Design for Living

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Soon-to-be-forbidden on-screen sexual freedom, ca. 1933

Jun 15, 2006 (Updated Jun 15, 2006)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:a fast-talking Gary Cooper, pre-code freedom

Cons:lack of chemistry between Hopkins and either Cooper or March, substituting Hecht lines for Coward's

The Bottom Line: Only the characters and their situation, not the witty lines, from Noel Coward's famed play made it to the screen.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie's plot.

I've long wondered what "the Lubitch touch" was. I've enjoyed his most political satires (Ninotchka, To Be Or Not To Be), been mildly amused by others (Trouble in Paradise, Heaven Can Wait, That Uncertain Feeling, Cluny Brown), and barely amused by "The Merry Widow," "The Shop Around the Corner," and "Angel". In The Cinema of Ernst Lubitch, Leland Poague specifies "the Lubitch touch" to Lubitch's cinematic wit, gracefully charming and fluid style, and ingenious ability to suggest more than he showed and to show more than others dared suggest." I'm unsure what "cinematic wit" distinct from wit is. I would think that it should be visual, as should "fluid style," but the wit I detect in Lubitch films is mostly verbal. Neither the camerawork nor the editing strikes me as especially fluid.

"Suggestive" I see, especially in "Design for Living", a film sharing the title and character names with a popular Nol Coward play, but retaining only a single line of Coward's witty and risqu dialogue. Released at the end of 1933, only six months before the Production Code began to be enforced, "Design for Living" could not be rereleased in America thereafter, or remade: in 1950 a Production Code official decreed that the story was completely unacceptable, because it is "a gross travesty of marriage." "Gross" seems unjustified, but "travesty of marriage" is defensible, at least for the second half of the movie.

What I think is the best part is the opening scene, which is devoid of dialogue. A perky blonde (Gilda, played by Miriam Hopkins) enters a train compartment where two men (Tom played by top-billed Fredric March and George, played by rising star Gary Cooper) are lolling and snoring. She sketches them and then falls asleep herself, putting her feet up on the seat between them (as she is already between the feet of each of them).

Semi-conscious, George feels her up (up to the ankle, that is) and bolts awake when his brain decodes the signals from his fingers. After animated French dialogue (which is more amazing: French from the mouth of Gary Cooper or rapid-fire speech from Gary Cooper?), Gilda says something in English and everyone relaxes.

Lubitch rightly claimed that showing the attraction (with close-ups and cross-cutting) was better than all the long-winded explanations of falling in love in Coward's play's first act.

In Paris, where the playwright Tom and the painter George having been living in a garret for twelve years, while making no money from their work, both court Gilda. Her employer (she is a commercial artist at an advertising agency) Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton) lectures both of them (separately) about their inability to support Gilda. He is also the kind of voice for conventional morality that was soon mandatory in Hollywood films, telling Tom and George that immorality may be fun but can't take the place of virtue and three square meals a day.

The overage boys decide that a pretty skirt should not come between their friendship and that they should, therefore, both drop their pursuit of Gilda. This resolve does not survive a visit from Gilda to their room (hastily cleaned up by sweeping debris under furniture, though a truly phenomenal amount of dust rises when Gilda plops down on a bed (the bed? the only one visible anyway). She is unwilling or unable to choose between her suitors and complains that women may try on a hundred hats before buying one but have to decide on a man without trying him on.

She proposes that she take over promoting both their careers and a "gentlemen's agreement" of no sex. She marches into a London impresario (Franklin Pangborn) and presses Tom's play on him and arranges for George to paint portraits of businessmen, starting with Max. The menage trois (or quatre with Max as the fourth) is going well when Tom has to go to London for rehearsals of his play. Gilda abrogates the peace treaty she brokered, saying she's no gentleman.

Tom accepts his loss with pained politesse, but when he calls on the couple in Paris, George is away on a portrait commission. There is no sex scene, but at breakfast he is again wearing the tuxedo in which he arrived, dress that is not lost on George when he returns. After punching Tom, he drops his claim on Gilda and she goes to pack... but leaves them both notes that she loves both of them.

Instead of choosing either of them she married her boss and left free-wheeling Paris for prim Utica, New York. In a very clinging wedding dress (a distinctive feature of pre-Code talkies especially exploited by Norma Shearer) she responds to her new husband's question "Do you love me?" that it is too late and/or too early to ask the question.

She rapidly tires of being a hostess to promote Max's business and is very glad to see her boyish lovers when they turn up. (The scene in her bedroom to which she has fled a party of business contacts is very funny.) They have become successful, but still are bohemian at heart. Gilda leaves her husband for her two more-fun lovers, desecrating the sacrament of marriage and/or returning to pagan polyandry (de facto polyandry, de jure double-barreled adultery). Back to Paris and "la vie en rose," ostensibly back under the "no sex" agreement. So there are no sex scenes: sex is suggested but never shown and is (none-too-plausibly) denied (having failed once, "no sex" at the end is surely a joke).

I have laid out so much of the plot because I think that the most interesting aspect of the movie is the "modern woman" having multiple men in ways she decides upon. Her de jure husband and her two misters (it is telling that there is not a word for males "on the side" with whom a married woman dallies) are playthings and the woman decides which toys to play with and when. Such conduct was what the Production Code aimed to prevent, by not permitting such conduct to be shown on movie screens in America. Female sexual choice was particularly repellent to the American Catholic Church hierarchy (then as now) and Joseph Breen soon managed to ensure that no movie could be made in Hollywood that even suggested sex outside marriage might go unpunished. Portraying cohabitation and extramarital sex as fun was more than public morality could survive.

The brief era of freedom of which Lubitch's film is an example is more interesting than the film, which though clocking in at less than an hour and a half seems to me to drag. (Part of this may be the near lack of musical score.) There's not much chemistry between Hopkins and either March or Cooper, and the sexual license does not extend to suggesting anything homoerotic about sharing an orifice (or two) or renouncing the woman to preserve the friendship of the two male leads...except perhaps there only being one bed...

Ben Hecht's dialogue substituted for Coward's is not all that snappy (the Lady Godiva jokes seem particularly flat to me), though I like the trying on hats analogy. Edward Everett Horton does his usual arch thing and looks hilarious running to placate his clients, and the comic timing of the three leads is just fine, both verbally and nonverbally. (Cooper's comic timing is also visible in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "Great Ball of Fire,"but he is his usual laconic self in those, snapping off lines only in "Design for Living.")

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD

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