Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins. Dir: Ernst Lubitsch
“Design for Living” (the movie) is loosely based on “Design for Living” (the play) by Noel Coward, which was loosely based on his living situation 11 years earlier, when his roommates were Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, all struggling artists at the time. The play and movie are also about three struggling artists. In the play they are called Otto, Leo, and Gilda, and are a painter, a playwright, and an interior designer. In the movie, the men are a painter and a playwright, but are named Tom and George, and the woman is named Gilda, but is a commercial artist. Oh yes, in the movie they inexplicably pronounce her name “Jillda”. No idea why. Another difference between the play and the movie is just about everything else. They only borrowed one line from the play to use in the movie. And it’s almost completely inconsequential and unmemorable. Nothing like “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” or “Hasta la vista, baby”.
I said more than I like to about the actual movie itself, because I like people to just watch it and know little to nothing about it, but it couldn’t be helped if I wanted to compare what you’re going to see to what you are not going to see, or to write about Noel Coward.
I will pause now to take a deep breath because the rest of this is going to be written very quickly, no doubt non-stop, and I am certain I will forget to breathe during the process.
Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins and Edward Everett Horton are excellent in this film. Ernst Lubitsch (of course) did an expert job directing. This was when Cooper and March looked so young and beautiful. For Hopkins, the appearance of youth is not so much of a big deal since she didn’t age at all in the 1930’s and very little in the 40’s. Cooper and March are very believable as best friends and Hopkins fits right into the mix with equal believability. Poor Horton, despite being annoying (because he’s supposed to be), plays a character for whom I feel intense sympathy (because I’m supposed to). All of the elements of chemistry and relationships that such a movie requires are present.
Because it was made in 1933 it is full of things, a classic movie novice would not expect from a movie this old. This is due to the lack of enforcement of the Hays Office on Hollywood’s self-policing moral code system. The Hays Office actually drew up a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” in the early 20’s based on the complaints of the moral watchdogs of American society. The original cause for this is often attributed to the story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was falsely accused of a terrible crime- a rape that ended with the death of the “victim” (it is a generally held belief today that she died of injuries from a botched abortion that she had a few days before the party at which the “crime” allegedly happened though that hasn’t been proven, whatever the cause, it was not Arbuckle’s fault). He was acquitted more than once but Hollywood martyred him and blacklisted him to save their skins. He was no longer able to work under his own name until just before his death a few years later. Because of the immoral lifestyles of the Hollywood elite, and the amoral characters and situations on the silver screen, production companies raced to appear respectable by making this code. While Hays was in charge of enforcement, however, things were let through that, according to the rules of the code, probably should not have been. When Joseph Breen took over in 1934, the enforcement became more strict. By the end of the 1940’s it started to loosen up a little and then from 1951-1953, it was reinvigorated. By the end of the 1950’s people were doing all kinds of things onscreen again, and then the MPAA adopted the rating system we have today in the late 60’s. The movies made between 1930 and 1934 are my favorite.
Many people don’t know about “the Code” or “Pre-Code” movies, so that’s what that last paragraph was all about. You know, because I’m trying to draw interest to classic movies from people who haven’t seen that many and don’t know the history, which is fascinating.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: Ernst Lubitsch was a genius and you must watch this movie. One of my favorite movies ever. Ever.