What is “design for living”? According to the three protagonists of the film by that title, it sure as hell is not monogamy. Based on a play by Noel Coward, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 comedy about a ménage à trios was highly controversial but, nonetheless, a smashing hit. Mind you these were the waning days in Hollywood before the moralistic production code started to censor every motion picture for decades to come. And there is so much more in Design For Living than its racy setup. It has the depth and smarts that is often thought to be lacking in the comedy genre.
Fresh from his success with Trouble In Paradise, Lubitsch recruited three of the biggest stars to take the lead in this outrageous picture. Miriam Hopkins, who was a charming pickpocket in Trouble, plays Gilda—the center of affection between two longtime friends and starving artists. Frederic March—Hopkins’ Academy Award-winning co-star in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde— plays one of her admirers, Tom, who is a playwright of un-produced plays. The last piece of the trio is George, a boorish painter played by a young and dashing Gary Cooper. But lest we forget Glida’s friend and employer Mr. Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), aka the “man who did not get to first base” and whose self-righteous stance against the protagonists’ bohemian lifestyle is best summed up by the immortal line: “Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day.”
Penned by Ben Hecht of the Scarface and Underworld fame, Lubitsch’s version bears little resemblance to Coward’s play—a sacrilegious move that was much to the dismay of critics and the playwright. Right from the start, Lubitsch had set his footprint for the picture. Gilda is introduced to the two men on a train in a good five-minute wordless sequence, which was a clever buildup that draws influences from his silent film years without reverting to slapstick comedy. Then he toys with a bit of French that delivers its humor without the need of translation. Only after these scenes play out does the film go in full gear with the zinging dialogue that is often associated with Lubitsch, though Design for Living exercises a tad more restraint in its sharp spitfire wits than his other comedies, such as To Be or Not to Be and A Shop Around the Corner. Such space allows the film to develop the drama and flesh out these characters.
Since these were the days before the Hays code, sexual innuendos are merely served as appetizers. There is no beating around the bush. It doesn’t take long before Gilda utters the dreaded “s” word. As daring as it may sound in the 1930s, this gal is having sex with two different men. Heck, forget about the ‘30s, it is safe to say that at least half of this country today still cannot accept the notion of a woman with multiple partners without passing any moral judgment–much. Lubitsch’s female characters are always ahead of the curve and these ladies are as flesh-and-blood as any Hollywood movie would allow. But Gilda is absolutely one of a kind. As she is trying to explain why she is having relationships with both Tom and George, Gilda proclaims, “A thing happens to me that usually happens to men.”—A line so wickedly clever that it satirizes the double standard of gender roles while openly admitting her natural desire is rebelling against the arbitrary confines of monogamy.
Lubitsch revels in provoking hot-button topics in his comedies. Trouble in Paradise and To Be or Not to Be ruthlessly satirize the storms of their time (The Great Depression and Hitler’s rising respectively) when no one else was ready to crack a joke. To describe the “Lubitsch Touch”— a famous term coined to describe his filmmaking magic— is not an easy task since there is no concrete formula to his brilliance. Many good directors can benefit from sharp writing, talented actors and spot-on timing but what separates Lubitsch from the rest of the pack is his uncanny ability in infuse humanity into his comedies. An oddball situation (e.g., a three-way relationship) starts as a pivot for the movie’s humor yet it does not dictate how the drama flows. The characters are not the sum of their quirks, nor are they merely deliverers of punch lines.
In the midst of all the hoopla around the eccentric love triangle, friendship plays an unexpectedly important role in Design For Living. Despite their conflicting interest, Tom and George genuinely care for each other and, at their best attempt, refuse to let their pursuit of Gilda stand between them. Meanwhile, Gilda’s relationship with the pair also grows beyond the sexual attraction. The film is not meant to be an attack on monogamy—its characters, even after letting their personal desire get the best of them, are more thoughtful and conflicted than a stiff like Mr. Plunkett gives them credit for. It is a delight to see a romantic comedy that is able to encompass the levels of complexity in human relationships.
Design For Living is available on DVD.