Sunday, February 4, 2007

DESIGNING WOMAN (MGM 1957) Warner Home Video

Vincent Minnelli tries to evoke the sassy screwball in Designing Woman (1957); an homage to romantic comedies of the 1930s updated for the more 'progressive' 1950s. It's a rather awkward fit, and Minnelli has one hell of an uphill climb in resurrecting the era of the saucy madcap.  It isn't that the film doesn't work. It does, only in retrospect it's much more of a 50s  time capsule than a timeless bit of comedy. That said, Minnelli’s tribute is nevertheless breezy, easy on the eyes and quite often memorably delightful.

George Well's screenplay has Gregory Peck as newspaper sports columnist, Tom Hagen. While covering a boxing event in Florida, Tom meets and marries fashion designer, Marilla Brown (Lauren Bacall), then quickly realizes that his rough shod friends of boxing cronies and card sharks are an ill fit for Marilla’s more cultured and intellectual set. So, can the couple make a go of things? Well, they're damn well going to try. 

Into this strained mélange strolls Tom’s sassy old flame, Lori Shannon (Dolores Gray, in probably her best role). Assuming that Tom’s invitation to lunch means a rekindling of their past romance Lori’s unflappable sarcasm is unshaken after learning that Tom is already married. Instead, she casually dumps a large plate of spaghetti and meatballs into his lap before going off to the powder room -  charming gal!

Eventually, Marilla learns about Lori and her green-eyed monster also creeps into the equation. But the plot goes slightly awry when Tom is forced to hide out from racketeers who are none too pleased with him for outing their spurious graft in print.

Designing Woman is not a perfect comedy. Many of the humorous moments are prerequisite and forced at best. If only Wells' screenplay had remained more focused on the growing pains of the couple, we might have had a very fine romantic comedy. Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall have a genuine on screen chemistry. It's antiseptic, in that sort of 'don't kiss me in public' cleanliness that plagues many a 50s pastiche, but it could have worked if only the narrative was more interested in Tom and Marilla as people instead of archetypes. 

Unfortunately, rambling vignettes begin to crop up with alarming regularity, eliciting uncomfortable guffaws; such as when Tom suggests that Marilla’s choreographer/friend Randy Owens (Jack Cole) might be (whisper) a ‘homosexual.' More stifling is the last act, when Tom is forced to go into hiding from the mob, leaving Marilla and Lori to duke things out for themselves. 

At its worst, Designing Woman is a polite hiccup in Vincente Minnelli’s illustrious career. At its best, however, it remains a very enjoyable way to pass the time.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is satisfying. The image exhibits a very refined color palette that is bold, detailed and vibrant. Occasionally, flesh tones appear slightly pasty. Contrast levels are quite solid. The image has its share of age related artifacts, and transitional fades and/or dissolves exhibit the inherent graininess that was a general flaw in all Cinemascope films from this vintage. Still, on the whole the image will surely not disappoint. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and acoustically resilient. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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