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Friday, 22 June 2018

On Blu-ray - David Hare reviews a new edition of DESIGNING WOMAN (Vincente Minnelli, 1957)

Gregory Peck (above) as the male principle, "Mike", with female exemplars Lauren Bacall, as "Mrs Marilla Brown Hagen", and the almost absurdly voluptuous Dolores Gray as the ex-girlfriend, "Lori", who incidentally is one of two semi-closeted characters in the picture. 
Then there is Lauren's marvellous standard Poodle whose name I can't recall, who is the frequent arbitrater between warring husband and wife in Minnelli's often overlooked, but unnaturally compelling Designing Woman, from 1957. 
The screens are from a terrific new Warner Archive Blu-ray. The encode for this gorgeous disc was taken, as usual with Warner Archive practice, from a graded and restored Metrocolor first gen Inter-positive to a 2K digital master for the encode. 
The picture has never looked this good, and that extends to original Metro(Eastman) screenings back in the day, when non-Technicolor prints coming out of the States to the antipodes at best had a slim chance of being at all good in quality terms. Also back, despite the original 4 track stereo tracks no longer existing is a very clean remix to DTS-HD five channel master audio which works a treat. 
The movie is compelling, partly because it belongs to a string of seemingly director guided manifestos of late 50s movies focusing on gender and gender roles. The screens here end with Minnelli granting a rare performing glimpse of the great choreographer, Jack Cole playing a small part here, more or less as himself. Cole in the screen above is hauling sportswriter Peck out of a trash can after single-footedly knocking out a small army of gangland match fixing sports mobsters with what can only be called the cinema's first big kickboxing fight. Cole does this whole sequence of mega-butch assurance in two elegant long takes with the deftest footwork this side of the beginnings of late 60s wuxia into western movie theaters
This particular fight scene is immaculately enhanced by the taste of the director and choreographer of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Is There anyone here for Love". Clearly Pre-1960 code driven is Cole's character "Randy" who is obliged to play a straight man (as Minnelli himself did so often). 
And perhaps as a distraction or even a beard for his enforced closeting, Dolores Gray (below) plays Peck's former GF as someone hidden away through shame from his new bride for reaons that frankly elude me for any coherent narrative reason. 
The business however is in the action, and the testing of stereotyped gender responses to situations like the fights, fashion shows and the great pasta eating sequence, are what drives the movie as a generic comedy. At this level the picture plays with the lightest of tones, and Bacall and Peck seem to be having a lot of fun doing the show, despite Bacall's husband's illness in real life. Bogie was then in the final stages of cancer and would die before the picture was released. But Bacall never puts a foot wrong. 
The movie was shot by MInnelli favorite, the titanic John Alton, and the new Blu-ray delivers Alton's stunning color and lighting with a real whack. Andre Previn who was by now well established in the movies took over musical direction with much of the material being transposed from the earlier Freed/Donen/Comden & Green musical, It's Always Fair Weather. Previn also worked uncredited on the earlier picture. 
The movie succeeds at a completely surface level, on its own terms as marital comedy. But I confess to having real problems with the way Minnelli takes on gender based material in movies like this, and especially the lamentable Tea and Sympathy. The latter remains to me unendurable, perhaps his outright worst. Both it and Designing Woman were compelled by the censorship regime of the day to deny the magic gay word but they make a bigger hash of things by actually drowning even a coded gay option to the point of losing the real dialogue that is going on here. 
Cukor's Pat and Mike from 1952 makes an infinitely better job of this sort of genre material on multiple fronts. The Kanin/Gordon screenplay for one, the Hepburn and Tracy chemistry, and in a smaller but significant note like Cole's in Designing Woman, the openly gay David Wayne playing Kate's best girlfriend, Kip, whom he also plays as flirtatiously but openly gay. To say nothing of Cukor's own relative uncloseted-ness with which he could build trust with his cast and writers. It would be another decade or two before the cat really clawed itself out of the bag, and the whole not insubstantial business of heterosexual relationships themselves could get a more completely honest working over, not least with some reflection of the possibility of various "other"nesses. Like Minnelli's own.

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