Design for Living

Design for Living (1933)

March 14, 2019   |  by Shannon

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This week I chose to watch and review Design for Living (1933), largely because I am not yet a Fredric March fan, and this film pairs him with GARY COOPER, of whom I am definitely a fan!  What better way to introduce myself to Mr. March than by starting with a film that also stars someone I know I already enjoy?

Design for Living, directed by Ernst Lubitsch and written by Ben Hetch, is the film version of the Noel Coward play of the same name.  If you are familiar with the play, however; don’t expect the film to be similar in any way but the base concept!  Reportedly, only one line in the film was retained from the original Coward play!  Regardless, it is a witty screenplay.  Just don’t expect it to feel like a Noel Coward piece.

The film is set in Paris, and the story revolves around three American ex-pats, Tom, George, and Gilda—played by Fredric March, Gary Cooper, and Miriam Hopkins, respectively.  Tom and George are old buddies, roommates of eleven years.  Tom is a struggling playwright and George a struggling artist.  They both fall for the spunky Gilda after meeting her on a train ride.  Gilda likes both of them too, and begins seeing each of them separately.  Both of the boys love her, but are unaware that she is dating (and sleeping) with each of them.

Of course, the boys’ ignorance of the situation can’t last long, and they find out that Gilda is two-timing them from her boss and third (but platonic) admirer, Max (played by the ever-consistently hilarious Edward Everett Horton).  “Immorality may be fun, but it’s not fun enough to replace one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day,” he tells each of the boys.  (This line is a running gag throughout the film.)

Tom and George decide it “would be a shame to let a piece of female fluff ruin an eleven year friendship,” so they confront Gilda.  But it ends up being impossible for them to completely kick her out of their lives, and it proves equally impossible for Gilda to decide which one of the boys she likes best and will choose to continue a relationship with.  So what is the logical thing to do?  Why live together in a platonic ménage a trois, of course!  Gilda will move in with Tom and George, and be the artistic muse for both. And that is just what they do.  Or at least at first…

Gilda brings success to both Tom and George, and it is not long before Tom’s success takes him to London to help with the production of a play he has written that, thanks to Gilda, will be performed in London.  So Tom must leave George and Gilda, and yep, you guessed it, romantic embers spark in Tom’s absence, and George and Gilda end up getting together.

It is smooth sailing in their relationship until Tom, who finds out about the romance between George and Gilda from who else but Max (!!!), comes back to Paris.  Tom arrives on an evening when George is out of town on a painting commission, and takes advantage of his buddy’s absence by sleeping with Gilda.   THEN, George comes back the next morning and discovers the liaison.  Everyone is upset, and Gilda leaves while the boys argue.  Before parting, she writes each of the boys a note stating that she still loves them both, and can’t choose one over the other.

The boys continue their friendship with each other while Gilda goes back to America and marries the very wealthy, social climbing, Max.  Unhappily married, eventually Tom and George surprise Gilda by turning up at her home during a big society party, which they promptly ruin.  Gilda just can’t resist them.  She leaves her husband and her finery behind, and sets out with Tom and George all over again!  Will they be successful at their platonic ménage a trois this time?  Up to us the viewers to decide, for with this, the film ends!

Ok, I really really really wanted to love this film!  There are so many positive reviews about it out there, I always enjoy Gary Cooper, I have heard good things about Miriam Hopkins, and I have been open-minded about learning to appreciate and recognize the talents of Fredric March.

But I have to say, this film was overall a disappointment.  Don’t get me wrong it is definitely worth watching, and I did enjoy it.  I just was expecting so much more!  The very premise of the film makes it hard to sympathize with the characters—they are all constantly betraying each other in like HUGE ways.  All the changing of sexual partners is done in such a disloyal way: they promise no sex, then George and Gilda break that promise while Tom is away, then Gilda cheats on George with Tom when George is away, then Gilda runs away and marries Max, then she runs away from Max with Tom and George!  I mean come on, where is the loyalty here?  If that is how these characters treat their friends, I would hate to be one of their enemies.

But the premise of the film—a woman living the bohemian life in Paris with two men as an artistic muse platonically but not really—is certainly intriguing, especially when you consider that Design for Living came out in 1933! 

Indeed, it is more than a little shocking to hear the petite and angelically blonde Miriam Hopkins say, towards the beginning of the film when our protagonists decide on their living arrangement, “Well boys, it’s the only thing we can do, forget sex.”  IN A 1933 FILM!!!  It just feels so unexpected for a black and white, old movie! 

