Based on Noel Coward’s play, Design For Living concerns a love triangle between a fetching commercial artist and two bohemian friends and roommates who compete for her affections. She sleeps with one, then the other, and after a “gentleman’s agreement” for all parties to remain celibate, the truce is broken, and she again sleeps with one, then the other. It may be startling to some to learn that Design For Living was made in 1933, before the Hays Code would have rendered virtually every scene of it forbidden, but it’s truly depressing to realize that this witty, sophisticated romantic comedy is a far more progressive and mature consideration of femininity and sexual mores than 99 percent of its 21st-century counterparts. And a hell of a lot funnier, too.
Hot off his 1932 classic Trouble In Paradise, another Code-breaker of the first order, director Ernst Lubitsch and the great screenwriter Ben Hecht reworked Coward’s play into a cosmopolitan romp that thumbs its nose at Puritanism while also being deeply romantic. The three leads meet on a train to Paris, her leg stretched teasingly between them, and immediately fall into the playful, familiar banter of old friends. A vision to both men—and they to her—Miriam Hopkins sizes up painter Gary Cooper (her friend liked his portrait of Lady Godiva on a bicycle, and she never spoke to that friend again) and playwright Frederic March, who proclaims his expertise at writing unproduced plays. Cooper and March both pursue Hopkins separately and in secret, but when Hopkins’ uptight boss (Edward Everett Horton) inadvertently spills the beans, the men resolve to cease their affairs and Hopkins resolves to help these floundering artists get their acts together.
At the center, Hopkins is a powerhouse—smart and libertine, with a no-nonsense honesty (when March tries to defend the third act of his latest script, she just keeps repeating “rotten” until he relents) and a total lack of anxiety over the situation. Contrast that with her villainous boss, whose big line (“Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of 100 percent virtue and three square meals a day.”) trails him like a “Kick Me” sign. In their gentle, graceful way, Lubitsch and Hecht make a plea for explicitness and candor to be keywords in the language of love. A year later, Hays would opt for virtue and three square instead.
Key features: Lubitsch’s hilarious two-minute 1932 short “The Clerk,” starring Charles Laughton as a wage-slave who gets a $1 million check, is the highlight, but the generous extras include commentary on some scenes by scholar William Paul, a 1964 British TV production of Coward’s play (with Coward introducing), a feature on Lubitsch and Hecht’s adaptation, and an impassioned liner-notes essay by film critic Kim Morgan.