Design for Living
The Criterion Collection
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Gary Cooper (High Noon), Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives), and Miriam Hopkins (Trouble in Paradise) play a trio of Americans in Paris who enter into a very adult “gentleman’s” agreement, in this continental pre-Code comedy freely adapted by Ben Hecht (Notorious) from a play by Noël Coward (Brief Encounter), and directed by Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise). A risqué relationship comedy and a witty take on creative pursuits, it concerns a commercial artist (Hopkins) unable—or unwilling—to choose between the equally dashing painter (Cooper) and playwright (March) she meets on a train en route to the City of Light. Design for Living is Lubitsch at his most adroit, an entertainment at once debonair and racy, featuring three stars at the height of their allure.
The Clerk, starring Charles Laughton
Selected-scene commentary by film professor William Paul
Play of the Week: A Choice of Coward, a 1964 British television production
New interview with Joseph McBride on Lubitsch
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Kim Morgan
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Based on the Broadway hit by legendary playwright Noël Coward, Design for Living is an excellent Pre-Code comedy from the always daring Paramount Pictures. Directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, the film provides us with a refreshing look at the way American films were made before being heavily censored by the enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934. With the help of a risqué script from Hollywood veteran Ben Hecht, the director adds his famous "Lubitsch touch" to give us a very witty and fluid movie starring three of the biggest stars of the period. Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins have great chemistry together and really help to convey the message of the filmmakers - you only live once so do what makes you happy, regardless of how others view you.
In its day, Design for Living was very controversial for two reasons. The first and most obvious reason being the very risqué plot involving a ménage-à-trois relationship between three young Americans living in Paris. This film really took a jab at the morals and virtues that certain groups, namely the Legion of Decency, were trying to infuse back into American cinema. The second reason is that many people, including Noël Coward, were upset that screenwriter Ben Hecht retained only one line from the original play. Whether true or false, it's believed he did this in part to remove the homosexual context present in Coward's play, fearing that this even more controversial subject of the day would inevitably lead to the film being heavily censored, if it was ever played at all.
As always, I will provide only a brief description of the plot itself, as I don't want to ruin the movie for someone who hasn't seen it. The film opens as two friends, playwright Tom (March) and artist George (Cooper), are traveling by train to Paris. While sleeping, they are joined in their compartment by a beautiful young stranger, Gilda (Hopkins). Gilda, who is an artist herself, commences to draw a humorously accurate caricature of the sleeping pair, both of whom are snoring with their mouths wide open and feet propped up. The drawing ends up being the icebreaker for the trio, and after some initial criticisms, they quickly become friends. From here two major problems arise. First, Gilda has a wealthy suitor named Max (played by the wonderful Edward Everett Horton) who has been courting her for five years. Secondly, both Tom and George fall in love with Gilda while being totally unaware of each other's feelings for her. One fateful day, immediately after the friends find out they're in love with the same woman, Gilda phones to say she's coming over. After her arrival, Gilda confesses that she loves both men equally, therefore she can't decide between them. Being the crafty woman she is, Gilda proposes an arrangement to the two unsuspecting men - a "gentleman's" agreement allowing her to be with both of them. After a discussion, the newly formed group decides on one major clause in the agreement, no sex. Obviously this arrangement has the potential for causing some major problems, and well... it does. Everything I just revealed to you happens very early in the movie so there are many things left unspoiled. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have over the years.
As I stated earlier, Design for Living did not sit very well with many people upon its initial release. On this note, I feel like I should clarify something. Just because something was controversial 80 years ago does not mean it will shock audiences today. This movie is fairly tame by today's standards, but in 1933 Hollywood its subject matter was eye-opening, very much so to film censorship advocates. Design for Living, along with Barbara Stanwyck's Baby Face, were two of the final straws that led to the Hays Code being actively enforced in 1934, severely limiting the content of American films until the late 1960's. After the code was enforced, Design for Living was banned by the Legion of Decency and denied a Production Code Administration certification, leading to the film being shelved and almost forgotten for several decades.
**Special Features and Technical Aspects - As Listed by Criterion**
-New high-definition digital restoration (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
-"The Clerk," starring Charles Laughton, director Ernst Lubitsch's segment of the 1932 omnibus film If I Had a Million
-Selected-scene commentary by film scholar William Paul
-British television production of the play Design for Living from 1964, introduced on camera by playwright Noël Coward
-New interview with film scholar and screenwriter Joseph McBride on Lubitsch and screenwriter Ben Hecht's adaptation of the Coward play
-PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Kim Morgan
Black and White
To truly appreciate DESIGN FOR LIVING, you have to put away your modern sensibilities and step back into the early 1930's. Tame but today's standards, DESIGN FOR LIVING must have shocked more than a handful of people in 1933. This was pre-Hays code Hollywood when a few liberties could still be taken in a story about two men in love with the same woman.
Gilda Farrell, played by Miriam Hopkins, is a pretty and progressive young career woman. She's as far from the typical 1930's American girl as she can be. The film is set in Paris, where life was even more open. Gilda has lived and morals and rules are for other people. She meets Tom Chambers, a struggling playwright, played by Frederic March and George Curtis, a starving artist, portrayed by a young and dashing Gary Cooper. Tom and George share a crumbling apartment and both struggle to find fame.
Worlds collide when Tom and George realize they both are in love with Gilda and both have "made love" to Gilda. The word "sex" and "making love" are actually used in a 1930's film. How shocking! Gilda loves them both and the only option is for the men to come to a "gentlemen's aggreement" regarding her. Everything will be strictly platonic as the three share the apartment and Gilda works her magic to advance Tom and George's careers. Needless to say, things are never that simple and here is the fun of the story.
Of course, it doesn't seem so shocking by our standards to have two single men living with a woman nor is it unusual to have a young lady be a free spirit in all senses of the word. It seems somewhat innocent in today's Hollywood but the film must have caused a stir in 1933 with Miriam Hopkins showing her legs and with her plunging neckline. Of course, her "come hither" look and "damsel in distress" personality only add to the charm.
I watched the CRITERION version. Of course, CRITERION never disappoints and is worth the extra cost. The film looks clean and crisp like it must have been at its premiere.
There is such a charm in old films. Hang a sign written in French, get a couple of French speaking actors as extras and show a quick generic establishing shot of the Eiffel Tower and you're in Paris without ever having to leave a Hollywood soundstage.
Also starring is character actor Edward Everett Horton as Max Plunkett. It's clear Max is in love with Miriam but she only allows him to be her friend and protector - well, until much later. I always remember Horton as an older actor in the 1950's. His distinctive voice always stands out. He must have been in his late 40's in DESIGN FOR LIVING. There is a scene where he is sitting in a theater and he looks heavily made-up. He looks like a silent screens star with the thick make-up. It made me wonder why this was done. Both Cooper and March look "natural" in the film. Of course, Hopkins is "dolled up" in true 1930's fashion.
As for the movie losing steam, it's a fun and light-hearted film until Gilda decides she was to be a responsible and respectable woman. You have to see what happens next.
It's fun to step back in time to another era and imagine how audiences would have reacted to this film. Watching a trio of three actors who had big careers ahead of them in early roles has a nostalgic film. Gary Cooper will always be ruggedly handsome. Miriam Hopkins will always be frozen in time with her 1930's clothes and hair. Forget the modern day and step back in time and enjoy a forgotten gem.