In fact, Design for Living was one of the last films before—and some would say one of the films that inspired—the strict implementation of the Hays Code.  The Hays Code was the self-imposed moral code that Hollywood conformed all of its films to, beginning in 1934.  (Actually, the code was adopted in 1930, but not rigorously enforced until 1934.)  Films that centered on a ménage a trois, or had a character say “sex” on screen, as in Design for Living, were just not made after the Hays Office became so powerful.  And when Design for Living was to be re-released in 1934, it was banned by the Legion of Decency, and refused a PCA certificate because the film did not live up to the ethical standards set by the Hays Code!  So, if Lubitsch had made the film just one year later, it probably would not have been released, or it would have looked/sounded entirely different.  I think just knowing this piece of Hollywood history makes watching Design for Living all the more interesting.

Design for Living certainly has its moments when it really sings.  I was hoping I could say that those moments were when our SOTM, Fredric March, was on screen.  But I think that the actors who make this film worth watching are Edward Everett Norton and, the star I will focus on, Gary Cooper.

Gary Cooper is so young here!  Hard to believe he had already appeared in over 50 films by the time he made Design for Living.  Cooper’s screen persona by the early 1930s was much more of the western, adventure, drama type, so when Lubitsch wanted him for the comical part of George, it was quite a surprise to everyone, most of all Cooper himself.  His comedy skills on screen were unproven at this point in his career.  Luckily, Lubitsch saw Cooper’s comedy potential.  And if you ask me, Coop steals the show!  Handsome as ever, he is also by far the most likeable and sympathetic character in the film.  In Design for Living, he somehow manages to be masculine and sensitive at the same time, something that Coop always excelled at from the start to the end of his career.

I found George to also be the most comical of the characters, and this film is a comedy, so it is a real tribute to Cooper’s natural talent that he shines so much in this, his first real comedy role.  Favorite line in the film:  when Gilda first tells the boys that she loves them both, and is explaining to George that she can’t leave Tom for George because she would miss Tom, and George replies, “You would not!  But for the sake of argument, ok.” Oh my goodness Cooper’s delivery here is absolute perfection.

Fredric March.  Well…I have to say that I found myself repeating Veronica Lake’s words about March as I watched him in Design for Living:  “pompous poseur” seems an accurate description to me.  I truly did not enjoy his performance here.  He is just comes off as well…pompous!  I did not find him handsome or comical in the film—two things we are clearly supposed to think he is.  I was left wondering how Gilda could be having such a hard time deciding which of the two boys she prefers.  I just wanted to take her by the shoulders, shake her, and shout, “GEORGE!  GEORGE! CHOSE GEORGE, YOU IDIOT!!!!

I did not find myself sympathetic to March’s Tom at any point in the film, not even when, in London, he is dictating a letter to be sent to George and Gilda, in the middle of which he finds out they have began a romance in his absence, and he changes the tone of his letter from a friendly, “I miss you guys” tone, to a very formal “Best Regards” tone.  I know I was supposed to feel for Tom here, and I so did not.  March overplayed the transition from happy to sad—he was putting on a show, playing for sympathy, and it was obvious.  It seemed like an act, so I didn’t feel sorry for him.  I found myself hoping Tom would stay in London so George and Gilda could live happily ever after in Paris.  Without him.

Miriam Hopkins is dressed beautifully throughout the film!  I particularly loved her white, sparkling (possibly beaded?) gown at the end of the film and the Ginger Rodgers-esque gown with the flower-petal-y sleeves she wears when she cheats on George with Tom.  That last sentence sounds a little harsh!  But it is true, and Hopkins’ Gilda is constantly up to such behavior throughout the film.  She just can’t seem to be loyal to the man she is with—if she is with George, she will cheat on him with Tom, when she cheats on George with Tom, she still can’t leave George for Tom.  And when she decides to marry Max, she wants to go back and be with George and Tom.  Talk about complicated!  It is this lack of loyalty to any of the people in the film who care and love her that made me unable to really like the Gilda character.  Whether you believe in women’s sexual liberation or not, I think we all value loyalty in a person, and that is a trait Gilda seems to lack, thus making her a rather unsympathetic character.  All that being said, I think Hopkins plays her superbly!  You may find yourself wondering why Tom and George continue to be nuts about her after her constant betrayals, but that is not a reflection on Hopkins’ acting—it comes down to the actual character she is playing.

Again, Design for Living was overall a bit of a disappointment for me.  I was really hoping I would be over the moon about it, and have nothing but positive things to say about Fredric March.  But it just didn’t work out that way!  Still, a good film and definitely worth watching.

Maybe the slew of March films available on TCM’s site, and the films of his they are featuring the rest of this month, will make me feel differently.

Have any of you seen Design for Living?  What are your impressions of the film?

I’m Shannon, thanks for visiting!  When I’m not on an adventure with my little girl, I’m developing plant-based recipes or watching a Classic Film!

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