Friday, January 6, 2012

12. DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933)

Ernst Lubitsch's pre-code film of Noël Coward's play (written for Lunt, Fontaine and himself) -- about an unconventional threesome flying in the face of the people they know and, in one case, marry -- brings Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins back together after their memorable collaboration in Rouben Mamoulian's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932, which won an Oscar for March), and adds a lanky, young, luminous-eyed Gary Cooper to the scorecard. They are all at their most attractive and alluring.

Scripted by Ben Hecht, DESIGN FOR LIVING is quite different from Coward's play, which it ingeniously opens up so that the once-British characters become Americans living and working abroad in France (where, Americans suppose, such things are more likely to occur) and the play's giddily recounted back stories of the unconventional threesome's meeting and early struggles can be enjoyed as they unfold. The three leads are all given earthier, less silly-assed names than in the stage version, and Hecht adds a strange stipulation to the triad's arrangement, considering this is a pre-code picture: they agree to live together not as mates but with Hopkins serving as a hybrid mother/muse/critic to the two artists (Cooper's a painter, March is a playwright) with an emphatically stated rule of "no sex." This is naturally presented as the woman's idea and it introduces a much-needed sworn oath to this union, comparable in its solemnity to a marriage vow, which causes terrible problems when it is broken, once by each of the men and twice by the woman.

The chemistry between March, Cooper and Hopkins sparkles and we easily accept what each finds attractive about the others. If the concept behind their "design for living" seems a bit random, selfish and frivolous, it's because the film, being a comedy, can't take the time to construct the arrangement more delicately and, being a kind of "white telephone" fantasy, can't be bothered to make things more realistic; that said, its cutting edges, when they come, are still reasonably felt nearly 80 years later. Beautifully photographed by Lubitsch's steadfast cameraman Victor Milner, who later shot many of Preston Sturges' comedies, with lavish sets describing bohemia and penthouses, it's a vibrant, sophisticated, three-layer-cake comedy that certainly isn't Coward's play (see my Number 13 film), but is all the more enduring as entertainment for the liberties taken. Also in the cast: Edward Everett Horton (in white tie and tails, of course), Franklin Pangborn and Jane Darwell.

Viewed on Criterion Blu-ray disc.

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