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Design for Living (Criterion) (Blu-Ray)

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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.

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72 of 76 people found the following review helpful
An underrated Pre-Code gem Oct. 3 2011
By D. Yarbrough - Published on
Verified Purchase
**EDIT 12-6-11** Overall, I'll say that Criterion did a great job on the restoration and transfer of this 1933 classic. I would describe the picture quality as very good, not perfect, but very good. Signs of aging are still evident throughout the film (mainly vertically running scratches), but not to the extent of distracting or taking away from the viewing experience. Quality-wise, this is the clearest, most crisp version of this film that I have viewed.

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

United States
91 minutes
Black and White
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
"It's a gentleman's agreement..." Nov. 22 2011
By Reine des Coeurs - Published on
Verified Purchase
Amazing Pre-Code film that I'm ecstatic to see has been selected by Criterion for this DVD release. I've been a fan of this particular genre for over a decade and when asked by friends to pick a movie that would help introduce them to the best of the Pre-Code releases in existence and release, I almost always pick "Design for Living".

Everything is just spot on - excellent performances, witty banter and a most unusual (yet completely plausible) exploration of the very nature of love and commitment. While missing some of the more naughty innuendo of the original Coward production, it still contained enough sex, sophistication and above all and at the heart of the film, a loving trio, to become one of the pinnacle films to sound the death knell on the pre-Hays freedom days and put into action the Production Code.

The bare bones of the story goes like this - girl (Gilda) meets boys (Tom & George) on a train. The three start off as friends and I'll leave it at that. Any more would completely ruin the plot and though you can probably guess what happens next, this is a movie that should be seen, savored and enjoyed piece by piece and scene by scene. I must say though, if put in Gilda's situation and forced to choose between Frederic March and Gary Cooper at the height of their talents, handsomeness and charm, why not establish 'a gentleman's agreement', particularly when one of the trio is most notably not a gentleman?

Directed masterfully by Ernst Lubitsch from Ben Hecht's adaptation of Noel Coward's play, this is definitely more than a light, screwball comedy. It's one of the best, most sophisticated and unconventional romances you'll ever see on screen. Even for a modern audience, the theme is not outdated, which just goes to show how ahead of the curve many Pre-Code films were even when seen through our 21st century eyes. One has to wonder just how many more gems such as this we might have gotten, had the Code not crashed the party.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Blu-ray (4.5 stars): Ernst Lubitsch's boldest film and another fantastic Criterion Collection release! Dec 16 2011
By Dennis A. Amith - Published on
Bold, stylish and a pre-code non-musical film by Ernst Lubitsch, "Design for Living" receives new life with the Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of a film which showcases radicalism but a wonderful performance by its talent Fredric March, Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins.

It was 1932 when filmmaker Ernst Lubitch's contract with Paramount had run out. Having completed the musical film "One Hour with You" with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald (featured in Criterion's "Eclipse Series #8: Lubitsch Musicals"), Lubitsch was a hot filmmaker which United Artists and Columbia were going after.

But for Lubitsch, he wanted to try something different. He wanted to direct for the stage in New York City but instead re-signed with Paramount for a three-film contract and what is most significant about this contract is the two films that he developed that were non-musical romantic comedies. One was his masterpiece "Trouble in Paradise"(as part of the Criterion Collection #170) and his other was "Design for Living" (1933).

"Design for Living" is loosely based on Noel Coward's play and features a screenplay and earlier work by legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht ("Scarface", "Notorious", "Wuthering Heights", "Spellbound", "His Girl Friday").

While the film has been released on DVD as part of Universal's "The Gary Cooper Collection", this is the first time the film has received a Blu-ray release and unlike the DVD version which had three movies on each disc and was compressed, this is the best version of the film released on video to date.

"Design for Living" was known back then as Lubitch's first film dealing with contemporary morals. A film literally about a menage a trois, three people involved in a relationship. Needless to say, this was shot prior to Hollywood's Hays Code which would ban indecency in films. But a year later, after the Production Code Administration initiated the code, the film would be banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and was denied a PCA for re-release.


"Design for Living" is presented in 1:33:1 black and white. According to the Criterion Collection, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 1K Datacine from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Image System's DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction. Image Mill's steady was also used to reduce film weave.

