I’ve long pondered exactly what “the Lubitsch touch” was. I’ve enjoyed many of his most political satires (Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be), and been amused by others (Heaven Can Wait, That Uncertain Feeling) In The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch, Leland Poague defines “the Lubitsch touch” as his cinematic wit, charming and fluid style. Further, the term encompasses the director’s ability to suggest more than he showed and to show more than others dared suggest.
“Suggestive” is certainly a word that could be used to describe Design for Living. Released in 1933, the film is based on the stage comedy by Noel Coward, though little of his dialogue actually made it to the screen. As the film opens, George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Fredric March) respectively, are an unsuccessful painter and playwright. On a train to Paris, they meet Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a commercial artist not the least bit embarrassed to earn a living painting advertisements of Napoleon in long underwear. She immediately recognizes the innate quality of both men. By the end of their trip, George and Tom fall madly in love with Gilda. Before they part ways, the three arrange to meet again.
Meanwhile, Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton) Gilda’s slightly older, somewhat stuffy boss tries to make his romantic feelings for her known, but Gilda quickly scolds him for such thoughts. Shortly after, she proceeds to sleep with George and Tom to decide which of the two is worth keeping. But alas, both men turn out to be so wonderful, she finds herself unable to choose. Not wanting to lose either one of them, Gilda offers to become their “mother of the arts”—she’ll help them become successful artists while continuing to enjoy their company; The one stipulation? It’s a “gentleman’s agreement” which throws sex out of the relationship.
Soon after, a famous producer (Franklin Pangborn) takes an interest in one of Tom’s plays, and asks him to come to London to help oversee the rehearsals. Gilda then moves in with George and he quickly becomes a successful artist. When Tom learns of Gilda and George’s romantic involvement, he immediately heads back to Paris. With George away on business, Tom and Gilda rekindle their romance. However, the next morning, George surprises the lovebirds, and punches Tom in the face. Sad and confused, Gilda packs her bags and heads back to Utica, New York, where Max immediately proposes to her. In time, after having visited China, George and Tom decide to visit Gilda and see whether she has found happiness in her life.
While writer Ben Hecht famously bragged that his script for Design for Living only contained one line of dialogue from the Noel Coward stage play, the scenario—in which a woman finds herself enjoying the sexual attentions of two men simultaneously, instead of doing the “right” thing and letting the men make a choice—is Coward at his best. With the exception of a few name changes, and time lapses in structure, the stories in both the play and film, are essentially the same. Quite wisely, Lubitsch allows Gilda to dominate George and Tom throughout, despite her constant manipulations.
Cooper and March are a lot of fun to watch, especially when they get angry and try to hurt each other. In truth though, the film belongs to Miriam Hopkins, who is somehow able to give Gilda a certain “aw shucks” innocence, even as she is playing all three men—George, Tom and Max to bend to her will.
The newly remastered standard DVD in 1.33:1 aspect ratio looks very good. While there are some noticeable black scratches along the right side of the frame in the early going and a unfortunate white scratch or two that come along in the middle left portion of the picture during the film’s final ten minutes, products of the nearly eighty-year old movie’s age, there’s little to be disappointed about here. Grayscale is fairly solid, and black levels are good.
The monaural soundtrack offers clear dialogue, but I did notice a subdued hiss throughout. I also noticed an occasional flutter, but that’s to be expected when listening to a soundtrack of this age.
English subtitles are included.
The following special features are included:
- “The Clerk” (3 min) a segment of the 1932 omnibus film If I Had a Million, starring Charles Laughton and directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
- Selected-Scene Commentary (36 min.) Film professor William Paul, author of Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy, discusses the production history of the film and offers a visual analysis of the film, as well as the development of the director’s style from Trouble in Paradise to Design for Living.
- Joseph McBride: The Screenplay (23 min) in this new video interview, film scholar and screenwriter Joseph McBride discusses the structure of Design for Living, its differences and similarities with Noel Coward’s play, Ben Hecht’s script and legacy, etc. The interview was recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2011.
- Play of the Week: A Choice of Coward (74 min.) a 1964 British television production of the original Design for Living, introduced by Noel Coward
- Booklet: an illustrated 23 page booklet featuring an essay by film critic Kim Morgan.