Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) would very much like to try on as many hats as she can, and when the hats look like Gary Cooper and Fredric March, they sure do fit comfortably. So it’s not a surprise that when she is asked to choose which chapeau she prefers, she answers quite pragmatically, “Both.”
“Design for Living” (1933) snuck in just a year before the Code was enforced with vigor (it was already around, just in a neutered form) and is rightfully celebrated for a sexual frankness that would disappear, or at least be subtextualized, in Hollywood movies for the next several decades. The film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch and adapted (very loosely) by screenwriter Ben Hecht from a Noël Coward play, is not the least bit subtle about its structuring ménage a trios, one that might seem all the more shocking due to the fact that it is propagated mostly by Gilda who clearly feels that three sides makes for a sturdy structure.
Aspiring writer Tom (March), aspiring painter George (Cooper) and advertising artist Gilda, American expatriates all, fall in love just about simultaneously when they meet-cute on a train in Paris. Gilda (pronounced Jill-da, not Gill-da, something which drove me to distraction for no justifiable reason) has no qualms about splitting her time between two hunky creative types, but Tom and George are quite adamant on matters of fidelity. When they realize that Gilda has been having her way with both of them, they take a solemn vow to affirm their friendship and “ignore her 50-50.” Their bros before hos pact lasts precisely until the first time one of them is left alone with Gilda who, let us note, never signed anybody’s pact.
A year later, Gilda would have to have been punished for her carnal longings (female desire being the purest anathema to Puritanical censors) but on Lubitsch’s watch, she’s allowed to explore all her options without judgment. Not that it’s easy. Two men are tough to juggle especially when they’re trying to bat each other out of the air. But once an exasperated Gilda explores a truly perverse lifestyle option (marriage to a proper and prudish fuddy-duddy played by the magnificent Edward Everett Horton), a restoration of the love triangle feels like a return to normalcy every bit as conservative as any Production Code affirmation of the sanctified family unit.
These were both relatively early roles for Cooper and March, though both were already well-known, and though they are better known today for their dramatic roles, it’s interesting to see them try their hand at the crisp, snappy banter of a Lubitsch comedy. Cooper is unusually loose-limbed and easy-going in this one though perhaps not quite a natural comedian. March is a bit stiffer, but still very likeable, particularly when Tom endeavors to make his writing look as sexy as George’s paintings. Try impressing the ladies by rifling through the pages of your freshly typed manuscript! Typed. As in typing. You know, on a typewriter. Oh, just look it up on Wiki.
It’s the lady in question that makes the film hum, though, and Miriam Hopkins is a humdinger as the self-possessed but never arrogant Gilda (but stop pronouncing it Jill-da!) who knows what she wants and feels guilty about wanting it… but only a little. Other actresses might have turned this into a smirky role with lots of “look at clever little me” mugging, but Hopkins helps to make Gilda a dynamic and plausible character, one of the more complex movie women of the day.
I am not familiar with the Coward play, but according to all the information provided, fans of the playwright should prepare themselves for an adaptation so loose that it contains just one or two lines of original dialogue and major plot changes. Ben Hecht was not unknown at the time, but was at the early stages of his legendary character, yet he displayed complete confidence in his ability to mold a respected source into a different form for a different medium. The pacing is impeccable and while I will admit that I am not as enamored of witty banter as many other film lovers, the dialogue is sharp without seeming too impeccably perfect to be real human speech (as I often find to be the case in studio comedies of this era).
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The new high-definition digitally restored transfer looks a bit soft in spots with some of the brighter scenes lacking just a bit in detail, but overall this is an excellent 1080p presentation. Close-ups show sharp detail and the sometimes elaborate décor (even elaborately down-scale décor) is shown off in high-def. There are occasional minor instances of damage visible (some flecks here and there) but fairly minor for a film that is pushing 80 years old.
The LPCM Mono sound is pretty straightforward, with clearly audible dialogue throughout. The sound design isn’t too complex so there’s not much to say here. No complaints though. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
“The Clerk” is a two minute segment from the omnibus film “If I Had a Million” (1932), directed by Lubitsch and starring Charles Laughton which, of course, means it is awesome.
Selected Scene Commentary is provided by film professor William Paul, author of “Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy.” It covers approximately 35 minutes of the film and focuses mostly on visual analysis of Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise” as well as “Design for Living.”
Film scholar and screenwriter Joseph McBride provides a discussion (22 min.) of the screenplay and talks about both Coward and Hecht. One of Lubitch’s quotes to Billy Wilder is highlighted: “Let the audience add it up and they’ll love you for it.”
For Coward fans who feel a bit cheated about the looseness of Hecht’s adaptation of the original play, the folks at Criterion have quite generously included a 1964 television production of the play for British television (73 min) starring Daniel Masey, Jill Bennett, and John Wood. Coward provides an introduction.
The 20-page insert booklet includes a superb essay by critic Kim Morgan, one of the better Criterion essays I’ve read in a while. Morgan is vastly more enthusiastic about the film than I am, but she’s so persuasive she’s convinced me to revisit the film in the near future for a second opinion. We need to hear more from her, Criterion!
You probably don’t think of 1930s Hollywood and ménage a trois in the same sentence, but “Design for Living,” though never sexually graphic, is quite frank in its portrayal of a non-traditional romantic arrangement, one that is fraught with problems but surprisingly stable. Criterion provides a nice collection of extras that should please fans of Lubitsch, Hecht and Noël Coward. The strong though not elite 1080p transfer makes this an attractive addition to the Criterion collection. They don’t make too many women like Gilda these days which is a darn shame, even if she insists on pronouncing her name incorrectly.