January 22, 2015

Miriam Hopkins Blogathon: Design for Living

Miriam Hopkins, Fredric Marsh, and Gary Cooper in Design for Living
Miriam Hopkins owns the screen in Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living

It’s thrilling to see the graceful way Miriam Hopkins glides onto the screen in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living. She steps aboard a train and observes two sleeping guys on the opposite seat. There’s no hesitation at removing her gloves and making herself comfortable near the unknowing fellows. The glint in Hopkins’ eyes shows us immediately that her Gilda Farrell has the upper hand in this relationship. She charms men easily yet isn’t the typical lady you might expect. It would be too easy to pick one man and enjoy his success. Both Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper) have potential but need a lot of encouragement. Gilda may complete them, but they aren’t really alive without the other guy. The warm relationship among the men keeps them happy, yet it takes a force like Gilda to push them to next level. Hopkins never hits a false note as she moves from guy to guy and refuses to get cornered.

What’s immediately apparent in Design for Living is the less restrictive view of sex before the crackdown of the Hays Code. Characters talk openly about the topic and don’t skirt around the issue. Even a simple act like Gilda putting her feet on the seat between Tom and George has sexual connotations. Both guys are interested in Gilda, and their first goal isn’t marriage. There’s a freedom to the ways the characters discuss love that avoids the predictable route of typical Hollywood romances. Lubitsch pulled a similar feat with the trio in Trouble in Paradise one year earlier. Statements about getting to “first base” probably wouldn’t bypass the censors by the mid-‘30s. The content never gets too blatant, but the freedom allows Writer Ben Hecht (Notorious) to bring a different type of wit to the dialogue. The story adapts a Noel Coward play but was changed dramatically for the screen version.

Tom and George have ambitions to succeed in various realms of the art world, but nothing comes together before they meet Gilda. They just click with her and have equally big personalities. Like Tom quips after they leave the train, “It's amazing how a few insults can bring people together in three hours.” Gilda falls for both guys and hooks up with each one in subsequent nights. Lubitsch and Hecht avoid bringing melodrama into this situation and keep the banter light despite the love triangle. The “gentleman’s agreement” could work on the surface, but none are so moral to avoid falling prey to temptation. George considers seducing the laundress to get a clean shirt, so they’re hardly prudish individuals. Gilda’s big scene at their apartment is a thrilling display of comic timing. The dust flies each time she lays down on the old furniture, and both guys tail Gilda closely as she strolls around the dilapidated site.

Design for Living, directed by Ernst Lubitsch
This shot shows the way that Gilda is in total control of Tom (Fredric Marsh) and George (Gary Cooper).

Lubitsch uses masterful composition to place Gilda between the two men vying for her affection. They’re like little boys pining for their first love, and she’s in total control. She stands between them while each shows off and revels in knowing that both are enamored. The surprise is the way that we still identify with Gilda and never look at her like a manipulator. She isn’t Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve who enjoys making Henry Fonda look silly. Gilda truly loves each guy, and Hopkins sells her interest in helping both men achieve their dreams. Tom is an unpublished playwright who doesn’t have the business skills to sell his work, and George is an artist with little confidence. Gilda easily succeeds and magically changes their professional fates, but staying platonic will be trickier.

Gilda is quite a forward-thinking woman for 1933, but it’s probably easier in Paris. Of course, the societal pull to settle into a secure relationship is still there. The establishment appears in the form of Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), her square boss. He also loves Gilda but seems most concerned with making her respectable. His worldview comes in this statement: “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.” This single line plays multiple roles in the story, including enhancing Tom’s play and revealing Gilda’s dalliances with both guys. It’s one of many clever uses of dialogue that makes this film so enjoyable. Gilda’s choice to marry Plunkett seems odd but shows that she has given in to the forces of the puritan society. It’s clear that this coupling will never last; Gilda is far too self-assured to cave to such a controlling dimwit.

Gary Cooper and Fredric Marsh star in Design for Living
Gary Cooper does'n't make the comedy seem as effortless as Fredric Marsh. 

Design for Living was only my second experience watching Hopkins, who owns the screen even next to heavyweights like Fredric March and Gary Cooper. Her career was still fairly new at this time, yet she moves like a veteran in total command. March feels right as a witty playwright and brings such great energy to Tom. His excitement at reuniting with his old typewriter after years away is pitch-perfect. Tom has a particular joy in walking circles around Plunkett. March’s exuberant reaction when Plunkett utters a line that fits his play makes for great comedy. A tougher sell is Cooper as a tortured artist. He plays well off March and connects with Hopkins, but he can’t match their quick wit. Cooper feels more like a straight arrow than a free-thinking artist. He’s better than I’d expect given his persona, yet he doesn’t work with the same grace as the other leads. His attempts to play drunk are very unconvincing.

