73 of 77 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
**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
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
C. O. DeRiemer
- Published on Amazon.com
There's no doubt about what's going on in Design for Living, a delightful high comedy about a ménage a trois, written by Noel Coward as rewritten by Ben Hecht and directed by Ernst Lubitsch...and it's not hanky panky. No, it's just joyous, straightforward sex.
Please note, before any fastidious persons who fancy themselves "reviewers" nail me to a tree. I have watched this movie more than once when it was released as part of The Gary Cooper Collection. It looked good then, and - I plead guilty to not having watched it yet in the newly released Criterion edition - I expect Criterion has done it proud. I plan to buy it. I have no idea what the extras may be like, but then I seldom watch the extras or listen to any film's commentary.
When two artists, the painter George Curtis (Gary Cooper) and the playwright Tom Chambers (Fredric March), encounter Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) on the train to Paris, their 11-year friendship is going to be intriguingly tested. Gilda (with a soft "g") captures them both, and she reciprocates but can't choose. And why should she? She moves in with them. There's only one solution, however, to the inevitable problem. "Boys," she tells them "it's the only thing we can do. Let's forget sex." And with that, of course, neither they nor we can. Says Gilda to George and Tom later, "It's true we had a gentleman's agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman." And says Tom to Gilda later, "George betrayed me for you. Without wishing to flatter you, I understood that. I can still understand it. But you betrayed me for George. An incredible choice!"
Ben Hecht often bragged that only one line of Coward's survived in his screenplay. All I know is that Hecht's words are some of the finest and funniest, as well as the most amusingly realistic, you're likely to find in a high-gloss Hollywood comedy. The movie just barely got in under the wire before the Production Code began to enforce the prude's code of morality on America. Lubitsch and Hecht create a sophisticated world in which going to bed with someone you like is as natural as...well, going to bed with someone you like. There's no leering or innuendo in the movie, just a reliance on the sophistication of the audience. For instance, Gilda explains to Tom and George the differences between how men and women sort things out. "You see," she tells them, "a man can meet two, three or four women and fall in love with all of them, and then, by a process of interesting elimination, he is able to decide which he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice." The point we're aware of with a smile is that Gilda not only is nice, but smart, and that she's already tested the waters with each of them.
We start the movie with an ménage a trois, but one that turns into a duet with George and then a duet with Tom. After some encounters with business versus art, we all come to our senses and enjoy the sight of Gilda, George and Tom reunited in New York with a plan in mind. "Now we'll have some fun," Gilda says happily. "Back to Paris!" I have a feeling that forgetting sex won't be part of the plan for long.
The frisson of a bi-sexual ménage a trois is substantially toned down by Lubitsch and Hecht. While it wasn't explicit in Coward's stage play, one would have to be deaf and blind not to get the subtext, especially with Coward and Alfred Lunt as the two male leads when the play opened. In the movie, however, this just becomes inconsequential speculation, especially with Gary Cooper and Fredric March in the roles. Cooper manages not to embarrass himself in this highly polished comedy of sex and style, but it's clear that what works in Cooper's favor are his looks, not his line delivery or body language. March and Hopkins, however, are completely at ease and are a joy to watch.
Hollywood wouldn't make movies this adult and amusing until the Fifties, and even then the level of sophistication and respect for the audience, in my opinion, never fully recovered. Every now and then it's possible to come across in pre-Code Hollywood films of such mature pleasure you hope others will like them, too. Says one character in Design for Living, "Immorality may be fun, but it isn't fun enough to take the place of 100 per cent virtue and three square meals a day." How wrong he was...and is.