SEX. Sex. Sex. Like the wheel of fate that carries men to the fullness of fortune only to cast them down to ruinous depths, Hollywood goes through phases of being really, really dirty, then slightly more sly about it, and then back to dirty again. Design For Living squeaked out in 1933 before the Production Code made onscreen married couples sleep in separate beds and an otherwise unremarkable retort the most memorable thing about Gone With The Wind. It is, in consequence, fascinating to watch.
Based on an even filthier Noel Coward play about gay Bohemians and their, ahem, artistic living arrangements, the movie focuses on playwright Tom (Fredric March), painter George (Gary Cooper), and their irascible yet eager muse, Gilda (Miriam Hopkins). The boys’ dual interest and Gilda’s inability to choose between them leads to an experiment with group celibacy for the sake of creativity. Will it last? Of course not, but watching the agreement fall apart is half the fun in this confused, clownish comedy.
At its highest points, the movie operates like a proto-screwball farce. Adapted by master spitfire Ben Hecht, Design For Living comes alive through snappy dialog and ridiculous situations, most fully realized in a third act that pits our artistic heroes against ponderous cement barons and the forces of conformity. March and Cooper are never more enjoyable than as these trickster figures, bent on breaking up a dull party and rescuing Gilda from her brush with matrimony. There’s a level of insanity to the number of times poor Mr. Egelbaur, the guest of honor, comes under assault, verbal and otherwise. The three leads, united in an effort to pinch the nose of bourgeoisie mediocrity, finally have something approaching an antagonist; it enlivens and frees the actors, who become as game as their innuendos and insults require; Miriam Hopkins, in a shimmering golden gown only nitrate could do justice to, is never more alive than in relishing her boys come to her rescue, gleefully destroying her own financial security in the process.
Ménage a Trawr.
Guiding the operation from the director’s chair, Ernst Lubitsch elevates the proceedings with his equally gleeful manipulation of viewer knowledge. For instance, Tom, having left Gilda and George alone together in Paris, dictates a letter full of fraternal pride at his theatrical success in London, but is cut short by the arrival of a note. His face goes stiff, and ashen, he crumples up the paper and revises his missive to a simple “Good luck.” We don’t see what the note said. It’s you, you naughty viewer, who surmises George has finally slept with Gilda, leaving Tom, a pseudo-cuckold, out in theLondon fog.
Lubitsch’s brand of comedy is an intellectually pleasurable exercise, sophisticated and understated, full of closed doors that offer the audience a chance to use their own imaginations to construct what goes on behind. The Lubitsch touch and Hecht’s more venomous script inspire different impulses, and each provide visceral pleasure, be it high-class comedy or pure burlesque.
What those two impulses are not, is unified, and the film suffers from uneven pacing and untethered plot points. Even it’s two leading men, dapper Fredric March and the more rough-hewn Gary Cooper, are hardly of a kind, and there are clunky scenes where neither of them seem quite at ease with the snippy dialog. Cooper, especially, suffers from his star image getting in the way here. Much like how Orlando Bloom is too much of a kitten to be a convincing crusader or how tough a sell Denise Richards, crack starship pilot, is, it’s just hard to accept him as a sensitive peintre.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Badass.
The kinds of art the pair are engaged in, too, is neither particularly compelling or ridiculous enough to be very funny. Tom’s smash hit, “Goodnight, Bassington,” as represented by a number of lines read out of context, with a few Depression-era snubs to ‘square meals’ and ‘security,’ kind of flails about like a fish suffocating on dead screentime and interrupts the flow of the movie.
Let’s talk about those plot points for a moment, because there are some whoppers. Gilda courts the boys separately, plays critic to both of them at once, then sleeps with each of them in turn, then goes off to marry her hapless advertising employer, played by Edward Everett Horton with the chin-trembling of an expert rube, then takes her two artists back with a renewed ‘armistice’ agreement. She is constantly falling onto beds and couches in bouts of indecision until she finally husks at George, “It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement, but I am no gentleman.” Her moves are illogical, unjustified by any sort of character development, and as flighty as they prove inconsequential. If this kind of thing bothers you, buckle up.
It’s certainly enough to tire out a lady.
The distance from the characters helps the ending, however. Lubitsch leaves the viewer room to doubt how long the whole screwy enterprise of sexual truce between the three parties will last after the credits. And ultimately, the pleasure of watching Design For Living is in the Lubitsch rope-a-dope, in staying slightly ahead of the curve and leaving enough room for the viewer to dance around the narrative in whichever direction they choose. But given the film’s subject matter, the use of so much ellipsis could actually hurt how invested you get in the movie. The level of enjoyment rises or falls depending on how willing you are to simply accept the twists of the plot, and on how much fun you have both absorbing the dialog and filling in what’s left unsaid.
Much like the characters themselves, you have to be game for a great gay romp, but if so, there’s much to recommend Design For Living. Hecht’s screenplay, even if slightly undermined by Lubitsch’s direction, makes the movie worth a viewing by anyone who appreciates good snark.
Take a Drink: any time Gilda switches partners.
Take a Drink: any time a scene would be improved if Gary Cooper had a six-gun.
Take a Drink: every time something naughty happens offscreen.
Take a Sip: every time Mr. Egelbaur is mentioned by name.
Finish Your Drink: whenever a gentleman’s agreement is struck.