For those who owned the original Universal "The Gary Cooper Collection" DVD set, one of the things that I disliked about the Universal release and a practice used on a few of their older films was putting these movies (in this case, three of them) on a DVD. In fact, I knew before watching the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release that the picture quality would definitely be much better than this DVD release by a large margin and I was right.

The original Universal DVD looked blurry, a lot of white specks, blemishes, occasional flickering and while there was grain, this Blu-ray release not only looks beautiful, the film damage seen on the DVD version is literally non-existent when watching it on Blu-ray. The clarity and detail faces are noticeable, while the DVD is noticeable for its blurriness. Even objects and structures look blurry and lack detail. The Blu-ray release showcases the detail. Grays and whites and overall contrast is beautiful. Blacks levels are very nice!

Hands down, this is the best looking version of the film-to-date. Granted, I wouldn't throw away your copy of the "The Gary Cooper Collection" as there are five movies worth watching in that set. But for "Design for Living", the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release is the best looking version of the film to date.


"Design for Living" is presented in monaural. According to the Criterion Collection, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a fine-grain soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation.

Dialogue is crisp and clear, and I detected no hiss or crackle. Nothing that distracted me while viewing.

Subtitles are presented in English SDH.


"Design for Living - The Criterion Collection #592' on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:

The Clerk - (2:21) A very short segment of the 1932 omnibus "If I Had a Million" in which Ernst Lubitsch directed one of the scenes featuring Charles Laughton.
Selected-Scene Commentary - (36:31) Film professor William Paul, author of "Ernst Lubtisch's American Comedy" talks about the production history of the film and his analysis of various scenes.
Joseph McBride: The Screenplay -(22:08) An interview with film scholar and screenwriter Joseph McBride who talks about the differences between Noel Coward's play and Ben Hecht's script (and his approach to adaptation) and also what made the film so special.
Play of the Week: A Choice of Coward - (1:13:31) A 1964 British ITV television production of the original "Design For Living" featuring an introduction by original creator Noel Coward.


"Design for Living - The Criterion Collection #592' comes with an 24-page booklet featuring image stills from the film and the essay "It Takes Three" by Kim Morgan.


When you watch an Ernst Lubitsch film, I pretty much know that I'm going to have a great time.

He has a way of approaching a storyline and directing and utilizing his talent with enormous efficacy, it's no surprise of why he is considered such a legendary filmmaker. But while he is remembered for films such as "Ninotchka", "Shop Around the Corner", "Trouble in Paradise", "To Be or Not to Be" to name a few, "Design for Living" is an interesting and unique Lubitsch film because it takes on social morals and in this case, not love by two people but love by three people.

You are not going to find many films within the last 90-years that features a menage a trois as part of a romantic comedy storyline. Even in today's society where you may see the banal gigolo with his women, in this case, its two men who love the same woman and woman who loves both men.

How do you approach a story with that kind of relationship. For one, that was the challenge for filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch and earlier in his career, Ben Hecht. In Hecht's adaptation, both men would not follow Noel Coward's film verbally, but still maintain the adventure of the three individuals. While, the film adaptation would feature Max Plunkett as forgettable man.

But its the performances that manage to take this film and literally make it entertaining. We know that Tom is the more decent man of the three, Tom is more of the man who can't wait to have sex with Gilda and Gilda is a woman who is very intelligent, carefree and she manages to hold these two men on a string, making them part of her Bohemian lifestyle and acknowledging that they have their own ethics, their own lifestyle.

There really is no true or threatening drama, no risky high point that challenges the three on their morals. No government, not society telling them what they are doing is indecent. Only Max Plunkett, Gilda's boss and the film's clown.

So, the film is audacious, its absurd but it's witty and mischievous to the point that that makes you intrigued that a Hollywood film like "Design for Living" was ever created. And yet, it possible was a film that was ahead of its time, or maybe easily to take in today than it was then. While the film did do well in the box office as many came to see a Noel Coward film, like the critics, reviews were mixed because this film was nothing like Noel Coward's play. But at the same time, it probably was best that Hecht did stray from the original as the fear was that people watching film would not understand Noel Coward dialogue.

