Thursday, May 17, 2012

DESIGNING WOMAN | 1957 | Good Pedigree, Lame Progeny

DESIGNING WOMAN is a heartbreaking movie.  Not because it expertly relays a tale of tragedy, but because it's so close to being good, but is actually pretty bad. Like WITHOUT LOVE, it has so many things going for it and yet it fails at most everything.

As a matter of principle, I'm not big on remakes, but when I see films like this, I want to remake them.  Watching so much time, energy and talent wasted on something that came so close, but fell so short is so painful, that I feel compelled to do something, anything, to make it stop.  I can't remove this blemish from the filmographies of Peck, Bacall, Minnelli et. al., and so I start daydreaming, wondering if what should have been then, could actually be now, or ever.

Initially, I thought it was my fondness for Atticus Finch that made me think that DESIGNING WOMAN had the potential to be anything more than it ended up being. But then I saw that this film won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. I could be wrong, but that makes me feel like even the Academy was saying that this film had started with something really worthwhile. It could have been so much better.  So easily. And it wouldn't have meant more time, more money, or anything of the sort.  Just a few nudges in different directions, here and there.

I frequently see this film listed as a Screwball Comedy, and according to my current working definition of screwball (which is pretty much just a simplified version of Wes D. Gehring's definition of screwball), it does kind of fit the bill.  There's a comic anti-hero, a bit of class conflict (sort of), it takes place in an urban setting, and there's a mixture of high and low brow comedy.

Gregory Peck's character is definitely not a classically heroic character, and yet given who he is, he does some heroic things to keep Lauren Bacall.  However, the film doesn't establish a solid case that these two need to be together, and it relies too much on the genre and the assumption that audience will root for them because they're supposed to...  because they're the leads.  I'm pretty sure that's not what Lubitsch was talking about when he said the audience should be allowed to add up "two plus two".

Their pairing isn't about upper crust meets Forgotten Man.  These two are class adjacent, with similar incomes and careers that aren't too different - she's a fashion designer and he's a journalist.  Yet, there's still plenty of room for class conflict, because the values and priorities of these two worlds are so different that they could keep these two apart.  But not enough is made of it.  The conflict between their two worlds is not actually tethered to anything tangible.  It's all done with shallow gestures.  The characters appear so superficial that you wonder why they don't just call it a day and let their social differences separate them.

Comedy-wise, there's actually some worthwhile material in here, both high- and low-brow, but the execution ruins it. Each joke is given so much space that it feels like there are giant arrows on the screen saying, "Look at us being so smart & funny!" and/or "Look at us being so everyman & funny!" - Laugh stupid audience, laugh!  
Although DESIGNING WOMAN utilizes many of the elements found in Classic Screwball, and even though it seems to be trying to tell the story in that sharp and witty tradition, it is less like a solid descendant of that line, and more like a Grandparent of generic rom-coms to come (see:  SOMETHING BORROWED, 27 DRESSES, and the like).  It's like a Barrymore married a Hilton and produced a Heigl.

All of that said, even the most disappointing experiences have something of value.  Sometimes its best to search for the good things and let go of everything else.  I'm pretty sure I won't think of this film again, but if our paths cross in the future, I'll be nothing but gracious and friendly, because all I'll remember is this...

Released: 1957
Director:  Vincente Minnelli

Leads: Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall, Dolores Gray
Writer: George Wells (Oscar Win, Best Original Screenplay)
Genre: Romantic Comedy (of the worst sort)

Plot summary and reviews of DESIGNING WOMAN @ Rotten Tomatoes