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Few films have had as much nonsense written about them as Ernst Lubitsch's
"Design For Living." From the moment it was released, it was criticized
rewriting Noel Coward's then-daring play (Ben Hecht, the screenwriter,
"There's only one line of Coward's left in the picture--see if you can
it!"); for casting Americans in parts that had originally been played by
Coward, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne; for toning down the gay subtexts
Coward's play. All that is, of course, completely irrelevant; the question
is not whether the play is faithful to the source material, but whether
good. And it is, it is.
There are flaws in the film. This was one of the first times Lubitsch had made a movie with little or no music on the soundtrack; previously, in his musicals and his sublime "Trouble In Paradise," he had used background music to cover up potential dead spots and carry the film along. Here there is none of that, with the result that some of the early scenes seem oddly paced. But the wit of the script (written by Hecht but, as always with Lubitsch, carefully supervised and contributed to by the director himself) and the appeal of the performers (more about them later) pull the film through the occasional rough spots, and the second half of the movie is just about perfect.
Another idiotic thing that is often said about "Design For Living" is that Lubitsch and Hecht rewrote Coward due to fear of the censors. In fact, the censors must have had a heart attack when they saw "Design," for this is one of the most sexually frank of the pre-Code Hollywood movies; premarital sex, cohabitation, adultery and frigidity are all clearly portrayed-- but, as always with Lubitsch, they are implied rather than shown. Lubitsch's trademark door and blackout gags are here, and they are hilarious; again, it's not Noel Coward--it's Lubitsch, the cinema's greatest comic filmmaker at the peak of his powers.
But there's something else here that isn't found in most Lubitsch films, and it comes from Ben Hecht, whose cynical, fast-talking, very American style of writing gives the characters a flavor quite unlike the more Continental wit of Lubitsch's usual heroes. (This is also one of the few Lubitsch films where the lead characters are American rather than European.) Critics have sometimes complained that Hecht's somewhat inelegant style was unworthy of either Coward or Lubitsch. Again, I disagree; the moments of Hechtian farce (like the hilarious party scene) are beautifully handled by Lubitsch and turn the film into a forerunner of screwball comedy, the place where Continental charm and hard-driving Americanism meet.
Now to the actors. The "British is Better" attitude of many critics made it inevitable that Lubitsch's American cast would be pilloried. Again, this is not Noel Coward and a Noel Coward style of acting wouldn't work in this context. All the leading players are actually quite wonderful: Miriam Hopkins, one of Lubitsch's favorite actresses, has the best role and gives a marvelously energetic performance as the flighty, pretentious free spirit who tries to substitute art for sex; Gary Cooper is at the height of his youthful charm, with a surprisingly light comic touch and great teamwork with Fredric March. March, who can often be heavy-handed in film comedy, is here charming and funny; it's a tribute to Lubitsch that he got such a genial performance out of him. And, of course, there's Edward Everett Horton, one of Hollywood's finest character actors in one of his finest roles.
If you know and love the Noel Coward play, don't expect this movie to be a faithful adaptation. Think of it as an original work of comedic art that happens to utilize some of the story elements of Coward's play. It's not Noel Coward; it's a splendid romantic farce that, like all great comedies, has serious themes underneath the fun: Sexual freedom, male vs. female roles in society, art, love, friendship. So see it (if you can; it's not on video, alas). It's not Noel Coward, it's Ernst Lubitsch, and despite the occasional flaws, it's Lubitsch at his best.
Miriam Hopkins finds herself in love with both Gary Cooper and Fredric
March (who can blame her?), so she does what any sensible Pre-Code
woman would do: she decides to live with both of them!
It's a tribute to movie audiences of the early 1930s that a sophisticated comedy like Design for Living could a.) Get produced, and b.) Be a success at the box office. The dumbing down of current films means that the delicious innuendo in Design for Living would go over the head of most of today's audience.
The key to the Lubitsch Touch was in the perfect timing of physical gestures and the delivery of the lines. Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living were the best in this respect. Personally, I prefer the lack of music in Design for Living. I think it dates the film less than Lubitsch's other efforts.
