DESIGN FOR LIVING
Daring, unconventional, and full of light and life, Design For Living might just be my favorite romantic comedy.
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Ben Hecht ("based" on the play by Noel Coward)
With Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrel), Gary Cooper (George Curtis), Fredric March (Tom Chambers), and Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett)
Spoiler alert: severe
It's wonderful. Go watch it!
...But everybody already knows that Design For Living is the one about the threesome, right?
I am, of course, using a definition of "everybody" that means a million living human beings, probably fewer, more-or-less coextensive with those who know who Ernst Lubitsch is, know what "pre-Code" means, and give a crap either way. Don't fool yourself into thinking it's a pop cultural phenomenon—Design has not been parodied on The Simpsons, and "I survive by miracles!" is not a line that will let you sidestep the question when your next date interrogates you about your income. Thus that sentence should be rewritten "Everybody, who already cares, already knows that Design For Living is the one about the threesome."
And yet the sophisticated consideration of polyamory that's made Design comparatively famous is not, in fact, in the movie at all. The relationship comes into its final form only in the last few minutes. And though it may be heavily enough implied by the last lines, I'm afraid you must take the inference, rather than the pipe.
A cognizable pity, since these pipes are Gary Cooper and Fredric March, whilst Miriam Hopkins, portraying the object of their joint and several affections, is truly hotter than a solar core—and they measure that in the millions, darling.
It's a conventional rom-com in this regard—the romance and film culminate together. The irony is that Design is spoiled by its very selling point.
The ending was apparently unsettling enough for some. Design first hit theaters in 1933; the very next year, Joseph Breen joined the Dominion, and the Motion Picture Production Code gained its enforcement power. Design's approval was pulled and it would never be theatrically released again. It spent decades in dark obscurity, before a relatively recent physical and critical resurrection.
But Design's solution to the Gordian knot tied by its breed of romantic comedies—where two equally likeable suitors pursue the same woman—is also a genuine twist. The usual procedure, after all, seems to involve introducing a new, cardboard woman as a consolation prize for the loser (the romantic drama has the edge here—they can just kill him). In any event, it's a twist that has been ruined irrevocably for generations to come. And I helped!
That's the double-bind. A measured discussion would probably not rouse much passion; but "it's 1933, and she does 'em both" is salacious enough to engage the interest.
This lovely prurience is built into the scenario, the bones of which were taken from Noel Coward's play of the same name, marginally the same plot, and so few of the same words that the single line remaining, the toast "For the good of our immortal souls," was deliberately reinserted as a joke. Only one character even shares a name with her stage counterpart—and it's pronounced differently. I've seen a production of the play, and comparisons between the two may be quite profitable in explaining why Lubitsch and Ben Hecht's reboot is so great.
The film departs from the source immediately. Opening in a manner that was already standard in the 1920s, and probably dates back in fiction to the invention of steam power itself, our principals meet-cute on a train to Paris.
Now we all own cars, and meet no one cutely ever.
It's here that Gilda Farrel first lays eyes on Tom Chambers (March) and George Curtis (Cooper). And that's "Gilda" as in "gentleman," though it's a very important plot point that she is not. It's significant that she finds them slumbering, immediately putting her into a position of relative power over the two, as it is a position she never leaves.
A commercial illustrator by profession, Gilda has a clean line in many ways (women in 1930s movies were so pretty—possibly due to malnutrition and the selective effect of terrible sexism). She's presently working on an ad campaign about Napoleon's preference of underwear. But as she is also versed in the black arts, she captures George and Tom's souls in her sketchbook—that's the metaphorical effect anyway—and, once finished, takes a nap. They wake up, and as the sketchbook has fallen, they dutifully investigate its contents, putting them on the same level as Gilda, one that in these paranoid days we would recognize as moderately creepy. Before equality can be achieved, however, we smash cut back to Gilda, wide awake and smirking like a cat about to pounce on a couple of mice.
Erudite insults fly, and once everyone stops speaking French, we learn that despite Tom and George's suits and ties, they are vile hipsters from the past. They live in their own filth, writing unproduced plays and painting pedestrian pictures, respectively. But Gilda has a soft spot for artists—perhaps a desire to live vicariously through them, since she's abandoned any loftier aspirations of her own to pursue a more remunerative career. They all become friends. Separately, they become more.