I can’t rave enough about the dialogue, which includes too many classic one-liners to mention. Gilda’s comment to George that “unfortunately, I am no gentleman” after Tom departs for London is all we need to know about what’s going to happen. Some lines wouldn’t have escaped the censors, but others might be clever enough to bypass them. Gilda’s assertion of being “more than fond” of each in the beginning carries the sense that she’s gone well beyond friendly chatter. Much has been written about the “Lubitsch touch”, but his skills can’t be understated. He wastes little time with unnecessary exposition and keeps the story moving through a brisk 91 minutes. The plot includes romances, break-ups, and reconciliations, and it's never too much. Skilled actors like Hopkins and March can sell the material with limited content, and Lubitsch employs their talents to deliver a wonderful comedy.

This piece is a contribution to the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and A Small Press Life/Font and Frock. Be sure to check out all the other excellent submissions.

18 comments:

  1. It is an immeasurable treat when the words are perfect with the perfect actors to deliver them. Wonderful look at "Design for Living".

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    1. This does feel like one of those rare situations, especially with Hopkins and Marsh. I appreciate the comment!

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  2. I can't believe I've never seen this film! It sounds marvelous, especially Miriam's performance. And what a clever script and great cast for her to work with!

    Thanks for participating in the blogathon, with your insightful look at "Design for Living". :)

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    1. No problem! You should definitely check out this movie; it's so charming! I haven't seen that many films with Miriam Hopkins, but that's going to change in the near future. Between Design for Living and Trouble in Paradise, she's had two great performances already in the small sample size.

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  3. A great pre-Code - I remember loving all three leads, and enjoying the Lubitsch touch! Really enjoyed your piece, Dan.

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    1. Thanks Judy! It's a movie that's easy to like, and the main reason are the three leads. I'm glad that I finally caught up with it, and I need to see a lot more Lubitsch films.

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  4. I really loved this one, and I'm with you on Marsh being a much better fit than Cooper here. Cooper was always so stiff...he needed to play off of that persona, and it only really worked in a handful of roles (I really don't care for much of his work), but Hopkins and Marsh were a perfect pair here. This truly was a delightful little charmer. Great review!

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    1. I feel like Cooper gave it his best shot and had some good moments, but it felt like he had to try a lot harder. Of course, this could relate to the types of films I've seen him in before. Marsh and Hopkins made it look easy. Glad you're also a fan!

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  5. wonderful review. i never seen it yet you make me want to see it.

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    1. Thanks! It's a very easy sell, and you should definitely check it out.

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  6. I happened to watch this only because it was on the DVD I got from Netflix for another of her movies. I figured I might as well watch it before sending the disk back and I was glad I did.

    While I'd put Trouble in Paradise as her best film, I liked this one, too. Lubitsch definitely knew how to make flirting and sexual attraction fun on screen.

    For a different kind of character from her, try Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She plays a kept woman of Hyde's (this was also pre-Code) who discovers she might be in a really bad situation.

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    1. Chip, I appreciate the recommendation. I've only seen her in Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living, so it would be interesting to check out a very different kind of role.

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  7. Super review of a super classic that is just about perfection When Miriam was perfect, as she was here, no one could touch her. Love your site!

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    1. Thanks~ She definitely owns the screen in Design for Living (and Trouble in Paradise too). She made it look so effortless, and that tone spread across the entire movie.

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  8. Haven't seen this, but I immediately recognized the "gentleman" line. Guess I need to get on the ball. Great work, Dan.

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    1. I'd heard little about it before this blogathon, so it was a real surprise for me. You should definitely check it out!

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  9. Great minds think alike ;) When I started writing down witty one-liners from this film I had to stop because there were just too many! I do prefer Trouble in Paradise - but I LOVE the 'Gilda' character, the mix of charm and bravado is perfectly matched. Only Hopkins could've played the role.

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    1. There were so many great one-liners! I wrote down a lot of them and used some in this post, but there were plenty of others that I didn't mention. They come in such a rapid-fire succession, and Hopkins is so great at doing them. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing Gilda.

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