for the lapful of ravioli. She lets it pass, though, and they go home to Marilla’s apartment…

This, as an awestruck (and fairly intimidated) Mike describes it, is ‘chic’. A little too chic for his liking, as Marilla is able to gauge, even though he does not say so. The housekeeper looks in and is handed the silver tea service—their first wedding present! But no, corrects the housekeeper: there’s another gift that arrived before this. The new coffee table, sent by Zachary Wilde. Marilla has a look at the attached card, and smiles fondly. Oh, dear Zachary.

Mike is immediately suspicious, and jealous. Who is this Zachary Wilde? A theatrical producer, explains Marilla, who’s been wanting to marry her for a long time now. She’s been rejecting him all this while. Marilla obviously sees no reason to hide the truth from her husband, but Mike is not inclined to let her past be. He vows that if he comes up against this Zachary Wilde character, he’s going to give him one on the snooter.

Within the next couple of minutes, Mike finds himself meeting pretty much all of Marilla’s friends—and completely at sea. These are people from the world of arts: actors, playwrights, dancers, theatre directors and whatnot, and each of them is more noisy than the other. They chatter nineteen to the dozen, and barely notice Mike, who’s feeling awkward in those too-short borrowed trousers.

In fact, they’re so absorbed in themselves, they don’t even notice Mike slip away to change into something more presentable. But when he’s back, Mike manages to make friends with one man (Tom Helmore) who comes across as much more ‘normal’ than the others: calm, sensible, definitely not neurotic. They get chatting, and it’s only after a good while that the man introduces himself. Zachary Wilde.

Ah, well.

That party, as far as Mike is concerned, is a washout. Marilla realizes it too, and suggests they host some of Mike’s friends one day. Oh, yes. They’ll be coming. There’s a bunch who meet once a week for a poker, and the coming week, it’s Mike’s turn to host.

Only, as it happens, that’s also the day Marilla’s crowd will be coming over for a play reading.

What happens at that combined poker game/play reading, held in adjacent rooms separated by a thin set of screens, is a good insight into just what different worlds Mike and Marilla inhabit.

And things are only going to get worse, especially when Lori Shannon is taken on as the leading lady for a play Zachary Wilde is producing—for which the costumes are being designed by Marilla. As if that wasn’t enough trouble for Mike (who’s terrified that Marilla will find out that he and Lori were once an item), the nasty Mart Daylor chooses this moment to crop up and give Mike an ultimatum: lay off the exposés, or die.

Mike, however, is no coward. As he tells his boss, Ned Hammerstein, he needs only a couple of weeks—three at the most—to get all the information and the evidence he needs to land Daylor in prison. There’s only one solution then, as Hammerstein sees it: Mike needs to lie low. Shack up in a hotel, pretend to be on tour, and get together all the dope on Daylor.

Hammerstein even makes sure Mike gets a bodyguard: Maxie Stultz (Mickey Shaughnessy), a boxer who’s down on his luck. Maxie’s good with his fists, but you have to speak very slow, and in single syllable words, to get any message across.

What a honeymoon Mike and Marilla are having.

What I liked about this film:

A lot. The story is fun, and the tangles and complications that ensue almost as soon as Marilla and Mike come back to New York City as a married couple are pretty funny, especially when Mart Daylor and his henchmen enter the ring. Each individual spouse’s ‘fish-out-of-water’ behaviour in the other’s milieu is hilarious, and both Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall—whom I’ve always thought of as being fine actors—show how good they were as comedians too. The dialogues are good, and the situations funny.

One other aspect of Designing Woman that appealed to me was the technique of giving some of the major characters voiceovers: Marilla, Mike, Lori, Zachary, and Maxie all get voiceovers here and there during the course of the film, structured in a way that makes them part narrators of the story. These little snippets—of what’s going through these people’s minds—are mostly delightfully funny too.

What I didn’t like:

Nothing, outright, that I didn’t like, but yes, I did wish there had been some more complications with Mart Daylor and his gang before the climax. I thought there was scope there, with the elegant Marilla on the one hand, and Mart Daylor on the other, to keep Mike on his toes a little longer.

But, all said and done, a good, solid screwball rom-com. If you haven’t seen this one, do put it on your list.  It can be found online on Dailymotion, in two parts: part 1 is here, and part 2 is here.

