**This review is written as part of the Fabulous Films of the ’30s Blogathon hosted by The Classic Movie Blog Association. Check out the other participants’ work here.**
Design for Living has the pedigree only the best pre-Codes accrue: directed by master of comedy, Ernst Lubitsch, it stars the leading lady of his last masterpiece (Miriam Hopkins in 1932’s Trouble in Paradise, and was prevented from receiving the Producer’s seal of approval when the Code took effect due to its salacious content. The premise certainly makes for some pearl-wringing moments, and the dialogue is franker than you expected, but this is a far cry from the comedic highs of Trouble in Paradise and that colored my overall enjoyment of the film.
Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) meets struggling writer Thomas Chambers (Fredric March) and his equally struggling best friend, painter George Curtis (Gary Cooper). Gilda likes both men equally, and the trio enter into a pact where she’ll act as their coach, so long as there’s “no sex.” Unfortunately, the sins of the flesh get the best of all of them, threatening to tear about their friendships despite their rising success.
For those who have yet to experience salacious pre-Code, Design for Living earns its entry. The threesome – ahem – aside, there’s a few choice bon mots that provoke, especially since upright stars like Cooper and March say them. My personal favorite has to be March’s declaration to Gilda’s long suffering friend, Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), “In other words, Mr. Plunkett, you never got to first base!” The trio keep their individual romances a secret throughout the movie’s first half, and the threesome element never plays as steamy as expected until the end. When Gilda and George decide to get together, leaving Tom out, March’s character goes to visit George…seeing Gilda instead. The scene ends there, but the “sleepover” is apparent as Gilda and Tom have breakfast…with him in the same suit from last night, one of many gender swaps the movie uses to great effect.
The walk of shame from a male perspective notwithstanding, Lubitsch’s greatest work comes from attacking patriarchy and subverting sexual relationships in his many films. Trouble in Paradise certainly gave Herbert Marshall’s character the upper hand, but Design for Living puts the onus squarely on Gilda (not to be confused with a later, more famous redhead with the same name, Hopkins’ plays JILL-da). Her love for both Tom and George puts her in a position that’s foreign to all of them. “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men,” Gilda realizes. For Gilda, she’s in a position of power, being able to toy with these men. And that doesn’t make Gilda the villain, in fact Thomas and George gussy themselves up to impress her, primping like two women going on a first date, and leaving out items showcasing their intelligence. At other moments the two men act like children, siblings competing for Gilda’s motherly attention. There’s also an added element of Gilda berating them as a means of making their art better.
The problem is the whole thing just never translates into anything particularly funny. This was based on a Noel Coward play, and it’s been reported that the only line kept was “For the good of our immortal souls,” spoken when Tom and George get drunk after Gilda’s jilted them for the not-quite last time. Comparing this to something like Blithe Spirit, another Coward play turned feature, shows that sometimes Lubitsch’s touch doesn’t always enhance the funny. Funny aside, there’s also a marked stop-start quality, a puttering the movie can’t shake, and I’m not talking about Gilda’s constant leaving. Gilda, Tom and George meet in a cheeky and erotic sequence involving entwined feet, while the next scene shows her making out with both men at different times. There’s no pleasantries implying they’ve spoken for more than a couple minutes, now they know each other? Later on, the men and Gilda work together to get their careers to take off, and that’s solved in seconds. If the main plot is how the three navigate their threesome, we need something more than watching her work with them individually. The ending sequence of kisses frustrates more than delights because that’s what the audience hopes for!
Cooper, March, and Hopkins are all fine, with neither stealing the show like Hopkins did in Trouble in Paradise. Hopkins certainly understands Lubitsch’s dialogue, but for all the strength her character wields in the opening sequences, her ultimate marriage to Max fails to make discernible sense, short of having her turn clotheshorse on us. March plays the verbose writer to a T, but it’s laughable believing Cooper as this hotheaded artist. He, too often, mugs and poses for the camera, and while everyone talks about him smashing and punching things, we never see it; he’s the film’s “seven in one blow” shoemaker.
Design for Living doesn’t work as a comedy, but the actors and the gender shifts are fun, as is the thought of the threesome that’s created.
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