From the first third of Design for Living, it’s impossible to think it might not be absolutely fantastic throughout. Eventually it does hit a dry period and it’s impossible to think it’s going to pull out of it. Then it does and it’s impossible to think… well, you get the idea. I don’t know why I wasn’t fully trusting of Lubitsch, but during that dry spell, I really did think he’d lost control of the film.
The problem he–and the characters–needs to work out is a familiar one, the love triangle, but here with the added complication of the two male legs being best friends. I’m not sure how much of the solution Lubitsch got from Noel Coward’s source play (Ben Hecht’s adaptation only retained one line of dialogue and I can’t find any information on the plotting), but Lubitsch’s resolution is perfect. The film’s already over its bumpy period and it’s already assured he’s going to end it well, but the way he does is even better than expected.
The bumpy period–which probably only lasts fifteen minutes, at most, of the film’s ninety minute running time–is distinct because of what it lacks. The film opens with Miriam Hopkins sitting down across from Gary Cooper and Fredric March. The opening minutes are silent, followed by a minute of Cooper and Hopkins speaking French, then it’s the trio full steam. They all play perfectly off each other, so when the film’s without them–when it’s just March or just Cooper–it doesn’t work right. Hopkins works great with both of them, but they don’t work quite so well when they aren’t together. In fact, there’s a whole scene emphasizing that point.
Seeing Cooper and March–two leading men–sharing a film like this one, complimenting each other so well, it’s hard to believe they never reunited. The film only spends thirty seconds establishing the friendship–silently no less–between the two. While March went on to do a lot of comedies, Cooper only did them in his (relatively) early career, at least playing up his abilities as a physical comedian. Both of them are superb; hearing them fire Hecht’s dialogue back and forth is joyous.
What’s so frustrating about not knowing how Hecht’s adaptation works is in terms of discussing the scene structure. If I didn’t know the film came from a play, had I missed the opening titles, I might have guessed it. The scenes have a lot of dialogue and a lack of mobility–even if it’s a multi-room setting, the action takes place in the same areas. But then there are other touches–Lubitsch communicating the passage of time with an advertisement on a bus, for example–which are entirely filmic.
The handling of Edward Everett Horton’s character, a ludicrous suitor for Hopkins, is also rather filmic. Horton manages the film’s second most difficult performance (Hopkins having the first, having to convey her conflicted feelings for both Cooper and March in a constantly fresh way); Horton has to both be believable and absurd. The film makes a few drastic changes to the character to keep him in line for the narrative to work and Horton negotiates them well. He’s an amusing, antagonistic buffoon.
The film’s such a success, I’m a little surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Between the performances–the pairing of Cooper and March and Hopkins in general–Lubitsch’s sublime direction (that opening is masterful), and Hecht’s script… Design for Living should be much better known.
Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on the play by Noel Coward; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Frances Marsh; music by John Leipold; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Fredric March (Tom Chambers), Gary Cooper (George Curtis), Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrell), Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Douglas), Isabel Jewell (Plunkett’s Stenographer), Jane Darwell (Curtis’s Housekeeper) and Wyndham Standing (Max’s Butler).