Through the interventions of Gilda's meddling boss, Max Plunkett, George and Tom learn the truth, and confront her. The outcome is not any of the obvious choices; instead, they decide to all three live together—in chastity, with Gilda as the "mother of the arts"—and seal their pact of artistic asceticism with a gentlemen's agreement. This is a wording that, as noted, should have raised more immediate alarm.
Still, as a measure to increase output, it's effective. Under Gilda's editorial reign, the two begin to generate product worthy of notice for the first time. As a workable design for living, however, it utterly fails—as it obviously must, since this is caged heat we're talking about. It takes about three months.
I wouldn't have given it a week.
What's so impressive about Design isn't that it's funny—though it is seriously funny, with that overwritten wit native to Hollywood's first thirty years of sound. It's not even that it's pretty explicit about sexuality—though it is, going so far as to utter the word "sex" (!). However, it's still less shocking in this regard than you might have been induced to expect.
(Though you could be fooled. It requires a certain facility with 1930s slang to understand that it's not till halfway through the picture that Gilda actually sleeps with either one of them. "Making love," I've since learned, was the "hooking up" of its day—and is thus tied for first place with the most useless phrase in the history of our language. Watching the film without reference to your Old English dictionary makes it seem significantly racier than was intended—but, when Lubitsch wants you to know they're finally about to fuck, you know deeply in your reproductive organs that this is so.)
My suspicion is that Gilda avoids getting pregnant thanks to Tom and George each ejaculating before they even have their pants off.
Anyway, the most impressive thing about Design is how kind, gentle, and innately humane it is. It would have been easy—so easy it could have been done by accident—to make Gilda a capricious, emasculating exploiter of men, and an outrageously weak and pathetic character in her own right. A summary of the rest of the film does her no justice in this regard: when she's had her fun, she runs off to marry Plunkett, a Rich Person. And, since this is the kind of comedy where the good guys win, when they come back she abandons her marriage to return to their gross apartment in Paris.
In fact, that's exactly what the play is like: it's soulless, and not just in comparison. It's populated by marionettes doing Coward's bidding—that is, reciting passably clever nonsense at each other until curtains. (Hecht's script is not just better; it's livelier.) The play ends with laughter for its trio, but I sat stonefaced while its analogue to Plunkett erupts with emotion at their brazen plans for adultery and the principals cackle at his misfortune. The apparent message of the play is that he was a contemptible idiot for ever marrying such a slut in the first place. And their meanness isn't limited to the square; they're mean to servants, they're mean to strangers, and they're particularly cruel to each other.
Coward's play isn't about a relationship that must find expression, whether society approves of it or not; it's about stupid adolescents in the bodies of thirty year olds who don't want society's approval, so they have angry intercourse with each other. When they use the word "love," you kind of want to vomit. It's very juvenile, and though fitfully amusing, altogether it's weak shit, and it needs to get off my track.
The sequence that ends Lubitsch's film overcorrects: Plunkett's commitment to capitalism and his business gonnegtions is stretched so comically broad that it snaps. Plunkett discovers his wife's former lovers, having infiltrated one of his tedious parties, persuading her to return to bohemian splendor. He gets upset, because the cuckoos' presence is ruining his relationship—with his clients. Devoted fiercely to the appearance of propriety yet wholly disinterested in its substance, it's impossible to say why he would have married Gilda in the first place, except that the plot required some kind of third act complication. (And whatever terrible thing happened to poor Max on their wedding night remains enigmatic—hidden behind closed doors, a dissolve, and some kind of dick symbolism.)
I don't get it.
I still think that Plunkett's dampened emotion remains a flaw to mar the perfection of the piece; but in light of the play, I do understand it. The Coward's way out would have been to make fun of Plunkett until he cries. George and Tom do make fun of him, in their man-childish manner, but Lubitsch is sympathetic; and that's not all that happens anyway.
What binds this design together—and makes the title seem aspirational, rather than ironic, as Coward meant it—is Miriam Hopkins.
