Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933) is what sexy should be—delightful, romantic, agonizing ecstasy. And it’s not just sexy but also revolutionary, daring, sweet, sour, cynical, carefree, poignant, and so far ahead of its time that one could cite it as not only a pre-Code masterpiece but also a prefeminist testimonial. A uniquely Lubitschian picture in its elegance and graceful wisdom, with the gruffly intelligent, street-smart Hollywood writer and soon-to-be legend Ben Hecht collaborating, this take on the trials, titillations, and torments of a kind of relationship usually seen in true adult films, a ménage à trois (and one involving the gorgeous trio of Fredric March, Gary Cooper, and Miriam Hopkins), is unlike any other movie of its era. What film, even before that killjoy schoolmarm Joseph Breen brought his Squaresville strictness to the Production Code in 1934, has ever presented the potentially salacious scenario of three-way love in such a wistfully complicated way? This is neither a bunch of hot-to-trot cheap thrills nor a moralizing sermon on the dangers of sexual transgression—it’s a soulful look at human desire.
Design for Living recognized that desire is not divided unequally between the sexes. It can, in fact, be genderless. A place where gentlemen can be women. And women can be wolves. And men can be romantic Red Riding Hoods, wandering through a quixotic forest only to stumble across a beautiful blonde with shimmering white teeth, delicate little feet, and a big, beguiling wit. “The better to share you with,” she will eventually declare, before not eating them whole but tasting their specific Coop and March delicacies with equal ardency. Here, however, is where the movie reveals clearly that men are indeed men. Male horniness is not to be trifled with. Best friends or no best friends, how can they resist? This is some woman. They surrender, dear.
And that surrender happens from the get-go, perfectly, in a favorite movie location for scintillating erotic interplay: a train. With a wonderfully wordless introduction, the movie—adapted quite loosely from Noël Coward’s notorious play—begins like a declaration: This is a movie. To those expecting two lumps of Coward in their Lubitsch, well, sorry; you’re getting a pinch (and thrown over the shoulder for good luck). This is not a play. This is a motion picture. Faces are the thing, faces writ large, gorgeous faces as directed by the sparklingly urbane Lubitsch.
In this opening instance, those faces are sleeping. Two American expatriates and best friends, painter George (Cooper) and playwright Tom (March) are slumbering side by side in a train compartment, on their way to Paris, when the curious creature Gilda (Hopkins) slinks in. Noticing, perhaps, two of the best-looking men she’s ever seen conked out across from her, she does what any advertising artist would do—she begins sketching their faces. Already she’s got the upper hand, playfully drawing these two sleeping beauties from her perspective—a perspective that will bloom into something quite involved once their introductions turn into . . . invitations.
Upon awaking, the men quite naturally assume Gilda is French, and the three engage in some excited, confused attempts at speaking en français, before she breaks through the Gallic fog and reveals that she is indeed American, with the first line of understood dialogue, a common expression of frustration in 1933—and hearing it now, quite appropriately randy—“Oh, nuts!” With the sexual chemistry flying all over that train car, it’s only a few days before Gilda and the men, now in Paris, have fallen for one another. A problem, of course, for as she says, in one of cinema’s most liberated and honest lines for a woman: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men.” What is that? Well, she’s discussing what many women probably felt in 1933 but were afraid to admit: she wants to try on both of her prospective lovers, see which one she likes best, or perhaps keep them equally, or—in the nicest but, as it turns out, most impossible of scenarios—live with both of them, as friends.
Decrying the inequity of the times, Gilda opines: “You see, a man can meet two, three, or even 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. Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out.” Which chapeau does the madam choose, they ask? “Both,” she answers. And so, the solution? A platonic and perhaps naively utopian design for living. The men will paint and write in the tiny Parisian apartment, and she will serve as both their muse and “mother of the arts.” All three shake on this giddy proposition, proclaiming their provocative decision with: “No sex. A gentleman’s agreement.” Yes. And that means sex—meaning sex, as in the act of . . . well, we’re all adults here.
