Design for Living
Cast & Crew
Edward Everett Horton
On a train bound for Paris, commercial artist Gilda Farrell meets fellow Americans George Curtis, a painter, and Thomas B. Chambers, a playwright, who share an apartment in the Bohemian section of Paris. Gilda works for prudish advertising agent Max Plunkett, who is currently running an ad campaign for Kaplan and McGuire's non-wrinkling underwear featuring Gilda's caricature of Napoleon in his skivvies. Although Max has known Gilda for five years, he has never gotten to first base with her romantically. After he discovers Gilda's separate rendezvous with Tom and George, whom he calls "hooligans," Max warns each of them that "immorality might be fun, but not fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day." Tom decides the line makes a good close for the first act of his new play, and when he reads it to George, each realizes that the other is in love with Gilda. Although they make a pact to forget Gilda, when she calls for a visit, neither one can turn her down. She arrives and confesses to each that she saw the other behind his back. Unable to choose between them, she suggests that they forget sex and concentrate on their work and all three make a gentleman's agreement to do so. Gilda moves in and becomes a "mother of the arts" by encouraging the boys' talent while deflating their egos. Soon Tom has sold his play to a London theatrical producer and must leave Paris for five weeks. Without Tom's presence, George and Gilda can no longer restrain themselves and break their agreement, then send word to Tom in London. Even though Tom's play is a big success and he is welcomed into London society, he is heartbroken over Gilda. When he runs into Max at the theatre, Max tells him George is now a prominent painter, and Tom goes to Paris that night to see him. When he arrives, he learns that George has left their old flat and has moved into a penthouse apartment. Although George is in Nice for a commissioned portrait, his "secretary," Gilda, is at home, and she and Tom rekindle their love. The next morning, George comes home early and, finding Tom in a tuxedo for breakfast, realizes he and Gilda have made love and tells them both to get out. George offers to take Gilda to London that afternoon, but she writes each of them a good-bye note and runs away to marry Max in Manhattan. On her wedding night, Gilda receives two potted flowers from Tom and George and is so distracted by the stunt that she fails to consummate her marriage to Max. Max later hosts a party for his advertising clients in order to be accepted into society and Gilda reluctantly plays the role of the bourgeois corporate wife. In the middle of a game of "Twenty Questions," Tom and George enter in tuxedos and go immediately to inspect Gilda's boudoir. Tired of inane parlor games, Gilda retires upstairs, but Max follows, urging her to ask an important client, Mr. Egelbauer, to sing. She refuses and then discovers Tom and George hiding in her bedroom. Max then walks in on them laughing on the bed and orders the hooligans out. Tom and George then proceed to the livingroom, where they mock Egelbauer's singing and cause a brawl, and the guests all leave. Gilda then tells Max she's leaving him for the sake of his business, and joins Tom and George in a cab, bound for Paris, and all three renew their gentleman's agreement.
Edward Everett Horton
Adrienne D' Ambricourt
Design for Living
German producer-director Ernst Lubitsch had been working in America for a decade, and was one of the most respected and powerful talents in Hollywood. His witty and ironic style of visual storytelling had come to be known as "the Lubitsch Touch." While his style was considered the ultimate in European sophistication, he had, in fact, a very shrewd understanding of the American character...something that Noel Coward, whose plays are peopled with posh upper-class Brits, lacked. Lubitsch couldn't relate to the rarefied wit of Coward, and realized that American audiences wouldn't either. And he knew the play's structure and talkiness wouldn't work on film. So he was eager to take the basic situation of one woman in love with two men, and make it his own...without losing the sexual suggestiveness. Censorship didn't really have much to do with it. In fact, although a production code of what could and could not be done in films existed in theory, in practice it was not yet being enforced in 1933.
Lubitsch first asked his favorite screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (Trouble in Paradise, 1932) to write the script for Design for Living (1933), but Raphaelson wasn't interested in revising Coward. So Lubitsch asked the playwright of The Front Page (1928) and the screenwriter for Scarface (1932) -- Ben Hecht -- to take on the task. Thus Paramount, which had paid $50,000 to Coward for the rights, had to also pay the same amount to Hecht for a screenplay. The result turned out to be just as racy as Coward's, but in a totally different way, a combination of Lubitsch's European subtlety and Hecht's slam-bang American earthiness. Hecht proudly proclaimed that he used only one line from Coward's play in his script: "for the good of our immortal souls." But ever the prankster, Hecht did throw in some lines from other Coward plays into his Design for Living screenplay.
