I hoped to love Design for Living. After all, the director was Ernst Lubitsch, who had helmed such witty, cynical comedies about relationships, movies that usually feel as insightful and controversial now as they probably did back in the 20s and 30s. And many reviewers I respect had praised its humor and star.
I found myself teetering back and forth throughout the film—This is wonderful! This is bad!—so, like a gal tearing apart a flower over a crush, I’m going to explain its effects the best way I can:
Love It #1: Subject Matter & Morality
Design for Living features a threesome—surely interesting coverage for a film of our time, much less in 1933. (An underrated film I watched in college, Threesome, got a lot of heat back in 1994 for its coverage, even though it was far less flip about the results of the tripling than Lubitsch’s.) I find stories about unusual relationships intriguing, and this is certainly one of them.
Knowing two roommates want her, Gilda tries to remain platonic with them. She attempts to preserve their friendship and guide their artistic successes (one is a playwright, the other a painter). Her catch phrase is “No sex.” Of course, she gives in to her own desire and theirs, repeatedly.
What’s interesting about the film is the utter lack of judgment about the heroine having sex with both men (in turn, rather than together), or later, wanting to leave her husband to resume the romance. Lubitsch’s touch is so incredibly light that we never blame Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) or her lovers, even though it would be easy to think of her actions, and theirs, as betrayal. Instead, we root for Gilda to stay with both men, as their happiness and hers seems most assured when their playful, sexually charged unit is intact.
Love It # 2: Its Opening
The plot begins with Gilda drawing a rather merciless caricature of two strangers in her train car, Tom (Fredric March) and George (Gary Cooper). Her humor and confidence are breathtaking. Her casual decision to put her legs up on their seat, her amused reaction to their annoyance at her picture, and their own exuberant attraction to her are a pleasure to watch. Although the development is almost too quick, their move from prickly insecurity to joy in each other’s company is funny, and such a convincing depiction of youthful spirits that it made me laugh.
Love It #3: Its Heroine
The film stars Miriam Hopkins, whom I’ve always thought I should like more than I do, which was confirmed by persuasive defenses of her work in a recent blogathon.
Although she can be dramatic in the film, my usual objection to her, that theatricality suits Gilda’s personality. After all, Gilda imagines herself the driving force behind multiple men’s artistic successes—not to mention their sexual satisfaction. I love that Gilda has utter confidence in her own role as a lover and commercial artist, but quickly sets about fixing the two men’s wobbly self-esteem. Her defense of a woman’s need to try out men like hats is hilarious, and amazingly ahead of its time. Her assurance and energy made me a fan of hers throughout, and always curious what she’d do next.
But….here’s the thing: Despite my enjoyment of these aspects of the film, I didn’t laugh that much, and had to wonder why, which brings me to…
Love It Not #1: Gary Cooper
Oh Gary. He just wasn’t formed for comedy. While his gawky, unnatural goofiness in Ball of Fire seemed to capture his academic persona, the same portrayal here rings very false. He is not convincing as a painter, as a lover, or as a spirited friend. I just wanted to hide my eyes or send him to acting class every time he was on the screen.
Love It Not #2: Edward Everett Horton as Deus Ex Machina
Whereas Cooper pains me in comedy, Horton delights me. But here, his role as Gilda’s boss and competing love interest was laughable—at best. The chemistry between Hopkins and Horton was so nonexistent that I felt like one of them was green screened in every time they were together.
In addition, the mood between the three lovers is so light and Gilda’s own personality so ebullient that her desperate decision to throw herself at her boss to avoid Tom and George felt like the plot twist of a first-time playwright (which Noël Coward, the story’s creator, was not; apparently, the film barely resembled the play).
Speaking of poor playwrights….
Love It Not #3: These Three—Artists?
I can’t say I’m expecting realism in my comedies, but Hopkins’ drawing in the first few minutes of the story was so patently fake that it took my attention away from the film. (Why not an actress? Gilda definitely has that temperament.)
I get that a threesome seems Bohemian, and failed artistic aspirations are glamorous in the way poverty only can be in Hollywood portrayals, but come on. Making them artists felt like a cheap way for the writers and director to avoid the audience’s questioning of the characters’ behavior. (Those artists with their loose morals!) And the script is so thin that some truly adept performances were required. Unfortunately, not one of these casting choices fit the material fully. March reminded me so much of Gene Kelly that I could have believed in a little tap dancing. But he looked about as uncomfortable with that typewriter as Cooper did just being there.
So some loves, some nots. In the end, I’m glad I saw the film. The unabashed approval of this very untraditional relationship is breathtaking. There are some marvelous lines (my favorite, the “gentlemen’s agreement” to not hook up). The conclusion is a blast to watch. And Hopkins is riveting throughout. Just don’t expect that usual Lubitsch magic, and you’ll enjoy it.