When’s the last time you heard the word “sex” being said in a black and white movie? Think about it for a minute or two. You’re probably thinking Billy Wilder, or a naturalist British film, but you’re not sure, right? The answer in fact, could be that you’ve never heard it; at least not in movies made after the restrictive Hays Code changed the way Hollywood expressed itself. Implemented in 1934 and named after the man who endorsed it, the Hays Code was a guideline aimed to steer film productions towards utmost morality.
Movies made during this era — some of which are counted among the greatest films ever made — lacked the possibility of being straightforward when it came to violence and sex (mostly sex), and had to adhere to strict production regulations before they were released. The idea of the Hays Code was to preserve morality and to prevent moviegoers from being tempted by sin. Home, marriage and religion were the fundamental pillars of good living, and audiences had to be discouraged from seeking anything beyond them.
This is why it’s such a wonderful surprise — especially for classic film buffs — to discover gems made before this era; movies that feel alien in a way because they touch mature themes without any shame, movies that travel seamlessly between the raunchy and the sophisticated and movies where the word “sex” means just that.
In Design for Living, Ernst Lubitsch crafted one of the most humorous pieces of the Pre-code era, also one of the most controversial. The film is a very loose adaptation of Noël Coward’s eponymous play, in which three bohemian-type free souls engage in a celibate ménage-à-trois for artistic reasons. The play had a successful run on Broadway where it gained fame for its risqué topics; however, before it was made into a film, Coward’s work had to be greatly changed. The characters in his play are too cynical, too contemptuous about traditional lifestyles, the characters in the film had to appeal to the millions of people trying to overcome the Great Depression.
The theater has always been much more selective than cinema, the characters in the movie had to provide escapism, even allude that audience members could aspire to the lives of the characters. When the movie begins we meet playwright Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and painter George Curtis (Gary Cooper) in a train wagon headed towards Paris. They sleep side by side, unaware of what happens outside. A new passenger boards their wagon, it’s Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) an advertising illustrator who sits across from them. She examines them mischievously and decides to make them into a cartoon.
When George and Tom wake and see the results of her work, the sequence unfolds in what can only be called classic Lubitsch. Believing her to be French, the men try to communicate with her in that language. It’s only until she mistakenly reveals her American-ness, that they all seem to relax. With this small twist, Lubitsch removes most of Coward’s Continental snobbery and turns the film into something more universal.
Once they’re in Paris, the men fall for Gilda and she falls for both of them. After deciding to settle the situation like adults, they come out with the perfect option: the three of them will have a relationship. She will act as muse for them, they will share a flat and push each other to be better at what they do. There’s only one rule, a gentleman’s agreement as they call it: there will be no sex.
Lubitsch has a ball showcasing their strange relationship, but inserts a voice of reason in the shape of Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), Gilda’s boss, who warns them “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.” Things go wrong when the need to consummate the relationship alienates one of them, but the film fights dutifully to defeat the dark forces of tradition. For as long as the world needed to be entertained, the movies would give people some spark of decadence.
The screenplay was written by the legendary Ben Hecht who preserved Coward’s structure but gave it new life with his masterful use of comedic timing and even slapstick. Unlike Coward, whose works are more intellectual, Hecht had the ability to combine crassness with elegance making the film entertaining for those who needed good physical comedy, as well as those in search of talkier pictures.
The three leads are to die for, with March turning in one of his few comedic performances. It’s difficult, watching the film, to think that this is the same man who would win an Oscar for his stoic turn in The Best Years of Our Lives. Likewise, Cooper’s face lights up the screen and his naive delivery makes you wonder why his ruggedness was never used for more comedic work. Hopkins makes the perfect Lubitsch heroine, the kind which you admire, despise and then fall in love with.
Even if the film version tamed down the purely hedonistic nature of Coward’s play, Design for Living was still heavily criticized for its use of innuendo and sexual situations. Compared to other films of the era, you might wonder: what innuendo? The film is refreshing because of its sincerity and horniness. You understand why the characters want to make their celibate agreement work, but you also want them to stop thinking so much and simply tear their clothes off.
Extras: As is the norm with any Criterion release, the transfer is absolutely breathtaking. The black and white cinematography is clear and the new sound mix makes Hecht’s dialogues roll out of the actors’ tongues with astonishing clarity. Also included are a short film called The Clerk, in which Charles Laughton plays a humorous office worker, selected scene commentary with scholar William Paul and a fascinating essay from feminist film critic Kim Morgan.
The two highlights in this edition are an interview with screenwriter Joseph McBride who best points out why the film was changed from Coward’s play. His insights about the way in which screenwriters were treated during the studio era makes you crave for a documentary on the topic. McBride also points out how the character of Max, who was clearly gay in the play, is completely heterosexual in the movie version (although an argument could be made, given the affected way in which Horton plays him and exposes his eventual dilemma).
In order to best appreciate all that McBride mentions, the DVD also includes a 1964 stage production of Design for Living, introduced by Coward himself. The play perfectly juxtaposes the differences between British and American acting, the accessibility of Lubitsch’s films and of course the singular genius of Coward, whose original was a claustrophobic satire.