A Classic You Have To See To Believe: Design For Living
Over the holidays, I was lucky enough to catch the underrated classic, Design for Living, a 1933 film from Ernst Lubitsch, based on the controversial Noel Coward play, on TCM. The film stars Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins as a trio of Americans sampling the bohemian trappings of 1930s Parisian life and engaging in what in polite conversations could only be called a menage a trois. Just to reiterate: the film was released in 1933.
As it happens, the year holds the key to why Design for Living was able to speak so frankly about the complicated nature of its trio’s relationship. Design for Living is among the last of the films produced in Hollywood’s Pre-Code era. In 1934, the Code began to be enforced in earnest, and Design for Living was swiftly denied a certificate for re-release due to its subject matter.
If you have never seen a pre-Code film, the experience can be jarring. As modern film fans it is hard not to approach classic films with certain preconceptions: profanity will be non-existent with precious few exceptions, evildoers and transgressors will be punished by the end and sex may be alluded to, but never, ever, openly discussed. These “rules” are a result of the Hays Code that governed the content of American cinema from 1934 until the 1950s. Films released prior to that era played by a different set of rules entirely.
This is why we have a film as thoroughly risque, romantic and funny as Design for Living. The trio’s story begins on a train when the beautiful Gilda (Hopkins) takes a seat in a compartment occupied by two sleeping men, George (Cooper) and Tom (March). While they sleep, Gilda sketches a caricature of the two men, treating us to that great rarity in cinema: the female gaze. Most films cater to the male gaze, forcing the audience to see female characters in sexual terms before they are seen as people (think Megan Fox’s sexy mechanic routine in Transformers). While Gilda is desired by both men, it is immediately established that Gilda will be in charge of the romantic entanglement to come.
Once the men wake up from their nap, they find themselves involved in an amusing bit of elaborate pantomime when George and Tom assume Gilda is French and vice versa. This misunderstanding leads to bantering which in turn leads to George and Tom inviting Gilda to visit them at their Parisian apartment where the two men are vaguely pursuing careers in painting and writing, respectively. It is at the apartment where the story takes a turn into uncharted territory when George and Tom realize they have each been carrying on a sexual relationship with Gilda since their arrival in Paris, and Gilda in turn reveals that something has happened to her that “usually only happens to men.” She tells George and Tom: “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 has no interest in choosing at that particular juncture and so she instead proposes that they enter into a “gentleman’s agreement,” taking sex out of the equation and allowing them all to happily cohabitate and concentrate on their pursuit of the arts. There is an innocence to the proposition that speaks to the naivety of the characters and the idealized lives they are attempting to lead (a marked departure from Coward’s play where the characters are intellectuals, rather than innocents). Disaster immediately looms on the horizon, but for a time, the trio is blissfully happy, and so is the audience. The snappy dialogue and genuine sense of affection between all three of the protagonists makes watching Design for Living a pleasure, particularly during the early golden days of the trio’s relationship.
Things fall apart when Tom’s writing career takes off and he leaves the utopian haven of their apartment, and for a time our trio becomes a love triangle, albeit one that is far more complex than your standard romantic comedy love triangle. The second half of the film suffers a bit from a tonal shift as the happy-go-lucky bohemians take monogamy for a spin. Remarkably, the film still resists going the expected route. I won’t ruin it for you here, but be assured there is no punishment for their sexual “transgressions” awaiting our merry trio in the end, and the final act ably pulls the film out of the somber mood it settles into in the middle.
Design for Living was mostly met with critical apathy upon its release (and disdain from Coward), but as the years have passed, film fans and scholars have begun to recognize the film’s significance. Not only is its subject matter novel for a period of time when the industry was moving into decidedly prudish territory, it’s downright subversive and feminist in its treatment of female sexuality. Gilda is fiercely honest about her affections for Tom and George (and, truth be told, George and Tom aren’t shy about their affections for each other either), and she is never condemned by the men for embracing or expressing her sexuality.
Some pre-Code films are guilty of being sensational for no other reason than to fill theater seats, and when watched today they stand as little more than curiosity pieces from a rare era of creative freedom in Hollywood. Others, like Design for Living, are hidden gems that take the sensational and turn it into something as achingly real as a haphazard romance between three dreamers who eschew societal expectations in the name of love.
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