The arrangement works, in terms of the men’s “art” (although it’s interesting to note that neither is terribly talented, and we root for them nonetheless). But Tom and George can’t escape their natural jealousy. When Tom poses with his writing (March knows how to make writing look “interesting”) and George showcases his paintings, it’s all very humorous, these attempts at one-upmanship, and yet it’s sad too. As unique as their arrangement is, and as liberal as these men are, they aren’t trying to turn bohemian. They’re breaking the rules, and they don’t care, but without affect. They’re genuinely in love with Gilda, and they’re genuinely torn. So much so that, at times, you almost wish they would simply choose each other. Since March and Cooper are so beautifully in sync, from their clowning at a stuffy dinner party to their natural competitiveness to their in-joke barbs, their friendship is extraordinarily charming, touching, and then melancholic. (The idea of comfortable male love plays wonderfully throughout the movie.) We love both of them too.
Of course, the agreement doesn’t last, and it is not the men who tomcat around on the contract; it’s Gilda who breaks it. A woman of earthly desires, desires that anyone with a pulse can well understand, she is, in spite of this contract, not a woman who lives by the rules. Gilda tweaks everything—even the idea of the suffering lady. Slumping all faux dramatically on the bed (Gilda’s grand gestures always seem to wink at the melodrama and manipulation of women, making her even more irresistible), she looks at that hunka-hunka burning Coop and says: “It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement, but . . . I am no gentleman!”
Indeed. But as this is Lubitsch (and Hecht), her admission isn’t played for salacious shock. And there will be consequences from the characters’ actions, albeit ones that serve not to demonize but to humanize them as they move into a true love triangle.
What’s so touching about this threesome is how much they genuinely like each other. When you see them giggling on a bed (feet off the floor), they could just as easily be braiding each other’s hair or challenging one another to a wrestling match. Sex gets in the way, of course, but equal intelligence is an asset here. And since Gilda is essentially a good woman and not a mere indecisive tease, she can’t tear these two best friends apart. Rather than torture them with bedroom flip-flops, she sacrifices her own happiness for . . . Edward Everett Horton.
Yes, Gilda mans up by running off with another guy. And as that “guy” is the dreary, silly, sexless Mr. Plunkett, played by the incomparable character actor Horton—ever the effete, put-upon finger wagger—well, this is quite a sacrifice. Plunkett, a man interested in status, rules, and money, works like Gilda’s cold detox, a cure purging all of that testosterone coursing through her blood. His mantra, “Immorality may be fun, but it’s not fun enough to take the place of 100 percent virtue and three square meals a day,” is used so frequently that Tom writes it into his play. Tom and George must save Gilda from a life of Plunkett. They must resolve their jealousies and pained hearts. Realizing that friendship, between all three (and, yes, sex too), is more important than their egos, they go after her. The movie ends with a finale that would play as shocking even today: She dumps her husband, runs off with Tom and George, and chooses a threesome over conventional married life. Setting off in the cab, the trio embark on this uncommon lifestyle, and we can only wonder, Will it work out? Who knows? But bless them for giving it a go.
One cannot imagine this happening in a motion picture aimed at the masses today (unless it was meant to be darkly humorous, or played as a kinky kick), but since Design for Living isn’t interested in hopped-up thrills, we’re not clutching our pearls, startled by the finale; we’re actually in a state of swoony wonder. A year after the film’s release, however, the newly stringent Production Code Administration was all a-dither over the thing. Not only was the film banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency but it was also denied a certificate by the PCA for rerelease. It was now a pre-Code naughty.
So with all of this—the Lubitsch, the Hecht, the early Coop, the story, the response—you’d think the movie would be better known, more frequently discussed, and held in higher regard. Looked upon even by many Lubitsch lovers as nice enough, interesting in theme, certainly entertaining, but not on a par with his true classics, like Trouble in Paradise (1932) or The Shop Around the Corner (1940), the picture can be thought of as something like Lubitsch’s Measure for Measure—his “problem play.” Though an enthusiast of the movie, the great critic Dave Kehr called it “lumpy for Lubitsch.” And it is lumpy. But the consistency (or inconsistency) works. Particularly when that lumpy lug Gary Cooper swaps his often ungainly barbs with the hilariously fey and uptight ones of the well-bred bulb Edward Everett Horton. When Horton’s snooty moralist asks what Cooper’s annual income is in “round figures,” Cooper answers, quite matter-of-factly and almost to himself, “Nothing. I survive by miracles.” It’s a lovely moment, showing the moodier side of Cooper, who isn’t as witty or elegant as, say, Cary Grant. But this makes him all the more believable. He is in over his head—in the relationship, in his career—and that’s the point.