I don't mind that Ben Hecht wrote most of the film's dialog rather than Noel Coward, who wrote the original play. All I know is that the dialog is very very funny and quite naughty, making this the ultimate Pre-Code film.
Miriam Hopkins could do no wrong in a Lubitsch film, and her work here is brilliant. She's intelligent and uncompromisingly honest. Her leading men, Gary Cooper and Fredric March, are both sexy and hilarious. Gary Cooper is a particular revelation, displaying a flair for comedy that is quite unexpected. As Cooper's friend and rival for the affection of Hopkins, March is also very funny, which comes as no surprise after his brilliant parody of John Barrymore in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930).
Prepare to laugh yourself silly during what may be the funniest film ever made.
Intelligent script, witty dialogue, sexy stars, sophisticated story,
deft direction…What more can I say? It's Lubitsch and Paramount
at its Pre-Code best! This was another of those "vintage" films of
which you had the chance of reading a lot about, but before Universal
released "The Gary Cooper Collection", where it's included, you had
nowhere to watch it. Of course, I bought promptly the aforementioned
The picture tells the story of free-spirited Gilda Farrell, a young lady who works at a Parisian Advertising Agency, managed by that great seasoned pro, Edward Everett Horton, who by chance meets on board a train, struggling, penniless, artists George Curtis, a painter (Gary Cooper) and Thomas Chambers, a playwright (Fredric March), in which may be one of the most "risqué" plots of all the Pre-Code Era, dealing openly with the pros and cons of a mènage-a-trois.
Miriam Hopkins portrays the deliciously mischievous Gilda, giving a top, tongue-in-cheek performance, looking absolutely beautiful and full of glow from within; it's really in her films directed by Lubitsch that her appeal shines at its most and she looks at her attractive-best.
Fredric March is good too as the "more down-to-earth-but-nevertheless-madly-in-love" playwright, who lives with buddy Gary Cooper in a miserable tenement, until Miriam Hopkins comes in scene and to "the rescue".
But the revelation, in my opinion, is Gary Cooper; after seeing him in many of his 1930s films, I feel that I like him best in the variety of roles he got to play in those years: a young idealist in "Peter Ibbetson", a sensitive soldier in "A Farewell to Arms", a sophisticated artist in this one, etc. He really was a good actor from the beginning of his "talkies" career (I haven't seen his Silents, so I cannot give an opinion), showing much skill and depth in his interpretations. In this film he plays excellently opposite such strong talents as Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March, absolutely "a la par".
In all, a highly enjoyable film. Smart Entertainment. A must.
I'm not a big fan of the Lubitsch Touch. This, which I hadn't seen in 20
years, I think is my favorite.
The recent Broadway revival of the Noel Coward play, which was supposedly very ooh-la-la and daring, was a bust. Interminable and misguided.
One problem was that the female lead was made very cold. In the movie, Miriam Hopkins is just right: pretty, seductive, witty.
Gary Cooper is sublime. He was a great comedian -- equally good in "Desire," the delightful movie with Dietrich that Lubitsch produced and supposedly had a big hand in directing. Too bad he changed gears so drastically and became the strong, silent Western hero he's known for today (if he's known at all, alas.)
Fredric March was a very fine actor but not a comedian. He is the weakest link; but he works well in the ensemble.
Edward Everett Horton is funny, as always.
It really works, and is as racy today as it must have been when it came out.
This was one of the movies I was so sure was going to be stupid and
but it turned out to be such fine comedy I've already watched it three
in the past week or two. So many good lines. Tom writes a play called
Goodnight Bassington - a comedy in about three acts with a tragic ending.
George paints Lady Godiva on a bicycle, despite the fact that a bicycle
IS a little hard on her historical background. Gilda says that she went to
see the above-mentioned painting of Lady Godiva with a friend. "She loved
it. We haven't spoken since," Gilda tells George, who begins to pout. He
does a fair amount of pouting throughout the film.
Eaglebauer also makes for some fine humour in some scenes near the end, but we never get to see the man. We only hear him bellowing out a joyous song about "falling leaves and fading trees! Goodbye, summer, goodbye!"
