DESIGN FOR LIVING, a delightful 1933 pre-Code sex comedy, spins its charming cast around a menage a trois. Directed by l’amour foible connoisseur Ernst Lubitsch, it’s held in high regard today, but at the time praise was faint, since Ben Hecht’s script, a quite free adaptation of Noel Coward’s play, was snubbed by critics as coarse (it isn’t) and inferior. Coward was deified in the day, and he’d performed in the production on Broadway, with Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. So, snob noses were bent upwards. Box-office success among the hoi polloi was mediocre, the gross of $1,900,000 38th place for the year. Then in ’34, it was banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency (talk about ‘turning a phrase’) and the Hays Code prudes dropped the hammer and denied a certificate for re-issue: the picture was pulled from exhibition. Heavens to Murgatroyd, we can’t have lamb-innocent Americans thinking about sex (initiated in France, yet–go figure), not when they’re too busy enjoying the Depression.
“Maybe you love me because I’m an imbecile.”
Free-spirited commercial artist ‘Gilda Farrell’ (Miriam Hopkins) shares a train compartment in France with canvas painter ‘Tom Chambers’ (Gary Cooper) and playwright ‘George Curtis’ (Fredric March). She fancies these swains; they both go gaga for her. The guys are best friends, struggling to eke existence in Paris while pursuing their elusive artistic ambitions. Gilda proposes they share an apartment, and she’ll help them get somewhere with their careers. The hitch: hands are to stay safely on paintbrush or typewriter. As events progress, each fella has a separate fling with their vibrant and liberated muse: to save their friendship she departs for New York and marries her boss, the less-than-exciting ‘Max Plunkett’ (Edward Everett Horton). Will she realize her goof? Will the boys patch up with each other just to give up on her? Thoughts are meant to be perished.
Lubitsch is there to be cherished. Shrewdly getting that Coward’s refined style would be too twee for people without a spare tuxedo to relate to, he gambled that the Joe-accessible patter from ex-newspaperman Hecht would be more apt to tickle those who could risk shelling out 35 cents for a ticket. Hecht completely rewrote it to suit: unfazed, he was quoted saying “There’s only one line of Coward’s left in the picture–see if you can find it!”
The insinuation factor is certainly risque for the time, and the actors look to be greatly enjoying themselves telegraphing self-aware naughtiness. Hopkins, 30, shines with smarts, vivacity, and a frank yet sweet acceptance of the obvious biological imperative: the scene where she plops on the dusty bed in their Parisian flop is a classic. Cooper, 32, and March, 35, are both killer handsome galoots and charming to boot: a showbizzy in-joke was that off-screen Gary and Fred were about as libidinous-active as Lotharios could get, Hollywood royalty not living by any Code but their own behind the scenes. Reviewers often remark that Cooper doesn’t fit as an artist, ignoring the fact that before he started acting he’d displayed a talent as for drawing watercolors, cartoons and caricatures. March does some deft body language comedy with his hands, describing George’s “writing process”. As ever, flustered fuddy duddy Horton makes a choice foil.
With Franklin Pangborn, Isabel Jewell and Jane Darwell. 91 minutes.