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.