22 thoughts on “Designing Woman (1957)

  1. Good Afternoon Madhuji,

    Good narration with a very pleasant photo composition.
    The sight of Late Mr. Gregory Peck, reminded me of his very famous and popular movie ‘Roman Holiday’ with the most beautiful and cherubic Audrey Hepburn, who looks terribly beautiful in her hairstyle as a common lady.

    Thank you very much for presenting these very interesting and lovely movies.

    Blessings
    Uma

    • Thank you so much, Umaji. And an especially heartfelt thanks for being so supportive – you are often the first one to comment even on posts that other people don’t read. It’s very encouraging, and I’m very, very grateful. Thank you.

      • Good Evening Madhuji,

        You do definitely deserve all our appreciation and admiration, for this most valuable service you are doing.

        I read almost every article you post. They not only share knowledge but also the references to extract more details to enjoy.

        Most of them, take us back to those good old sweet days, to enjoy our wonderful and beautiful, childhood and youthful days, once again..

        In fact we are all grateful to you for posting and presenting these golden leaflets to us.

        Divine blessings shower on you and your family, added with my blessings.
        Very sincerely- Uma

  2. Oooh, I haven’t even heard of this film! And both Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall are particular favourites. Have bookmarked the links you so kindly provided; now, I just need to find the time to watch it!

  3. Dear Madhulika,

    On the first reading of your write-up, one felt so satiated that there was no need to see the Film – so vivid was your description. But then Gregory Peck is Gregory Peck and like Anu, I am going to watch the Full film, maybe coming Sunday. Saw a few of the clips on YouTube though and was horrified to note that back in those days, they served you meals on pillows – no trays at the back of the seat.

    If you look closely, in the Breakfast scene, the couple appears to be seated in the front row, hence the pillows, perhaps. But in the next scene, when the Lady goes to change her clothes, they are shown seated in a different row.

    The Director was VINCENT MINNELLI, husband of Judy Garland and father to actress LIZA MINNELLI. And he had won the Oscar for Directing “GIGI”.

    It was funny to note that every time Bacall wanted to ask a question, Peck sealed her lips with a kiss – good strategy!

    Thanks for the beautiful write-up and those links. Hope you do MILLION POUND NOTE SOMEDAY.

    With warm regards

    PARTHA CHANDA

    • Thank you so much! Yes, I was stunned to see them eating with pillows to support the trays – that was really something I hadn’t expected. I don’t recall having noticed that in any other films of that era that I’ve seen, though. I suppose you’re right about that happening because they’re seated in the first row.

      I must watch The Million Pound Note again someday. It’s been so many years since I’ve watched it, I’ve pretty much forgotten all of it except the basic premise. But I do remember it as being a very enjoyable film.

  4. Thanks for a great review, Madhu! I don’t know how I missed watching this movie, considering it has Gregory Peck in it, but watch it I will, as soon as I find the time! I was just thinking that a whirlwind marriage is not so different from an arranged marriage, seeing that neither one of us knew much about the other when we got married. We had known each other for less than a month, met three times and spoke on the phone a few times. Life was and is full of surprises, even now!

    • That’s a sweet comment! Yes, I suppose the idea of really getting to know your spouse well only after you’ve actually gotten married to them is a similarity between a whirlwind romance like this and an arranged marriage (which was also the case with my parents). Though I do recall attending a wedding where the bride had never seen her groom before they got married; she was in tears at her wedding because she had absolutely no idea what to expect. They ended up seeming to be very happy when we met them a couple of months down the line, but I think that would not be a situation I would want to find myself in!

  5. I saw this a few years back, but it didn’t make much of an impression. It was pleasant enough. I do recall that the clothes were brilliant. If I remember correctly Lauren wears a blouse with huuuuge transparent sleeves in one scene that I still think about every now and again because it was so perfect.

  6. For fashion, Charade is the ultimate, though Bacall is a pretty good second. i remember having seen this film years ago, must dust it off and watch again

  7. Good Evening Madhuji,

    Wishing you and your family,
    A Very Happy & Safe Deepavali

    I pray and wish
    Mata Mahalakshmi shower her blessings on you and your family with lots of Happiness, prosperity, health, wealth, wisdom, joy, cheers, safe and peaceful long life added with my blessings.
    Regards
    Uma

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