Saturday, November 5, 2011

Design for Living (1933)

This sounds like a good formula for a successful motion picture: First get a story from a successful play off Broadway. (A play by the thriving writer Noël Coward, a hot name on Broadway, and it seems most of his works made it to the big screen) Second, make sure it is subject matter that is edgy yet at the same time deals with issues many can relate to. (A very liberal idea of a ménage à trios, yet also a story of the struggles of romantic relationships) Thirdly, cast it with some of the best, young, and brightest actors in Hollywood. (Oh, let’s get the rising Gary Cooper, Oscar winning Fredric March, and the beautiful Miriam Hopkins) Ok, now put these talents together and you get interesting picture made at very interesting time in the history of Hollywood. (Within months of when the Hays office put the production code into power effectively censoring all of the American motion picture industry) The film is Design for Living, the latest film by Ernst Lubitsch in December 1933.

Design for Living is a comedy about three struggling, Americans artist in Paris that share ménage à trios relationship, and how it tests the lifelong friendship of two men as they share the company of one lively woman who happens to enter their lives and falls for both of them. Tom (Fredric March) and George (Gary Cooper) are two great friends that both meet and fall for Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), who is so uniquely different with a special drive and understanding of life that entices these two chums to become enthralled in her. Because she shares affairs and equally loves both of them, Gilda decides that the three will live and share their lives together, guiding them almost with a motherly care, even swearing off the sex as to not cause trouble.  With Gilda as their muse, both men become successful at work, but their passion for Gilda tears them apart, leaving Gilda no choice, but to flee the two as to not cause trouble between the two dear friends. Gilda still loves both Tom and George, but marries her employer in a moment of clouded judgment, but when Tom and George reenters the picture, it becomes clear that the three are happy to be together. Gilda divorces her new husband, reestablishing things back to how they were, as a happy threesome.

I must say, it is an interesting picture. A story about a threesome is not something one would think of coming out of the 1930s. Beyond that, the film is about the struggles of relationships and love. Yes, a ménage à trios is not what you would call a customary relationship status, but the story here goes beyond that as the three are clearly in love with each other. Tom and Gilda love each other. Gilda and George love each other. Even Tom and George love each other, not romantically, but with a brotherly love men can have with one another. The struggle is balancing their love for the other two, not wishing to hurt the one while loving the other. Gilda is the center of the story as the spark that causes the lustful fires, but the three understand that the mutual love they share for each other is greater than that which they share for just the one. She is even willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the friendship that Tom and George have. Therefore it is a story of love, respect, and scarafice.

Aside from the story, the picture is well made. There is nothing flashy as it is a picture based off a stage play, where everything must be contained on a single stage. Ernst Lubitsch would be the architect of this motion picture as both producer and director. With a vast résumé to his credit, including The Love Parade, One Hour with You, The Smiling Lieutenant, Monte Carlo, and several others, Lubitsch was a man of credibility.  When he decided to adapt the play for the screen, he originally got some friction as Lubitsch styles in his films were different from Coward plays. In the end the film version was a loosely based version of the original play. The character’s names were changed as well as their attitudes. Coward’s original characters were more intelligent and knowledgeable while Lubitsch made them more naïve, but the stories core remained very similar. Many fans of the original play were appalled at how much the story was changed. Coward would even poke fun at how little of his original script was left in. So for purists of the original work, many disliked to loss the screen version had compared to the imaginative play. Most other critics or movie goers tended to enjoy the film, those that were not familiar with the play. With the help of the press about the subject matter and sexual innuendoes the picture would be one the top ten grossing films of the year.

The starring cast was one of genuine interest at the time. Fredric March was an award winning actor from his film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Gary Cooper was a very busy Hollywood leading man who had starred with many of the best. Miriam Hopkins was becoming one of the most notable blonde beauties in Hollywood with a sharp mind to go along with her more seductive qualities. The three were either at or approaching their peaks, making them appealing names for such a film. Along with the three stars was Edward Everett Horton who played Max Plunkett, Gilda’s boss and romantic pursuer until they marry. Horton was a character actor, whose career flourished from his many small parts, helping to drive stories, but never overshadowed the stars.

Design for Living would make a fair sum of money for Paramount, but as censorship set in within the studios the film would hit tougher times. With the film’s frank talk about sexual relationships and innuendos, it took a while for it to pass through the Hay’s office after its initial release. Even though the film finally passed the production code upon trying to re-release the picture, the Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization, condemned the film effectively banning it from making it back to the screen for follow up runs. The film was deemed too risqué and would collect dust. But America was changing as an after effect of the roaring 20s and these organizations did what they thought was good for the nation. Unfortunately it would hinder creativity for a period of time in the land of imaginative minds. Design for Living goes on as a reminder of what films were doing right before a huge road block would hit the studios of Hollywood in 1934.


  1. That's a good account of what is a very odd and awkward but interesting film. It takes a while for Lubitsch to regain his form after the Hays Office/Legion of Decency crackdown, but then ironically he later does his best work in the prime of censorship with Ninotchka (1939) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940).

    1. It really is an interesting film. Lubitsch is trying to be his provocative self, but tries to stay clean, in his own little way. It will be interesting to see how he evolves in the future.


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