Miriam Hopkins, who had been brilliant in Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, was the director's one and only choice to play the woman in Design for Living's triangle. Lubitsch had hoped to cast Ronald Colman and Leslie Howard in the male leads. But Colman was too expensive, and Howard didn't want to risk comparisons to Lunt or Coward. Then Lubitsch chose Fredric March and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., but at the last minute Fairbanks came down with pneumonia. According to Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman, the director then "stunned everybody" by casting action star Gary Cooper. As the production of Design for Living got underway, Lubitsch gathered the company for a pep talk. He warned them that critics wouldn't like the film, and would say they had ruined Coward's play. But he assured them that the public would like it. "Noel Coward means nothing to most of them. Gary Cooper means something to them, and they will be happy to see that he is an accomplished light comedian." The latter prediction, at least, came true. Thanks to Lubitsch's help and encouragement Cooper did, indeed, prove to be an adept comic actor. They would work together again, in Desire (1936) and Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938).
Unfortunately, Lubitsch's prediction that the critics would lambaste the film also came true. The New York Herald Tribune's Richard Watts, Jr., who called Design for Living "even more superficial than the original," was typical. And audiences seemed to agree with the critics. The film did not do well at the box office. But it's a film that has aged well, and has become more highly regarded as the years go by. Design for Living's moral attitudes, offbeat casting, witty dialogue, and Deco sleekness seem surprisingly contemporary today. And while other styles of comedy have dated, the Lubitsch Touch still works.
Producer/Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, based on the play by Noel Coward
Editor: Frances Marsh
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Costume Design: Travis Banton
Art Direction: Hans Dreier
Music: Nathaniel Finston
Principal Cast: Fredric March (Tom Chambers), Gary Cooper (George Curtis), Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrell), Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Douglas), Isabel Jewell (Lisping Stenographer).
by Margarita Landazuri
Design for Living
Design for Living - DESIGN FOR LIVING - Ernst Lubitsch's Overlooked Pre-Code Delight Based on Noel Coward's Play
Lubitsch's most challenging pre-Code provocation is his adaptation, with ace writer Ben Hecht, of Noel Coward's play Design for Living. The play toys with the possibilities of a three-way relationship between two men and a woman. Lubitsch's film is another animal altogether, a concoction that relies more on camera style and directorial finesse than the written word -- Hecht's script uses almost nothing of Coward's witty dialogue. The very first scene places a young woman in a train compartment with two sleeping men. She clearly finds them very attractive. Stretching out to rest, the woman places her feet on the seat between these two. Lubitsch makes note of her legs as one of the napping men absently rests his hand on her shoe. Without a word being spoken, the main theme has been fully expressed. Why should love break up established relationships? What if a woman decided to live with two men, as a companion and facilitator for their ambitions? Could it actually work? Lubitsch doesn't resolve the basic question any more than Coward does, but his film is considered the height of pre-Code sophistication.
Penniless in Paris, unpublished playwright Tom Chambers and un-exhibited artist George Curtis (Fredric March & Gary Cooper) aren't getting very far with their respective careers. But their looks attract the daring young Gilda (pronounced "Jill-da") Farrell (Miriam Hopkins). She's an emancipated commercial artist open to new romantic ideas, within reason. Both men go for Gilda and make separate attempts to monopolize her affections. When each is caught trying to elbow the other out, they decide that Gilda is manipulating them, and back off. That doesn't work either. Realizing that the situation calls for creative thinking, Gilda proposes that they live as a threesome. They can enjoy each other's company and Gilda will do her best to help all three of them attain their artistic goals. The one rule is, no sex! Gilda critiques their work until George's paintings and Tom's plays improve. She also turns out to be a skilled artist's manager, and soon has attracted a theatrical producer (Franklin Pangborn) for Tom and gallery space for George. But the improvised three-way romance falters when Tom goes off to London to rehearse a play. He returns to find that his partners have broken their sworn oath by becoming lovers.
The Noel Coward faithful dismissed both Lubitsch and the movie for daring to use the play's title, bare outline and almost nothing
else. Lubitsch and Ben Hecht discard Coward's refined language (Hecht was a rough 'n' tumble veteran of Chicago newspapers) but do
a marvelous job of telling the story visually. Tom and George are enraptured at the sight of Gilda pacing back and forth in their
grubby walk-up garret. Knowing exactly the effect she is creating, she pauses every so often to fling herself backward onto one of
their beds. The place is so unkempt that Gilda raises a cloud of dust every time. The boys don't mind a bit.