But I felt it was a smart move on Lubitsch's part to have Hecht craft the screenplay and distance themselves from Noel Coward's work. From various books that I have read, this was a film he agonized about for quite a while before taking it on. And the only reason why he took it on was because he didn't have to make the film adaptation exact to the original play. So, all that does remain of Noel Coward's play is just the title and the theme.

As for the Blu-ray release, once again, this is the definitive version of the film-to-date and picture and audio quality far surpasses the original DVD version from Universal's "The Gary Cooper Collection". In fact, because of the quality that Criterion Collection has put into this release, I can only hope that Universal considers the Criterion Collection on taking on some of their classic hits, because this film on Blu-ray looks absolutely fantastic! And in Criterion Collection fashion, you also get the benefit of special features as well (which Universal was never known for in their older classic DVD releases).

But the winner for me was the inclusion of the Ben Hecht featurette but most importantly, the 1964 play of "Design for Living" based on Noel Coward's play. We not only get an introduction by Coward but with all the talk of the differences between Lubitsch and Hecht's version of "Design for Living" compared to the original play, now viewers can watch the play and see how things differed greatly. So, I felt that Criterion Collection including this as part of the special features was fantastic! Similar to what the Criterion Collection did with "12 Angry Men" release by including the teleplay, I was quite thrilled to find out that the teleplay was included.

Overall, "Design for a Living" is one of the bolder Ernst Lubitsch films out there. In fact, with the release of "Design for a Living", one can only hope that "Trouble in Paradise" will also be considered for a Blu-ray release in the near future. But I'm very pleased that the Criterion Collection has released a Lubitsch title on Blu-ray and in keeping with the Criterion Collection's goal of focusing on important classic and contemporary films, "Design for Living" is a style of film with subject manner that you're not going to see in an American romantic comedy ever again.

"Design for Living" is definitely recommended!
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Three's Company May 10 2012
By Alfred Johnson - Published on
Noel Coward, at least in the New York theater scene, is having something of another revival which prompted me to take a second, or maybe third look, at his work. No question he had a serious sense of plot and language when it came to writing "manner" plays addressing "high society (or what passed for high society in his day)," a look at that society from one who came to appreciate its frills and follies from a personal past of barely rubbing two nickels together. That is the case here with the film adaptation of the somewhat autobiographical sketch play, Design for Living (along some material help from his coming up from obscurity friends, the actors Lunt and Fontaine).

As with many adaptations from books or plays the relationship to the original source can be, well, attenuated as it is here, at least according to Mr. Coward, on the use of dialogue. But the general plot outline is similar- two guys, two artsy guys (one Gary Cooper who passes for the Midwestern All-American boy complete with ah shuck) and a world-weary gal get all balled up in a threesome, a love triangle, comedic or not, and for a while nobody could win. It all gets sorted out by the end but not before what passed for 1930s humor, including deadpan and slapstick humor, got a workout. This one is probably too tame for today's audiences having seen every kind of social possibility on the screen by now but in the 1930s this was, and rightly so I think, regarded as sophisticated comedy, and certainly the subject matter raised eyebrows. Not the best Coward (or Cooper and March) but interesting.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Elegant Charm! Feb. 16 2012
By J. F. McCausland - Published on
Design for Living is a witty little number produced and directed by the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch, written by Ben Hecht, based on a play by Noel Coward (okay, very loosely based), and starring Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins at the ultimate height of their talent and physical beauty. There isn't much of a plot other than a love triangle where best friends fall in love with the same woman, who unfortunately cannot seem to choose between the two. Gary Cooper was so incredibly beautiful it's easy to loose sight of what a marvelous actor he was, and completely underutilized in the comedy genre. Fredric March, although better known as a dramatic actor, thankfully dabbled more frequently into comedies, such as his terrific satire with Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred. The surprising revelation, however, was the brilliant Miriam Hopkins. She had the most difficult role to conquer, having to continually portray the conflicted feelings of her character without appearing ditzy, mean, or self-absorbed. The supporting cast, including Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, and Jane Darwell, are all a lot of silly fun and add substantially to the overall feeling of joie de vivre. This film is sexy, frothy, romantic, witty, and charming. Thankfully Lubitsch, well-known for his sophisticated film making style, was able to make this delight prior to the enforcement of the production code. Sublime!

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