**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
Black and White