But the improbability of the idea of Cooper snapping out a line with sparkling wit worthy of Lubitsch has always been one of the citations issued against the picture. Compound that with Cooper doing Lubitsch doing Hecht doing Coward and, well, there’s going to be a certain level of discomfort with the necessary changes taking place. Everyone believed Lubitsch was mad for casting Cooper—not exactly the man you’d think of for the screen version of Alfred Lunt (who played Cooper’s role in the original stage production). Cooper had been stumbling around Paramount for some time, trying to find himself, and so far he’d played a lot of cowboys and soldiers (quite well, and he was beloved). Design for Living showcases his sweet nature—the moody masculine gorgeousness Barbara Stanwyck would fall for in Ball of Fire eight years later.
In fact, Cooper and March weren’t Lubitsch’s first choices. Initially, the director wanted Leslie Howard and Ronald Colman (and then Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who pulled out of Cooper’s eventual role due to pneumonia). March was an easier fit, erudite and dashing and a star already after his brilliant, Oscar-winning turn in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). But Lubitsch knew he was taking a chance with Cooper. He liked that chance. And it shows.
And it wasn’t just the casting that raised eyebrows. There was also the matter of screenwriter Ben Hecht. Lubitsch sought Samson Raphaelson (who would write nine films for the director, including Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, and 1943’s Heaven Can Wait), but when that didn’t work out, he turned to the decidedly more rough-hewn former Chicago newsman Hecht for an entire rewrite of the play. The pair were an odd match and reportedly didn’t get along during production. Lubitsch was used to taking charge, Hecht didn’t like being told what to do, Lubitsch found Hecht’s writing too coarse, Hecht found Lubitsch too touchy-feely. According to Scott Eyman’s biography of Lubitsch, Laughter in Paradise, Hecht once griped to Hopkins: “If he grabs me once more to show me how Freddie March is supposed to embrace you, I’ll turn pansy.”
But their disparate union works. Like champagne out of a beer stein, it still tastes as good. One cannot be sure how much Lubitsch influenced Hecht, or vice versa, but the director had to have known that the witty, slangy Scarface scribe, and beautiful interpreter of the “American,” was the proper choice to alter the sophisticates of the play into the ambling Americans in Paris, men who are, perhaps, escaping the drudgery of regular life during the Great Depression or staying on as expats after the war—we never really know, and the movie never poses the question. But looking at the all-American mugs of Cooper and March, the idea crosses our mind, giving the picture an extra level of poignancy.
And Hopkins, well, who has ever seen another character like hers in a movie? In other hands, Gilda might easily be dismissed as a man-eating minx, but here she can’t be—the actress and the movie would never allow it. (Hopkins, who’d played the strikingly charming, gorgeously jealous pickpocket in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, was always his first choice as Gilda.) She’s light on her feet, she’s madly ambivalent and, at times, a melodramatic clown, but she’s also a pal, and a woman being pals with two men isn’t something you see too often—especially when sex enters the room. She’s not one of the guys, necessarily, but rather one of their species—Gilda is on their dreamy level, down with their humor, and entirely their equal. She’s neither lady nor tramp; she’s a real woman—an interesting woman who comes with quirks, flaws, smarts, recklessness, and, in the end, an almost agonizingly pure heart. Tom and George and Gilda and Paris face an uncertain future, but then, everyone does. Some relationships just need to happen—damn the pain and complexities. They will, as Gilda says upon meeting Tom and George, “join Lady Godiva on our tandem.” Sounds fun and as sexy as all hell, but that can’t be an easy ride.
Kim Morgan has written for Salon, the Oregonian, LA Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, IFC.com, and many other outlets. She has presented and discussed films for the National Film Registry, the Film Noir Foundation, Turner Classic Movies, and the New School. She maintains her own film and culture blog, Sunset Gun.