Design for Living

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Ben Hecht (based on the play by Noël Coward)
Stars: Fredric March (Tom Chambers), Gary Cooper (George Curtis), Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrell), Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Douglas, Theatrical Producer), Isabel Jewell (Plunkett’s Stenographer), Jane Darwell (Curtis’ Housekeeper), Wyndham Standing (Max’s Butler)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1933
Country: U.S.
Design for Living Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Design for LivingErnst Lubitsch’s Design for Living, a romantic comedy about a free-spirited woman who is in love with two men and wants to have both, rather than either, is a patent rebuke to all the blue noses who live under the delusion that, back in the ol’ days, Hollywood presented nothing but good, clean family fun and it has only been in recent decades that the industry has slid into a moral abyss. Anyone who has spent even a modicum of time studying Hollywood history knows that the studios have always been interested in pushing against various moral limits and social taboos, as long as the controversy wasn’t too loud or the condemnations too severe. This was particularly true of the early 1930s, a period after the industry’s official acceptance of the self-censoring Production Code but before the studios actually began enforcing it. Though certainly tame by today’s standards in terms of visual treatment (let’s just say the camera always stays discreetly outside the bedroom door while making it perfectly clear what is happening on the other side), the subject matter of Design for Living would present a challenge to any mainstream screenwriter today: How do you make something this potentially dirty so witty, charming, and even innocent?

That job fell to reporter-turned-legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht, who took the job of adapting British playwright Noël Coward’s three-act play (which had just debuted on Broadway that same year) after Lubitsch’s favored screenwriter Samson Raphaelson turned down the opportunity. Hecht, who had most recently penned Howard Hawks’s controversial Scarface (1932), essentially tossed Coward’s play and started from scratch with just the premise in tact, giving it a slightly rougher, though no less sophisticated and challenging, tone. As the Variety critic noted upon the film’s initial release, “The dialog is less lofty, less epigrammatic, less artificial. There’s more reality.” Well--reality may be a bit of a stretch, since the primary pleasure of Lubitsch’s romantic comedies is the way they stretch reality into something infinitely more charismatic and clever than real life could ever achieve. Yet, beneath the sublime surface of Lubitsch’s best films beats a human heart full of recognizable desires, fears, flaws, and longings, which is precisely what sets his work apart from its sleazier, more mundane counterparts: He genuinely likes his characters, warts and all.

Design for Living takes place primarily in Paris where two American expatriate artists and best friends, Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper), simultaneously meet and fall in love with Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) and she with them. Tom is a struggling playwright and George is a struggling painter, and they share a scrappy upstairs Parisian apartment and an unrequited desire for success. Gilda is also an artist, although she works for an advertising firm run by Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), one of a long line of Lubitsch’s stern, humorless, finger-wagging authoritarians who also desires Gilda, but for reasons that are more practical than romantic.

When Tom and George realize that they are simultaneously dating (and sleeping with) Gilda, they try to distance themselves from her entirely, but to no avail. They are besotted and can’t help it, although the film’s true progressivism lies in the fact that it extends the same desire to Gilda, who freely admits that she cannot choose between the two, a dilemma usually faced on the silver screen only by men. So, what’s a girl to do but strike a “gentleman’s agreement” with the two men that they will all live together in a platonic ménage à trois, foregoing sex (and, yes, they actually use the word “sex” to refer to sex) in favor of an arrangement in which Gilda will act as a “mother of the arts” for the two men, critiquing their work and pushing them toward artistic success.

Of course, with this randy trio, such an enterprise is doomed to failure, and after a series of betrayals by all involved, Gilda does the “honorable” thing by leaving both of them and heading into conventional matrimony with Max, the symbol of all things rigid, respectable, and business-oriented. In a sense, Gilda sacrifices herself, which does not go unnoticed as it forces Tom and George to bury the romantic hatchet and team up to rescue her from the clutches of marriage and reinstate their unlikely threesome--the “design for living” of the title. The fact that the film ends with Tom, George, and Gilda riding off toward a shared future together is about as unconventional as you can get, even by today’s standards. Love triangles are standard practice in the romantic comedy genre, but their resolution almost always entails the “right” two people ending up together while the third is either justifiably left behind or finds a better place to be. The resolution in Design for Living is nothing less than a blatant chucking of conventional romanticism out the window in favor of an alternative romance that seems bright and happy on the surface, but nonetheless carries with it a questionable undertone given the group’s previous failure.

As socially disruptive as Design for Living sounds on the page, Lubitsch makes it work like a well-oiled machine, aided in no small measure by his incredibly handsome actors, most of whom were second choices (with the exception of Miriam Hopkins, who played the lead in Lubitsch’s previous film, Trouble in Paradise). March, who was coming off an Oscar win for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), and Cooper, who has played primarily cowboys and soldiers in his previous films, were both surprising casting choices, but they work perfectly as the opposing poles of the love triangle: They share artistic and romantic passions, yet are completely different in temperament (March’s Tom is urbane and sophisticated, a witty playwright in the Coward mold, while Cooper’s George is rough around the edges, given to smashing furniture when angered). They work in concert with Lubitsch’s elegant camerawork and editing, which puts just the right amount of sauce on-screen and keeps just the right amount off; I can’t think of another classical era filmmaker who was so adroit in using fades and dissolves to convey off-screen actions.

Lubtisch is unfailingly generous with his characters, even poor ol’ Max, who has the unenviable task of being the spoil-sport and yet still comes off as oddly likeable, if only because he is so utterly and completely clueless (he may be a prat, but he’s no hypocrite). Depression-era audiences probably loathed his all-business-all-the-time sensibilities, but even that is softened by his social and interpersonal clumsiness. Much has been written about the fabled “Lubitsch touch,” and it would be hard to find a film that displays it better than Design for Living, which takes a potentially sleazy narrative and makes it sparkle with both glittery wit and genuine human feeling.

Design for Living Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Design for Living is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish PCM 1.0 monaural
  • “The Clerk,” 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
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic Kim Morgan
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateDecember 6, 2011

    With Design for Living Criterion has given us another beautiful presentation of a film that is nearly 80 years old. The transfer, taken from a 35mm fine-grain positive and digitally restored with multiple software packages, looks fantastic. There are a few pesky vertical hairlines that couldn’t be removed, but otherwise the image is amazingly free and clear of dirt, scratches, tears, and other signs of age and wear that might be expected from a film of this age. The image is nicely rendered with excellent detail that brings out both the nuances of the set design and costumes as well as the pleasant interplay of the celluloid’s inherent grain structure. It is slightly brighter than Universal’s previously available DVD, but benefits significantly from enhanced depth and detail as well as a more film-like presentation. The lossless monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a fine-grain soundtrack print and digitally restored, resulting in an overall clean presentation that has little ambient hiss and almost no aural artifacts.
    While we don’t get a full audio commentary, film scholar William Paul (author of Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy) provides a selected-scene commentary that runs about 35 minutes in length. Interestingly, Paul splits his commentary fairly evenly between scenes from Design for Living and scenes from Lubitsch’s previous film Trouble in Paradise, arguing succinctly for why the films should be viewed as companion pieces. In addition to Paul’s commentary, we also have a 22-minute interview with film scholar and screenwriter Joseph McBride, who talks at length about the writing of the screenplay and how Ben Hecht’s take on the material differed from Noël Coward’s original play. Speaking of the play, Criterion has dug out of the archives a 1964 British television production of the play, which begins with an on-camera introduction by Coward. Also from the archives we get “The Clerk,” a two-minute Lubitsch-directed segment from the 1932 omnibus film If I Had a Million starring Charles Laughton.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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