But besides all that this really wacky movie is a delight and I sure wish they'd re-release it because it's so good.
So. There's only one thing I have to say to you. Immorality may be fun, but it's not fun enough to replace one hundred per cent virtue and three square meals a day.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Not all of the plays by Noel Coward have been put on the screen.
PRIVATE LIVES was (Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer). So was BLYTHE
SPIRIT (Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford). So was CAVALCADE (which
actually won the best picture award in 1933 - but did it really deserve
it?). HAY FEVER has not popped up, nor PERIOD PIECE, nor SOUTH SEA
BUBBLE. And DESIGN FOR LIVING has popped up (the same year CAVALCADE
did), but in a bowdlerized version. Still Ernst Lubitsch's DESIGN FOR
LIVING was a highly amusing comedy, even if part of the "design for
living" was seriously missing.
Tom (Fredric March) is a writer - a dramatist. His closest friend is George (Gary Cooper) an artist. On a train trip they share a compartment with Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), also an artist - but one who works for an advertising firm run by Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton). Both young men are seriously smitten with her, and she fully appreciates them. So they have a dilemma - who would she rather be with. She solves it by making an agreement to live with them as their "muse - den mother". In short she will be keeping them from turning out shoddy work - telling them what she finds is "ROTTEN!!" (Hopkins' pronunciation of that word is quite memorable). She will also continue working for Max. All three find this an agreeable idea, although Max does not. He may be a good businessman himself, but he finds Gilda quite a sexual turn-on too. So Max hates Tom and George.
This odd menage-a-trois cannot work. The three partners are all good looking, and their hormones are active. Soon Gilda runs off with George, leaving a teary note for Tom. He follows, and spends a highly pleasant afternoon with Gilda, until George returns and has a fit. Then she decides to save their friendship by leaving - and accepting Max's businesslike proposal of marriage. Tom and George go on a long foreign trip, missing Gilda's wedding. Max and Gilda go to a four star hotel, enter the bridal sweet, and shortly afterward Max realizes that he is missing the honey moon!
Still, Max can always hope. Gilda is plenty willing to be a good sport and help build up his business. When entertaining important clients like Mr. and Mrs. Egelbauer (the cement king), Gilda will willingly (if haltingly) lead the stuffy guests in a pleasant parlor game of "Twenty - Questions" (Hopkins reluctant sounding, "Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?" at the start is heart-breaking). But Tom and George return to free her spirit from durance vile. And Max...he is reminded that the Egelbauers of the world never cared for Gilda, so when he announces his divorce it will double or triple his business.
When Noel Coward wrote DESIGN FOR LIVING, in 1930-31, he did plan for it to be performed with his friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane. Lunt and Fontane were the leading "married couple" stars of the American theater at that time. People in the know realized that Lunt was gay and (rumor had it) Fontane was a lesbian, but the marriage worked because of mutual artistic respect and partnership (oddly enough not so much in film - only one movie, THE GUARDSMAN - but in stage work and later television). With this in mind, Coward actually constructed the menage-a-trois of the play to be two bi-sexual men and the woman they jointly love. The bi-sexuality of Tom and George is not really developed in this film (Lubitsch would not have minded putting it in, but the powers that were at Paramount would have had fits). If you think of the central situation, though, and Gilda's reluctance to split the two "boys" there is a trace of Coward's original idea there.
The odd man out here is Max. It's ironic that Horton played Max, for in real life he was gay (Cooper was notorious, despite his marriage, for affairs with Marlene Dietrch, Patricia Neal, and several other women; although March had a long marriage to Florence Eldritch, he had a reputation as being a real "letch"). Horton's Max is quite sympathetic, despite his self-importance and no-nonsense view of things. He does have one of the most memorable moments in "Lubitsch Touch" cinema, when we see him and Hopkins go into the bed chamber on their wedding night. There is a long pause to represent a sizable passage of time. Then a disgruntled Max leaves the bed-room (obviously he has not gotten anything), spots a floral gift from "the boys", and kicks it viciously!
