Design for Living (1933)

Lubitsch again! This is pretty much an in-name-only adaptation of Noel Coward’s play, as Ben Hecht claimed he retained only one line of Coward’s dialogue in his own screenplay for the film (be interesting to see the TV adaptation included in the Criterion set to find out what he actually wrote). As for Hecht and Lubitsch, they came up with a classic, however distantly related to its source it may have been… I was interested to hear in the commentary that Miriam Hopkins’ Gilda is the least developed character in the original, whereas she’s really the driving force of the film. In modern terms, Design is really a sort of “bromance” between struggling artists Gary Cooper and Fredric March; it’s their meeting with Hopkins on the train to Paris which disturbs the balance they’ve established. It’s an interesting love triangle (or pyramid, if you include Edward Everett Horton’s “compromise” character in the equation) that results which they call a “gentleman’s agreement”. But when March becomes a successful playwright and relocates to London, the balance is really disturbed, as Hopkins admits she’s no gentleman… This was about as racy as films got in 1933, there being no bones made about the sexuality at the core of it, and for years thereafter the Production Code people would persistently deny it a reissue. Yet from our perspective it’s simply full of charm, because there’s great chemistry between the three points of the love triangle—Gary Cooper was apparently considered a controversial choice back in the day but I can’t see why, I think he acquits himself well in the trio—and they are, essentially, such nice, likeable people (Hopkins doesn’t want to be a homewrecker, after all) that by the end of proceedings you not only want the “gentleman’s agreement” to work but you suspect it actually will. Rather lovely.


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