Lauren Bacall filmed Designing Woman while Humphrey Bogart was still alive, and when they both believed he would recover from his cancer.
It’s a lighthearted comedy, likely a welcome respite from the nightmare of Bogie’s illness and death.
Bacall and Gregory Peck play an opposites-attract couple who fall in love and try to stay that way when the honeymoon is over and real life intrudes. Though not a musical, director Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris) gives the film the light and bubbly tone of one, and throws in a few choreographed numbers to boot.
In a role originally developed for Grace Kelly (“She got the prince, I got the part” Bacall quipped), she plays Marilla Brown, a fashion designer who meets sportswriter Mike Hagen while on vacation in Beverly Hills. They embark on a whirlwind romance and return to New York blissfully in love and knowing little about one another.
Mike assumes they’ll live in his cluttered shoebox bachelor pad and is stunned to learn she owns a luxurious penthouse.
Laughs ensue as they discover further differences that mark them as completely incompatible but never diminish their love.
The most memorable scene in the film is when Mike hosts his weekly poker night with his reporter friends on the same night Marilla has a group of her artistic friends over for a dramatic reading. Each is incredulous over the other’s choice of food, friends, and activities.
Further trouble ensues when Marilla meets Mike’s former lover Lori Shannon and Mike pretends not to know her. There’s no malice in Mike’s lie, he merely wishes to spare Marilla’s feelings.
There’s a mobster after Mike, a fashion show for Marilla, and Mike’s old boxer friend who sleeps with not one but two eyes open.
It’s a funny, sweet comedy that ends with a choreographed fight scene as mobsters attempt to kidnap Marilla and Mike rides to the rescue with mixed results.
By the time Designing Women was released, Bogart was gone. Numb with grief, she went on a three week publicity tour for the film just two months after his death.
In the years after Bogart’s death, Bacall floundered in both her life and career. She had a disastrous rebound relationship with Frank Sinatra, and an unsuccessful second marriage with Jason Robards that likely wouldn’t have happened at all but for her pregnancy. She lost her mother and her beloved uncle Charlie who acted as a father figure.
She fled California—her film career was all but dead, her friends had been Bogart’s friends, and Bogart was gone. She couldn’t live in that once happy house without him.
She returned home—to New York City, and the stage.
Though her film career never recovered (despite an Academy Award-nominated performance many years later in 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces), Bacall embarked on a successful decades-long career in the theater.
In was in the theater that she found happiness and satisfaction again. And success. Though the Oscar eluded her, she was perhaps more grateful to win two Best Actress Tony Awards for her work in Applause (1970) and Woman of the Year (1981).
The pity of the stage is that, unlike film, its great performances are lost to history.
Lauren Bacall died in 2014, 115 years after the day Humphrey Bogart was born. During the 115 years that one or both of them walked the earth, they shared only 13 years together.
Such a short time, but it couldn’t have been any longer. If they’d met any earlier, she’d have been too young for a romance to blossom. For Bogart, Bacall was a sweet ending—the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a man who’d been so unlucky in love.
For Bacall, Bogart was the beginning. She became a woman when she fell in love with him, and he set the standard for her love and work.
Casablanca was a wonderful romantic film, perhaps the finest ever made. But when Humphrey Bogart found his Baby two years after completing the film, they one-upped Rick and Isla.
At the end of Casablanca, Isla lets Rick talk her into leaving him so they can both do their part to help the war effort.
But Bacall would’ve let the world burn to the ground before she left her Bogie on the tarmac.
As we turn the page on one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories, I’ll give Bacall the last word. She writes in By Myself, “No one has ever written a romance better than we lived it.”
- Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. 1997.
- Bacall, Lauren. By Myself. 1978.
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