Max does one other thing that I find endearing - unintentionally he gives a good line of dialog ("Immorality may be fun, but....") to Tom, who sees what a good line of dialog it is. Subsequently, while attending Tom's smash comedy, Max is amazed to hear the line sprouted by a pompous figure on stage. More reason to hate Tom there!
I bought the Gary Cooper collection because of "Design for Living". It
didn't disappoint me. This movie is classy, it's full of wit and
sexually free. I found the plot intriguing, the set excellent, the
costumes fine and Lubitsch inspired together with Ben Hecht (lovely and
The movie shows 4 actors only, which could be considered its strength if the actors were all good. 1 out of 4 is good and 2 out of 4 are really good. 1 out of 4 has got nothing to do with such environments, dialogs and sophisticated comedy. Gary Cooper does not fit to me. He's a sort of amazing good looking and so dashing statue to look at. Nothing more. He just doesn't look comfortable in acting spoiling intellectual shades. He doesn't work to me.
Miriam Hopkins is good, she's mischievous, charming and funny. She plays the free woman with intelligence, combining sensuality and brain. Audience - even the male one - does understand why she can't choose between the two guys and she conquers it. Every woman would like to be her; that's the message she strongly brought on the screen: being free of living life the way she desires.
Edward Everett Horton is perfect, hilarious and very elegant. He's the right choice to play Plunkett Inc. and he didn't let it down. He IS Plunkett Inc.!
Fredric March is so charming, sophisticated, sexy and so right for Thomas. He does much better here than in other movies (e.g. Anna Karenina) which could seem more suitable for him. He's perfect for Lubitsch so much and his performance is a top one. He's a fine comedian too, he's measured and passionate at the same time and he's really handsome. His sensuality is made up either by intellectual attitude or a physical one.
Don't know why he's been forgotten, a wonderful actor like he is. Can anybody tell me?
I do suggest to get this movie and to enjoy it since it's really a nice touch in our collection. We do need nice and elegant touches. Especially nowadays.
In this surprisingly risqué film made before the Hays code, two men and a woman share an apartment in Paris and talk openly about sex. It's fun to watch, thanks to the witty and sophisticated dialog of Noel Coward, the screenplay by Ben Hecht, and of course the masterful direction of Lubitsch. March is wonderful as a struggling playwright. Hopkins has one of her best roles as a free-loving woman who loves two men but marries a third. Lubitsch elicits a fine comedic performance from Cooper as a hot-tempered artist. In a typical role, Horton plays a stuffed shirt. There's no music, which could make things seem static, but Lubitsch keeps it moving at a breezy pace.
Delightful even if more Ben Hecht than Noel Coward. The "menage a trois" has real brains, wit and magic. All due to the sensational chemistry between Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins and, of course, the unmistakable Lubitch touch. I was going to say that the film seems written today but the sad truth is there is nobody today that could write with this extraordinary elegance. Frediric March is masculine and volcanic, Gary Cooper feminine and irresistible and Miriam Hopkins, a sensational modern comedienne. As if this wasn't enough, Edward Everett Horton as Mr Wrong. The scene in which Hopkins compares Cooper and March to hats is one of my all time favorites.
This really is a great movie from 1933 and very ahead of its time.A young woman who is in love with two friends and is obviously sleeping with both of them must have shocked a more prudish audience back then i think it had been censored for a while.But never mind we can view it today knowing that there are a lot of gems like this one waiting to be rediscovered,its a shame that so many of the films made from this era are now lost.A modern audience wouldn't turn away from this film,as you don't expect a film from this era to be saucy and it is.Gary Cooper was a very nice actor and you can see why he was so popular back then,he had a very unusual style of being very masculine and at the same time very sensitive,he was great at picking the more complex roles,his characters weren't as one dimensional as most actors of this era.He was easily one of the most interesting actors of the 30s,this i would say was his best era in films.Unfortunately A Farewell To Arms is the only film you can buy in the UK from this era,i don't know why.Its sad that he is becoming a forgotten actor,i think we must have lost our imaginations a bit as we keep harbouring on with the John Waynes and the Cary Grants,and forget there were other classic actors around that don't deserve to be forgotten yet.
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