Design for Living
Two Americans sharing a flat in Paris, playwright Tom Chambers and painter George Curtis, fall for free-spirited Gilda Farrell. When she can't make up her mind which one of them she prefers, she proposes a "gentleman's agreement": She will move in with them as a friend and critic of their work, but they will never have sex. But when Tom goes to London to supervise a production of one of his plays, leaving Gilda alone with George, how long will their gentleman's agreement last?
David's Movie entry #4: March 17th, 2013
In Memory of David Eisen
Cooper, March, Hopkins, Lubitsch, Coward, and Hect. The opening credits ring off like a game of "20 questions" with the question being asked "What would be the perfect cast/crew for a pre-code comedy?". The two surprising crew roles that I did not have prior knowledge of before watching the film was its association to a Noel Coward play and Ben Hect being the screenwriter involved. Since watching it I have discovered that Coward's play did not necessarily have a big role for the film. Lubitsch took his story with the help of Hect and made it cinematic while making it in his own vision.
Ben Hect was a…
From my new column at MUBI:
“It’s true we have a gentlemen’s agreement,” susurrates a suggestively bed-strewn Miriam Hopkins, “but unfortunately I am no gentlemen.” Indeed: never before or since has the fulcrum of a three-way so iconically longed or been longed for, soaking up desire like a sponge. Design for Living, of course, has enjoyed a now 80-year legacy on the promise of its barely muffled libertine sensibility, that same vague aura of licentiousness in which nearly every remotely racy pre-Code comic romance is anachronistically steeped. Design for Living certainly makes use of the luxury of candor—sex as a subject is plainly on the table here, explicated without recourse to euphemism—but sex as an act nevertheless retains the power…
The agency given to Miriam Hopkins' character seems downright miraculous when viewed through a lens of time spattered with manic pixie dream girls and selfless sacrificial muses. She's whimsical, sure, but she's driven by her own sexual and emotional desires. She's a real, thinking, feeling person that gets to act and react with the men. How much of that is directly from the Coward play or the Ben Hecht screenplay, I don't know, but there it is: Another sign of what could have been had the Hayes Code not stunted the dramatic growth of Hollywood for decades to come.
I've seen a lot of these pre-code romantic comedies and the novelty of seeing dialogue with the sexual frankness of a typical Seinfeld episode being spouted by actors like Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins still has not worn off. Of course, a lot of Lubitsch's double (and triple, and single for that matter) entendres would make Larry David scoff, but they're still a special (and mostly historical, alas) kind of fun.
I will say that I'm not partial to these kinds of love triangle stories - I prefer my love triangles with a clear hero and villain so I know who to identify with, otherwise the whole thing can come off as either too sad to be funny or too inhuman to be believable. But this is pretty good considering.
I'm essentially a neophyte when it comes to pre-Code cinema, so I was surprised by the raciness of this Lubitsch comedy - sex is explicitly referenced and implicitly depicted as a means of artistic inspiration. Miriam Hopkins makes for a more progressive heroine than most present-day rom-coms can offer, being smart, sexy, and (ultimately) not punished for wanting more out of her relationships than what is considered conventionally appropriate. Lubitsch's approach to comedy is really refreshing - his pacing isn't breakneck like that of Hawks's screwball masterpieces, but the lines hit just in time to keep the mood buoyant. Even his silent gags (such as the train-car meet-cute at this film's opening) are small delights unto themselves.
Oh, what a wonderful pre-code Hollywood film!
OMG. How did Ernst Lubitsch get away with it???? A threesome in the 1933 where the audience is told to root for a love affair where a woman is in a relationship with two men! This would even be scandalous today!
Yet it is strange why it is such a huge problem for most people. We love many friends at the same time. We love all of our children at the same time. Why could not a woman (or a man) fall in love with two men during their lifetime? It is the same kind of love; the "only" difference is that it is also sexual.
To pretend that a person will only…
The randy sexual humor of prime-era Seinfeld, sixty years previous.
My history of film professor really wasn't lying when he said that there's something about Lubitsch's films that just make his gag-filled, nonsense comedies incredibly compelling and even touching at times. And honestly, what's not to love about a trio of adults behaving like lovestruck teenagers.
Design For Living lays the subject of sex plainly on the table in this delightfully screwball story of a girl who cannot decide which of two gentlemen she loves most. It's easily one of the most risqué films made of that era - amazing, considering the year later would see the enforcement of the Hays Code that warned against portraying sex outside of marriage. The fast-paced and witty script is brought to life with an almost effortless charm, furthermore, by director Ernst Lubitsch.
Miriam Hopkins is a delight in this and she steals the spotlight from both Gary Cooper and Fredric March. Combine this with her earlier film Trouble in Paradise and you've got a couple of really good "sweet when she needs to be; naughty when she wants to be" performances from her.
Two characters go into a room, then there's a fade, and the characters come out of the room. That's all Lubitsch really needs to tell you about the complicated sexual attitudes of his protagonists. Gary Cooper and Fredric March are two men of the arts - an artist and a playwright. They share an apartment in gay Paris and stuff. Miriam Hopkins shares a train cab with them and fucks things up. Edward Everett Horton represents another set of attitudes (although we all know that he's really a fuck animal, come on!) completely antithetical to the free love of the main protagonists. March proclaims his love and Lubitsch directly cuts to Cooper and Hopkins in a post-lovemaking reverie. Anyway, this…
A very loose adaptation of the Noel Coward play, apparently the writers only retained one line of Coward's original dialogue! Not that this matters as this is an Ernst Lubitsch film approaching the directors best.
Kaut uzņemta 80 gadus atpakaļ, šī filma savā uzbūvē ir ļoti līdzīga mūsdienās ražotajām. Ja tā padomā...vai trisdesmitajos gados nebija "ah un uh" par šāda liderīga un netikla dzīves veida atēlošanu kinofilmā?
I was slightly disappointed by this film after absolutely falling in love with The Shop Around the Corner and Heaven Can Wait. Both those films absolutely enraptured me but this film left me slightly cold.
It got me thinking, there may be something to be said for censorship- not that I would ever endorse it- but this film could have used more symbolism and subtlety a la Sirk rather than having everything spelled out to the audience through dialogue.
Although I much prefer visual rather than verbal storytelling in film- may just be me.
A whip-smart and racy comedy that hints tragically at the potential of pre-code Hollywood.
Cooper, March and Hopkins play equal points of a very unorthodox love triangle - the difference here being that nobody loses out. Yes, this is a Hollywood movie that basically celebrates an open relationship. Of course, it takes time to point out a "Gentlemen's agreement" of no sex, but even that seems like the characters kidding themselves. What they get away with here is astonishing considering the moralistic dark ages the industry was about to plunge into.
On the technical and artistic levels, the script is sparkling, delivered perfectly by everyone on show. Although it feels a little stagey (unavoidable considering its origins as a play), the exuberant and magnetic performances prevent the film ever feeling tired or stuffy. 80 years old at this time of watching, and it feels as fresh as anything served up today.