At the time, Fredric March and Gary Cooper were considered two of the best-looking stars in Hollywood. As critics of the time noted, neither personifies much of an artistic sensibility; Cooper in particular looks as if he should be posing for pictures instead of painting them. Like unimaginative straight men, the 'boys' are continually taken by surprise as they wrestle with their new domestic challenges. Most of the work floating the film's premise falls to Miriam Hopkins. Her Gilda is a manipulator but also a natural multi-tasker in the roles of seductress, mother, muse and lover.
A third suitor pursues Gilda through the film, the wealthy advertising man Max Plunkett. Edward Everett Horton plays the humorless Plunkett in a subdued version of his familiar comic persona. Max hovers on the margins, taking pleasure whenever Gilda's relationship with Tom and George falters. To our surprise Gilda eventually marries him. On their wedding night the appallingly un-romantic Max is doing his best to be amorous. He reminds his bride that he has an early business appointment, so they'll need to hurry the evening along. Gilda knows that the marriage is doomed.
Billy Wilder struggled throughout his career to concoct filmic moments that would have pleased Ernst Lubitsch, his mentor. The most noted bit of business in Design distills the vaunted "Lubitsch Touch" to its essence. Surrounded by bouquets of wedding flowers, Gilda notices two unimpressive buds stuck in a simple pot. They're from Tom and George, of course. Having second thoughts about marrying Max, Gilda knocks the flowers over. But she shows her true feelings by returning from the bedroom to gently replant them and set the pot upright. Come morning, a frustrated and unhappy Max steps from the bedroom. He sees the plants sitting there on the floor, and kicks them across the room. They have clearly been stand-ins for Gilda's absent beaux. With a couple of simple but unmistakable gestures, Lubitsch has made unnecessary half a scene's worth of theatrical dialogue.
It goes without saying that in 1932 alternate lifestyles weren't granted full social acceptance. Lubitsch and Hecht's carefree ending sees the trio back together again, but without a new plan for their relationship. Although his play states its theme more directly, Noel Coward couldn't come up with the elusive "design for living" either. It's possible that producer Lubitsch bought the play as an aid to circumventing the Production Code. Although enforcement was lax the censors frequently neutralized "inappropriate" subject matter at the script stage. A property by an important author like Ernest Hemingway or Noel Coward was a powerful negotiating tool for the studio: an outright rejection of respected source material would reveal the censors for what they were, cultural bluenoses. Although the movie has no sex scenes, it's clear that George and Gilda are "living in sin". Depending on how the first act is interpreted, Gilda may have slept with both men. The one character representing conventional morality is portrayed as a clueless fool. Hecht's script makes fun of Max's moral mantra: "Immorality may be fun, but it isn't fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day." The Production Code office believed that only movies with uplifting themes acknowledging the rightness of society's values should be tolerated. A year later, Design for Living was withdrawn from exhibition and denied a certificate for re-issue, along with other earlier pre-Codes like I'm no Angel, Of Human Bondage and The Story of Temple Drake.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Design for Living is a smooth encoding of a good transfer of this under-circulated pre-Code gem. Paramount's elegant and tasteful 'house style' in the early 1930s is reflected in the gleaming sets, and even the artists' Parisian garret looks glamorously impoverished.
Criterion enables the viewer to compare the Lubitsch film with Noel Coward's play by including an entire British TV production from 1964, starring Jill Bennett, Daniel Massey and John Wood. Critic and filmmaker Joseph McBride weighs the versions in a new interview. Film scholar William Paul contributes a selected scene commentary that may help Lubitsch newbies better understand the filmmaker's famous "touch". Also offered is The Clerk, a very brief Lubitsch-directed scene from 1932's If I Had a Million, starring Charles Laughton. Criterion's insert booklet features critic Kim Morgan's perceptive essay on Design for Living, that focuses on the show's intriguingly progressive sexual politics.
For more information about Design for Living, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Design for Living, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Design for Living - DESIGN FOR LIVING - Ernst Lubitsch's Overlooked Pre-Code Delight Based on Noel Coward's Play
Immorality may be fun, but it isn't fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day.- Max Plunkett
I haven't got a clean shirt to my name.- George Curtis
Why a clean shirt? What's up? A romance?- Tom Chambers
I'm not talking pajamas, just a clean shirt.- George Curtis
A thing happened to me that usually happens to men. You see, a man can meet two, three or four women and fall in love with all of them, and then, by a process of interesting elimination, he is able to decide which he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice.- Gilda Farrell
Boys, it's the only thing we can do. Let's forget sex.- Gilda Farrell
It's true we had a gentleman's agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.- Gilda Farrell
Writer Ben Hecht and producer-director Ernst Lubitsch retained only one line from the original play by Noel Coward: "For the good of our immortal souls!"
