Warner Archive Blu-Ray Review: Vincente Minnelli’s ‘Designing Woman’ with Gregory Peck & Lauren Bacall

The people at the controls of the Warner Archive Collection are an eccentric bunch, a fact made clear by their strange choices for Blu-ray releases, especially when it comes to cherry-picking from Vincente Minnelli‘s incredible career. They released Brigadoon, Kismet, Two Weeks In Another Town and Bells Are Ringing, but we still don’t have classics like The Clock, The Bad and The Beautiful, Some Came Running or Cabin in the Sky in high definition.

designing woman blu

One oddball pick I’m happy about though is Designing Woman, Minnelli’s 1957 throwback screwball comedy. Although an Oscar-winner for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay thanks to George Wells’ witty writing, Designing Woman is not exactly as well-known a film as it should be.

The concept for Designing Woman reportedly originated from two-time Oscar-winning costume designer Helen Rose and features the typical screwball set-up where two characters who have nothing in common fall in love. They each find out their secrets, try to keep up appearances and hilarity ensues before the pieces finally come together in the end and they realize they were meant to be together. It’s a common plot trajectory in even the best Hollywood romantic comedies, but the way Designing Woman goes about it is what makes it unique.

Gregory Peck stars as sports writer Mike Hagen, and Lauren Bacall is fashion designer Marilla Brown. The two fall head-over-heels in love for each other in California and get hitched. When they arrive home in New York, they realize they come from two different corners of society. These worlds collide, and the two discover each of them had suitors from their spheres (Dolores Gray and Tom Helmore). Throughout the course of the two-hour film, there are countless impediments and difficult situations that include mobsters, interrupted poker games, bizarre in-home rehearsals and more to get in the way of love.

Wells crafted a unique way of telling the story, beginning with four of the main characters (and a minor player) breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience. While the film does not really keep up this set-up as it moves along, it familiarizes us with the characters from the get-go. We instantly know who everyone is, their personalities and how they will fit into the story. It sets the tone for the film immediately, introducing us to a brand of humor that does not rely on one-liners. The writer put the characters in situations that are funny to the audience because we know who they are and how uncomfortable they feel. Just seeing Mike sitting at a fashion show is funny because we know he doesn’t belong there, in the same way that Marilla watching a boxing match is funny.

Designing Woman also works thanks to the chemistry between Peck and Bacall. Neither of them were supposed to be in this film at first – one idea had Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly – but it’s impossible to see how anyone else could play these characters. Peck and Bacall are perfect, and it’s remarkable how easy comedy comes to Peck. After years of being stuck in overly serious films at 20th Century Fox for more than a decade, here he finally gets to let loose. (Coincidentally, he also played a cynical journalist in his only other great comedy, Roman Holiday!) Unfortunately, this turned out to be the only film Peck made with Bacall until 1993, when they appeared in Arthur Penn’s made-for-TV movie The Portrait.

Now, Designing Woman is not completely perfect. There’s a scene that’s a little uncomfortable today, where Mike reveals himself to be homophobic. It also drags its heels a little bit, stretching out to two hours. Minnelli also figured out a way to shoehorn in at least one musical number, giving the always underrated Dolores Gray the spotlight.

The Blu-Ray

WAC is really the best at what they do. Outside of Criterion, no one is releasing catalog Blu-rays that look this good. Designing Woman is another fine example of the restoration work Warner Archive does. The movie is brought back to life without damage, but it still feels like you are watching a high-quality print. This makes up for the film’s lack of extra material, as there are only two bonus features.

  • Helen Rose – This is a five-minute interview with Rose that provides a look into the costume design process in the Hollywood studio system. Unfortunately, it is one of those interviews recorded for local television stations across the country, where a subject would sit in silence for few moments while an anchor would ask a scripted question.
  • Trailer – Like many trailers for Classic Hollywood movies, I would not recommend watching this before seeing the movie. If you get angry about spoilers in today’s trailers, your head would explode after seeing the trailer for Designing Woman.

Whatever flaws you might find in this film feels like unnecessary nitpicking though when you realize how enjoyable everything else going on in this film is, from the gorgeous costume designs by Rose to the cinematography by the unbelievably versatile John Alton.

It’s a breezy romantic comedy, the kind Hollywood genuinely has no idea how to make anymore. Yes, independent filmmakers and even Hollywood studios still turn out good movies, but no one is making anything like Designing Woman today. Perhaps that’s for the best because no one living today could make one as well as Vincente Minnelli.

Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this disc to review!

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