Design for Living ★★★★½

Naughty and naive, this splendidly bubbly comedy substitutes Noel Coward's sophistication (which could be erudite and incisive or uncomfortably strained) with Ben Hecht's incisive, direct earthiness. He and Ernst Lubitsch manage to sell a tangential story whose silly twists and turns depend on the believable likability of its three delightful characters -- dirt-poor but somehow freewheeling artist layabouts in Paris pretending they're not engaging in a prolonged menage a trois; you barely notice the last thirty minutes have little to do with anything else because you've become so involved in the surprisingly organic way that maturity has let this perverse romance blossom, two men agreeing to one another's presence. This probably isn't as trustworthy a portrait of a polyamorous relationship as that seen in the terrific Soviet satire Bed and Sofa -- for one thing, even pre-code it has to be more carefully disguised; "no sex," indeed; and apart from George's love of throwing furniture there's little of that film's taste of the convoluted ways men can set these things awry -- and a lot of the pleasure it gives comes from how the innocently frothy status quo of Hollywood (and Lubitsch) rubs up against the mindbendingly sexy and free way that Miriam Hopkins flies back and forth between these two men, so engagingly played by Gary Cooper and Fredric March, never better, and what a combination of actors (with Edward Everett Horton a delightful nemesis as usual). Subversion really can be more potent if it has something to react against. But no distant analysis can reduce how lively and alluring an embrace this is. You sink into it learning to love the confusions of the heart and the pelvis along with these three. The script isn't mile-a-minute like Trouble in Paradise but the big laughs land just as hard and sweetly, especially when Cooper and March work as a team.

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