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” agreeÂment, in this continental pre-Code comedy freely adapted by Ben Hecht (Notorious) from a play by NoÃ«l Coward (Brief Encounter), and directed by Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise). A risquÃ© 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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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
Obviously, that's a writer's story...but the truth is that when Lubitsch did have a good script...or even a fair one, he was, indeed, able to bring that extra special "touch" to the material, thereby creating a series of risque' sophisticated comedies in the 1930s and 40s that have yet to be equaled. He was never vulgar in his "touches," but employed often hilarious visual suggestions, thus making it quite clear as to what was really going on behind those closed bedroom doors.
DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933) was adapted to the screen by Ben Hecht from Noel Coward's play. Miriam Hopkins stars as a commercial artist, who becomes smitten with both Gary Cooper, a struggling painter, and starving playwright Fredric March. The trio decides to live together...platonically...but you can imagine how long that aspect of the relationship lasts...and the problems that it causes. Edward Everett Horton co-stars in this witty, well-played comedy.
The Criterion Collection has released a marvelous 2-disc edition of DESIGN FOR LIVING that, aside from a new high-definition digital restoration with uncompressed monaural sound, also includes selected scene commentary by film professor William Paul, an interview with Joseph McBride on Lubitsch, plus a 1964 British television version of the play introduced by Coward and, best of all, the short sequence that Lubitsch directed for IF I HAD A MILLION (1932) featuring Charles Laughton. It was the funniest bit in that picture.
Finally, there is a booklet containing an essay by film critic Kim Morgan.
© Michael B. Druxman
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.
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.
The film tells of two American men, playwright Tom Chambers and painter George Curtis, who meet and fall for Gilda while on a train. The three soon move into the same Paris flat and start a strange yet charmingly workable relationship (no touchy-touchy). The relationship is tested when each man tries to get exclusive rites to Gilda's affections, and when the intrusive (well-meaning) Max Plunkett makes his feelings for Gilda and her situation clear, things begin to get dicey.
For me, this is just delightful from start to finish. I think I mentioned this when reviewing `Trouble in Paradise'. Miriam Hopkins did three films basically back-to-back with director Ernst Lubitsch, and this is one of the best. My favorite is still `The Smiling Lieutenant', but this one sports Hopkins shining moment. It is the most universally sound, especially in the comedic department. It has the gags and the intellectual banter down to a science.
Such a blessed pairing across the board.
Of the two leading men, my vote goes to March, who is just stunning here. It is nice to see Cooper take on a role that was very far removed from what he was used to, but he does at times feel a little out of place. March is perfection here, truly outstanding. He matches Miriam and really provides her with a worthy suiter, a believably charming lover. Edward Everett Horton is also really well used here, funny and annoying, but in a good way.
The relationship displayed here was sure to stir up some controversy. It is a bit risqué for the time it was released, but Lubitsch was always good for that. If you want some cheeky fun you really can't do much better than this one. I really wish it had a separate DVD release. Maybe soon. If you can get your hands on this then DO IT ASAP!