Criterion Corner: Design for Living (#592)

Three young, smart, attractive people – Gilda, a commercial artist, the painter George and the playwright Thomas – meet on a train to Paris. Their initial conversations may not be entirely friendly, but the sparks that fly as they exchange zingers make it clear that the men are attracted to Gilda, and vice versa – and how could they not be? They’re witty, they’re attractive, and they’re in Paris. Soon they fall: both of the men for Gilda, and Gilda for, well, both of them. She can’t choose, and she won’t choose – so Gilda, George and Tom come up with a plan: they live together as Gilda is a friend, a muse and a critic to both men. They make a gentlemen’s agreement to make sure that this will work: no sex.

What could possibly go wrong?

To be honest, most of what I could say about Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 comedy Design for Living, based on a play by Noël Coward but rewritten extensively by Ben Hecht (who also wrote the screenplays for Hawks’ Scarface and Hitchcock’s Notorious, among others) has already been said with eloquence by my co-baristas Julie and Alan in their podcast episode on the women of pre-code cinema. The two of them know the cinema of the era much better than I do, and they have the grasp of the historical and cultural context that I lack – so this is the perspective I’m bringing to this write-up of my latest foray into my extensive (and not a little intimidating) Criterion backlog. Comedy doesn’t always travel well through time, and what brought smiles to people’s faces in the 1930s might not translate smoothly for audiences born 40+ years later and watching the films almost 90 (eep!) years after they were first released. Look at Shakespeare: some of the things that are lost the quickest when reading or watching the Bard’s plays in the 21st century are the laugh lines, unless they’re heavily hammed up by the actors. Getting the jokes isn’t enough: I remember reading the plays back at Uni, checking the footnotes and understanding what Shakespeare was doing – but as (probably) E.B. White noted, the frog was dead at that point. (It’s generally the dry, witty asides and their more character-based humour that work more easily than the out-and-out jokes for contemporary audiences.)

So, after listening to Julie and Alan gushing profusely about Design for Living, I was curious, but I was also wary. Would the sparks fly for me as well, or would I sit there, nodding at what I knew must be witty lines and hilarious performances, but failing to feel it? Would I have to confess to the two of them that I was tone deaf when it came to this particular pre-Code gem? It’s not just references that I might not get. It’s the conventions of cinema, performance and genre that change over time, as well as qualities such as pacing. Watching a film that will be a hundred years old in ten years’ time can be very similar to watching films from countries and in languages that you don’t know, and the strangeness and lack of familiarity can be exhilarating – or it can just leave you puzzled. What’s true for all storytelling is definitely true for comedy, which is so dependent on norms and conventions of all kind, if only to play with them or even break them. And the audience might be left thinking: is this what people found funny in the 1930s?

To skip to the conclusion: Reader, I laughed. A lot. Pretty much from the first, I was won over, certainly by the wit, the charm and the occasional but entirely deliberate silliness of Design for Living‘s script, and just as much by the performances. Fredric March is great as the playwright Tom, as is Gary Cooper as George the painter; I’d only known Cooper from his iconic role in High Noon, where he plays a character that could hardly be more different, but he captures both the sparkle and the impetuousness of his part marvellously. And Miriam Hopkins is wonderful as Gilda, making it eminently easy to believe that both men would fall for her – as well as making it perfectly understandable why she would not want to choose between the two of them. And why should she?

And this is where Design for Living becomes more than what I was hoping for, namely a comedy that would still amuse even someone who, like me, wasn’t all that familiar with the era and its films. Because the film not only is neutral with respect to Gilda not making a choice: it suggests that these three would be happier if they could say “Nuts!” to the heteronormative pairing-off that is conventional in romances and romantic comedies. Not only is Gilda more content when she can be with George as well as Thomas, the two men are distinctly more happy when they’re both in the picture. In this case, a pair is a broken, incomplete ménage à trois, and it shows.

And, more than that, Design for Living is very explicitly about sexual relationships, which I wouldn’t have expected in a film that old – or at least I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t listened to Julie and Alan waxing lyrical about this choice pre-Code morsel. At the same time, there’s nothing salacious about the characters and their relationships: the film simply isn’t particularly coy or euphemistic. Sly, yes, which adds to the frisson. Gilda’s enjoyment of the two men isn’t sublimated, it may be about their minds and spiritedness, but it is just as much about how they make her feel, which in this case is a decidedly physical thing.

Though, the film and the times being what they are, this decidedly physical thing – the sexual spark between Gilda, George and Tom – is not communicated carnally so much as in words that are as witty, sexy and sophisticated as in the best, most spirited comedies. And our three protagonists are wonderful at wielding the words that Hecht’s script puts in their mouths. It’s almost impossible not to fall for them ourselves, at least a bit.

Verdict: Anyone who’s interested in Hollywood classics and especially the comedies of the era should check out Design for Living, a film that has barely put on any dust. Perhaps because it’s pre-Code and doesn’t yet have to trick its way past censors in ways that modern audiences may not immediately get, it feels fresher and more immediate than many a later comedy. Its frank openmindedness about a woman and two men who are best off when they don’t try to fit into relationships conventions and the witty repartee in which their relationship is navigated is delightful. The film does sag in the middle part – which is perhaps to be expected, as this is where the threesome is separated and Gilda decides to give it a go with only one of the two men – but Design for Living fully makes up for this in a wonderfully goofy final act in which Hopkins, Cooper and March share the screen again, leaving us – well, perhaps not quite with a curious, grateful thing going through our body and leaving our ears ringing… but let’s face it, few films quite manage that feat.

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