Sunday, February 12, 2017

Designing Woman: Helen Rose

Designing Woman (1957), directed by Vincente Minelli with cinematography by John Alton, written by George Wells from an idea by Helen Rose.

Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall in Designing Woman

Some films are memorable because of an excellent script, great performances, notable direction. Others are memorable because they seem to perfectly epitomize an era's view of itself.

Designing Woman is the second sort of film. The sets, clothes, hairstyles and lifestyles depict a certain ideal of late-50s luxe. If no one actually lived this way, the clothes, the apartments, the offices, the alcohol and the cigarettes are clearly presented as models for aspiration: this is what it meant to be an adult. Within a few years, of course—less than a decade—those models would change profoundly.

In the world of Designing Woman, apartments are tastefully beige and men wear charcoal-gray suits with narrow lapels, pocket squares and slim ties. The art is semi-abstract, the clocks are ornate, and there's a stiff scotch ready to be quaffed:

This is also a New York populated almost entirely by white people, with the exception of a waitress who does not speak and is ignored by those she serves:

Everyone smokes, everywhere:

This movie was made when Bacall's husband, Humphrey Bogart, was dying of cancer, and she's hardly ever on camera without a cigarette. Not to mention that there's always a drink handy:

(In the uncropped version of this still there are more bottles than people in the frame.)

You might recognize the man on the right in those last two images. Yes, it's Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) from Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), and it's never a good sign when he pours you a drink—it means he wants something from you.

Speaking of Vertigo, I wonder whether Hitchcock saw Designing Woman and asked Edith Head to model the elegant gray suits worn by Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) on the one worn by fashion designer Marilla Brown (Bacall, with the inevitable cigarette):

In Designing Woman Helmore plays Zachary Wilde, Broadway producer, who wants Marilla to design the costumes for his new show featuring Lori Shannon (real-life Broadway star Dolores Gray). But Marilla has just gotten married to sportswriter Mike Hagen (Peck) after a whirlwind Palm Springs courtship. Complicating matters is that Marilla is Wilde's ex-girlfriend, and Lori (unbeknownst to Marilla) is Mike's.

Marilla soon finds herself in the company of hard-drinking, cigar-chomping newspapermen, while Mike and his poker buddies wind up in the middle of a presentation to the backers of Wilde's show. The clash between Mike and Marilla's sensibilities and social worlds is a variation on the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy classic Woman of the Year (1942), where Hepburn portrayed a journalist and Tracy a sportswriter. In that movie Hepburn attended a baseball game in an outfit more suited to a garden party; in this one Bacall goes to a prizefight in mink:

Mike has been writing a series of articles on corrupt boxing promoter Martin Daylor (Edward Platt). Hot news: who would have guessed that there was criminal involvement in boxing?

Daylor and his gang in their lair:

If you've watched as many TV reruns as I have, you may recognize a number of the supporting actors from their later roles:
  • Chuck Connors (sniffing the fruit: Lucas McCain in The Rifleman)
  • Edward Platt (seated on the couch: the Chief in Get Smart)
  • Sid Melton (far right: Make Room for Daddy, Green Acres and The Golden Girls, among many others)
Not to mention frequent appearances by Jessie White, later the Maytag Repairman:

Daylor's gang threatens Mike, who is eventually sent to a hotel under a false name by his fast-talking editor (Sam Levene) so he can continue his exposé. Daylor decides that the only way to flush Mike out of hiding is to kidnap Marilla, just as opening night for Wilde's show approaches...

But the plot is entirely secondary to the production design, and especially the women's clothes, which were designed by Helen Rose.

Oh, for the days when airplane travel was chic, and gloves, a mink stole and a hat were de rigueur:

Back home in New York, Marilla apparently goes to bed in full makeup:

Backstage at the theater, a working woman needs simple, casual outfits:

(Note the casual string of pearls.)

One expects of showpeople, of course, a certain flamboyance:

Dolores Gray as Lori Shannon

The dress designs often emphasize shoulders and backs:

What's a movie about a clothing designer without a fashion show? In, of course, a beige salon:

Helen Rose wasn't a costume designer I previously knew. If asked to name a designer from Hollywood's pre-1960 era I would have said Edith Head, Adrian, Irene, or maybe Orry-Kelly.* In fact, until I saw Designing Woman (1957), I wasn't aware that I had seen any of Rose's films.

But it turns out that she designed for dozens of movies, primarily for MGM in the 1940s and 50s, including On The Town, It's Always Fair Weather, High Society, and Silk Stockings. Designing Woman, though, is probably her greatest showcase. Ignore the plot, but enjoy the almost anthropological perspective on late-50s style, and especially the gowns by Helen Rose.

* Just a few of the films they designed:
  • Edith Head: The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, and Hitchcock's Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Birds
  • Adrian: Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, The Merry Widow, The Wizard of Oz, The Philadelphia Story, Pride and Prejudice
  • Irene: Shall We Dance, Intermezzo, You Were Never Lovelier, Meet Me in St. Louis, Lady in the Lake, Easter Parade, The Pirate
  • Orry-Kelly: Female, Baby Face, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Now, Voyager, One Touch of Venus, An American In Paris


  1. P. this review cracked me up. I think I might check this film out for the fluff and the era's sort of fantastical mirror of itself.

    1. Miranda, Designing Woman is pretty enjoyable as a glossy portrayal of a 1950s ideal. But if the manifest content of this dream is pure fluff, the latent content is quite a bit grittier.

      There's all the drinking and smoking, of course; the Surgeon General's report on smoking and health would be released just seven years later. The cartoonish bad guys are an echo of the early-50s Kefauver Hearings on organized crime and its control of gambling. There's an odd subplot in which the choreographer of Wilde's Broadway show displays pictures of his wife and kids to prove that he's straight, and at the climax of the film single-handedly beats up the gang—a protest-too-much reverberation of the Lavender Scare witchhunts set off by President Eisenhower's 1953 executive order banning government employment for gays and lesbians. And finally there's the participation of Lauren Bacall and Vincente Minnelli, prominent members of the Committee for the First Amendment, which opposed HUAC; at the time Designing Woman was filmed the Hollywood blacklist was still in effect.

      So enjoy the fluff, but watch out for the sharp bits of reality poking through.