Design for Living, 1933, Paramount Pictures. Starring Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 91 minutes.
Longtime friends fall for the same lady, who perhaps is less of a lady than one would expect. She can’t decide between the two men, and the way she handles them — toys with them, really — pushes them to the edge.
Playwright Tom (Fredric March) and artist George (Gary Cooper) meet the lovely Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a commercial artist who flirts with them both on a train to Paris. They quickly become involved in a messy triangle, in which Gilda seems to hold the power. Add to this mix Gilda’s boss, Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), who has remained devoted to her for years despite her rejection of his advances.
After a period of frustration and fury, Tom, George and Gilda form a “gentleman’s agreement” in which they will partner together platonically, with Gilda promising to raise their respective work to greater heights. She is initially successful with Tom’s latest play, which becomes immensely popular in London.
But none of the three are happy with this arrangement, and Gilda, ever in control, makes a series of decisions until they reach an agreement all can live with.
This is a blatantly sexual film that pushes the edge of accepted norms in the relationships between men and women. It is pre-code, and was part of the reason strict and proper rules soon controlled the film industry.
It also is witty and sly, taking full advantage of the talents and appeal of its three stars. Not to be forgotten is Horton, who plays a more sophisticated version of the befuddled characters he became known for in his career.
Loosely based on the play of the same name by Noël Coward, the film’s script, adapted by Ben Hecht and Lubitsch, bears little resemblance to the original. Coward was deeply disappointed in the adaptation and made his feelings known, to which Lubitsch replied, “I offer no apologies to Coward, who knows very well that no picture lives up to the play if filmed word for word.” To be fair, it can hardly be said the film used any lines from the play word for word.
The risqué nature of the film proved problematic for release overseas. Joseph Goebbels, head of Germany’s Reich Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, banned Design for Living for release in Germany, saying “The film is not acceptable for new Germany because of the irony with which the establishment of marriage is treated.”
Design for Living is a charming surprise to those accustomed to much more staid fare from classic films. Its sexual storyline is neither muted nor subtle, and Hecht and Lubitsch were masters of the racy yet sophisticated dialogue found here. It is a film worth seeing, if for no other reason than to dispel the myth that sex onscreen was invented after 1959.