Sure, Fredric March is superb, as the smarter (and shorter) man, routinely annoyed by being best friends with an idealized masculine figure; and Gary Cooper is sublime, as the man smarter and more sensitive than he looks (and, often, acts—Coop and Lubitsch manage a pretty solid-looking fake punch). The actors' dynamic is perfect, both with Hopkins and each other—it's not entirely unreasonable to generate some fun libarts term paper interpretation out of their immaculate bromance, though God knows here it would undermine the whole spirit of the enterprise.
Lubitsch seems slyly aware of this angle. The best scenes in the movie use the ringing of the return on Tom's broken typewriter as a sonic shorthand for his love—first, triumphantly, when he's come back for Gilda, then, heartbreakingly, when it sounds off in a conversation with the cheated-upon George, who likens it to the warning report of the rattlesnake. If you prefer everybody going into everybody, there's your entrepot; it's only that bisexual polyamory seems dully equitable, like erotic roshambo. The point of Design For Living is that the threat of scissors, omnipresent for Tom and George, must be consciously denied by an act of trust: in love, jealousy meets its match. (I never said it was a realistic film.)
But it's Hopkins who makes this possible; thus it's Hopkins who must receive the highest praise. You can overstate—easily—how much of a feminist film Design is. Gilda is, after all, the very prototype for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This movie passes the Bechdel Test like a blind person passes a driving exam. And Gilda doesn't just not have a single scene outside of the presence of a male character—I'd bet a dollar you could count the number of shots in which she's not with one of them on two hands.
And none of that matters in view of Hecht's, Lubitsch's, and Hopkins' creation. Hopkins is at turns distractingly theatrical, but Gilda is distractedly theatrical; it is, we understand, how her character relates to the world, in terms of art and artifice. Yet she's far from phony: she's aggressively honest. She knows what she wants, and she says what she wants from the earliest possible moment. She henceforth never lies, nor omits, to her men (which is a nice fucking change of pace for me).
Gilda only deceives herself: what she wants is impossible to have—not physically, because she could have that at the snap of her fingers, but socially and emotionally—and she pursues it anyway. (If she gets it anyway, isn't that what a romantic comedy is all about?)
Gilda is granted great power over the lives of the men in her life, and exercises it with great (if imperfect) responsibility. It's important to realize that when she breaks the gentlemen's agreement and sleeps with George, it's when he's at his lowest ebb, having seen Tom start a successful career as a playwright while he still languishes—it's in part a pity-fuck, though without the connotation of contempt. When she in turn sleeps with Tom, months later, it's not just because she loves him, but because she betrayed him—because there's a fairness to it. That it also ends up the pretext for leaving both of them might suggest the kind of fairness King Solomon was known for, but she exits to preserve the friendship between her men that love would otherwise destroy—and at the expense of her own happiness.
And, finally, if we must be harsh, there's Plunkett, by whom she doesn't do entirely right (though he's also a boor who only occasionally seems to try to respect her, and never succeeds). Even at this extremity, in dealing with someone the script itself barely considers human, Gilda—and Hopkins—remains compassionate, explaining why what is happening must, and why it's hardly so bad as Plunkett may have at first thought. She is sorry, and we don't doubt her; and Plunkett himself seems half-convinced by her logic.
If it's not a work concerned with feminism as we know it today, it remains undeniable that it's a humanist film. I don't call it humanist just because it's nice and declines to judge its trio's feelings; I say it with specificity. Design's conclusion is that we can transcend our limitations through rationality and aesthetics, and it's terribly Enlightenment in that respect.
On one hand, Design provides an archetype for warmhearted female sexuality, stripped of terror without being reduced to powerlessness—in fact, more powerful than anything you'd be likely to see in 1933 (or in 2014); on the other hand is a presentation of romance as a male competition, rendered meaningless and quaint by cooperation and friendship.
This is ultimately what's so loveable about Design For Living. It lives up to its name. Not as a demand that we should all sign up for polyamory, though it doesn't sell the prospect short, but as a request. It asks us to think about our deepest feelings—consider how bound up they are by biology, by society, and other forms of mass-produced stupidity—and come up with solutions, as radical as necessary, for the problems they so heavily impose.
But why so serious about such a light and lovely comedy? Because the only thing about Design For Living that could make you sad is that almost a century later we've barely even started. Well, that, and no matter how hard you try, you can't look like Gary Cooper.
But it would be super-duper.