|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.
|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 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.