The opening title card for this film reads: "An Ernst Lubitsch Production of Noël Coward's Design for Living." Motion Picture Herald lists this film as a box office "champion" of 1934. Coward wrote and starred in the Broadway production, which ran seventeen weeks. Several reviews mention the dissimilarity between Coward's play and Ben Hecht's screen adaptation; Hollywood Reporter states, "not one line of [Coward's] dialogue remains." Hecht is quoted in modern sources as having said all he retained of Coward's play was the title and one line: "For the good of our immortal souls!" In an interview with Alistair Cooke in the London Obeserver, quoted in a modern source, Ernst Lubitsch states: "Motion pictures should not talk about events in the past. That's why I've completely changed the beginning of the play. Even on the stage this was dull. One was told where they met, what they had done for many years, how they had loved. I have to show these things, in their right order. Things on the screen should happen in the present. Pictures should have nothing to do with the past tense. The dialogue should deal with what is, not with what was."
A memo contained in files in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library dated January 26, 1933, (two days after the play opened in New York) in which the Hays Office discusses the possibility of Coward's play being adapted for the screen, states: "Despite the author's excuse for the unconventionality of the characters' actions on the ground that they are artists and responsible, accordingly, to their own code of morals, it is somewhat doubtful whether a motion picture audience would take that viewpoint, and a motion picture treatment would be faced with that basic difficulty." By June 26, 1933, Dr. James Wingate, Director of the Studio Relations Office of the AMPP, reported to Will H. Hays, President of the MPPDA, that the story had been nearly completely rewritten from the play, and that the "gentleman's agreement" of no sex was admissable under the Code. On June 19, 1933, an inter-office memo stated that the Hays Office believed it "necessary to indicate that there are at least two bedrooms in [George and Gilda's] apartment." In the scene where George walks in on Tom and Gilda, Tom, dressed in his tuxedo, was to come out, not from Gilda's room, but from the other one. The memo also stated that, in Tom and George's first apartment, there should be "sufficient accommodation for three to live separable in the apartment and live up to their bargain of no sex." Ironically, although the Office believed the French would take offense at the use of Napoleon as the subject of Gilda's underwear cartoons, it was the British censors who objected to it. The Hays Office recommended that the line, "It is my unprotected rear that lost me Waterloo" should be deleted under the Code. On November 13, 1933, it was recorded in an inter-office memo that the film had met the technical requirements of the Code.
A Hays Office memo states that, as reported in Motion Picture Daily on May 14, 1934, this film was among a list of films (that was printed in local Catholic publications in Detroit for the first time) banned for members of the Legion of Decency. According to a letter dated August 29, 1940 from Joseph I. Breen, Director of the PCA, to Joseph J. Nolan, an RKO executive, the PCA re-viewed the film at the request of RKO producer Harry E. Edington, who wanted to remake the film. Although the film was passed by the censors in 1934, Breen writes: "It goes without saying that the picture we saw this morning is definitely, and specifically, in violation of the Production Code on a half dozen counts, because it is a story of gross sexual irregularity, that is treated for comedy, and which has no "compensating moral values" of any kind. That is the basic objection to the story as a whole." For any remake, Breen says, it would be necessary to "remove from [the film] the unacceptable illicit sexual relationships, as well as all dialogue dealing with these unacceptable basic phases of the story." On August 2, 1944, Breen wrote to Paramount executive Luigi Luraschi, who apparently wanted to re-issue the 1934 film, stating, "you will please have in mind that this particular opus, Design for Living, was one of the pictures which contributed much to the nation-wide public protest against motion pictures, which flaired up early in 1934, and which resulted in the formation of the Legion of Decency." Breen closed the letter by requesting that Paramount withdraw its application for approval of the picture. The preview length for this film was 105 minutes. According to news items in the Hollywood Reporter, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was set to play the role of the playwright, but when he became ill, Fredric March replaced him. Modern sources credit Nathaniel Finston with music direction, Travis Banton with costume design, and include Cosmo Kyrle Bellew and Barry Vinton in the cast.