Well, hello, Ms. Bacall…
When life is in turmoil, people need release wherever they can find it, and the 1957 film, Designing Woman was one such break for Lauren Bacall. She called it “a nice, light comedy,” and though she didn’t think so initially, it was just what she needed during one of the toughest times in her life.
We see Gregory Peck as sportswriter Mike Hagan, sitting at a typewriter and breaking the fourth wall. He has a story to tell, but in the interest of being fair and balanced, he passes the baton to fashion designer Marilla (Lauren Bacall), who includes Lori Shannon (Delores Gray), who tags in Zachary Wilde (Tom Helmore), who hands it off to Maxie Stultz (Mickey Shaughnessy).
Maxie’s at a loss for words, so Mike takes up the tale again. He’s at a golf tournament mixer at the Beverly Hills Hotel, buying drinks for all the other sportswriters. The next morning, he has a mighty hangover, and after a breakfast of aspirin and water, he comes out of his room flinching at every sound. Then on the elevator, one of his colleagues mentions the story he wired to his editor. Mike suddenly wonders if he remembered to send his editor his copy, and heads over to Western Union to check. The clerk can’t tell him, so Mike goes out poolside to have a pot of coffee or seven.
Swimming in the pool is Marilla, who wants a word with Mike. In his drunken stupor, he paid her $700 because he “liked her.” Marilla just wants to give the money back, and Mike doesn’t want anything to do with it, until a phone call from his editor about his copy gives him a new lease on life. He goes back to the table where Marilla is patiently waiting, and she fills him in about last night. The two of them went up to Santa Barbara, where Marilla helped him write the story at a cafe, which he wired to his editor.
Marilla doesn’t want to take the money back, so Mike suggests they spend it. They spend a week hanging out, and at the end they get married. And it just so happens that Marilla’s from New York, so there’s that.
Mike and Marilla are both féted by their friends, and Mike’s editor gives him a silver tea set. Well, not everyone is happy. Both of them left romantic entanglements behind. Mike’s is singer Lori, who dumps a plate of ravioli in his lap. Marilla’s is Zachary, who’s a congenial sort and only slightly bothered that he’s been displaced.
Marriage, of course, means the merging of two different lives, and in Marilla and Mike’s cases, the mix is truly crazy. Mike’s apartment is the size of a shoebox, so he and Marilla move into her larger, more opulent place. Their friends could be more different, as Mike hangs around with athletes and other sportswriters, while Marilla hobnobs with fashion and theater people.
One night Mike has his buddies over for a poker game while on the other side of the pocket doors Marilla has a concept meeting for a show she’s helping costume. So while Mike and his buddies are wearing their best poker faces, someone is pounding on a conga drum and the choreographer, Randy (Jack Cole) is leaping over the furniture.
Mike’s not in jail, though, as he does come out looking for snacks. Marilla presents him with a fancy chocolate cake and a fancy terrine even though he’s hoping for bologna and cheese. Meanwhile, the theater people are still swanning around and Randy is doing his best grand jeté. It’s a setup worthy of David Lynch.
After that, life gets a wee bit tense in the Hagan household. Marilla thinks Mike is still seeing Lori on the side, and she thinks Mike is lying to her. Adding to the awkwardness is Lori being the lead in the show Marilla is costuming. I’m surprised Marilla didn’t sabotage Lori’s costumes somehow, or at least tell her off at scissor-point, but of course that isn’t professional.
Mike has an even bigger problem, though, that of preserving life and limb. A certain prestigious and corrupt boxing promoter is sore at him for exposing his indiscretions, which forces Mike to hide out in a hotel in New York while pretending to be following the Yankees. Mike’s editor hires Maxie to be Mike’s body-guard, and the code word is “cross-eyed.” Maxie holds up in the hotel room with Mike, and creepily enough, sleeps with his eyes open. Naturally, Mike can’t tell Marilla everything, and she’s not too happy about what she does know because she thinks Mike is bunking in with Lori. Yep, it’s complicated.
Now, Designing Woman might seem like a new slant on Woman of the Year, but it is and it isn’t, although both are MGM films. Unlike Tess Harding, Marilla can cook, so she’s not seen beating eggs on a serving platter while the waffle iron bulges. Marilla also can’t speak every language in the world or converse like old friends with every foreign dignitary. It’s not simply about a woman learning to relate to her husband as an equal, either. The obstacles in Designing Woman are of a different nature, what with the angry boxing promoters and all. Help for Marilla and Mike will come from the unlikeliest of sources, and it’s pretty spectacular.
Lauren Bacall accepted the part of Marilla while her husband, Humphrey Bogart was recovering from esophegal surgery. The doctors initially thought they had gotten all of the cancer, but radiation treatments were still needed. Filming started afterwards. Bacall was reluctant to leave Bogie to go to work, but he encouraged her to, and she appreciated the release. She got to laugh with Gregory Peck and have a little bit of normalcy during a time of great upheaval. Bogart brought their children to visit the set, and brought his own sailboat near to where Bacall and Peck were filming their sailboat scene. The marina shoot took weeks, and the three of them would have lunch together.
Almost as soon as filming wrapped, however, Bogart began to go downhill, dying on January 14, 1957. Designing Woman premiered on May 16th. If Bacall’s autobiography is any indicator, everything was a blur for her at the time, poor thing. I have to wonder if she looked back on Designing Woman with a melancholy feeling, as there were so many sad memories mixed with happy ones.
In spite of her personal turmoil, Bacall enjoyed making Designing Woman. At times her face does set in a stiff upper lip fashion, but she puts in a steady and delightfully elegant performance, ably matched by Gregory Peck and the rest of the cast. It’s a fun, silly movie that is a testament to Bacall’s husband’s consideration for his wife’s well-being, and Bacall’s ability to power through her difficulties. She was boosted by making it, and those who watch it can get a boost as well.
For more about Lauren Bacall, please visit Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks, Crystal, for hosting–it was a blast! Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you next week with another Origins post…
Bacall, Lauren. By Myself and Then Some. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1978, 2005.