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With: Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Isabel Jewell, Jane Darwell, Wyndham Standing
Written by: Ben Hecht, based on a play by Noel Coward
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 91
Date: 12/29/1933

Design for Living (1933)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Three-Way Pileup

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Long before there was an auteur theory, there was the "Lubitsch Touch." Viewers could watch nearly any Ernst Lubitsch film, ranging from his silent comedies to his Hollywood talkies, and sense a certain kind of... touch. That was the best way to describe it since no one could really define -- or repeat -- this specific thing. But it was so powerful that even when Lubitsch filmed a play by Noel Coward, he still made it his own. Design for Living doesn't feel like a celebrated play; it feels like a Lubitsch movie. (The screenplay, adapted by the great Ben Hecht, didn't hurt.)

Miriam Hopkins, who already worked with Lubitsch in two of his best movies, The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Trouble in Paradise (1932), stars as Gilda Farrell, an American commercial artist traveling in France. Her greatest contribution thus far was an ad featuring Napoleon wearing non-wrinkling underwear. She winds up in a train compartment with two struggling American artists. In a wonderful sequence, they try to communicate with one another for a while until one of them says "nuts." That's when they all realize they're Americans.

These two buffoons are writer Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and painter George Curtis (Gary Cooper). (Incidentally, March had recently starred with Hopkins -- and won an Oscar -- for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Both men fall for Gilda, and she falls for both of them. It makes sense; they each have qualities that the other does not have. She vows to help them both in their careers: under the condition that there's no sex. (And by sex, the movie actually means sex.) Unfortunately, Tom's play turns into a hit and he travels to America for an extended stay, leaving George and Gilda alone, both missing their friend.

Earlier this year I reviewed Tom Tykwer's 3, a movie that took a great deal of time and pain to justify a three-way relationship between two men and a woman. Lubitsch does the same thing in far less time and with far less pain. His attempt is silly and sexy and far subtler.

But Design for Living has a fourth key character, played by another Lubitsch veteran, Edward Everett Horton. He plays Max Plunkett, Gilda's boss, who is also in love with her, though to him she is more of a business deal than a lover. Horton is remarkable at intuiting Lubitsch's rhythms, as in the scene where he watches Tom's play in New York. He thoroughly enjoys himself until he hears a line on the stage that originated with him (he spoke it to Tom). His befuddled look is worth a thousand lines.

Indeed, Lubitsch's touch is primarily visual, though audio cues can set it off. One of the touches involves a couch in the men's bachelor pad. The couch is dusty, and every time anyone sits on it, a cloud of dust is raised. Gilda flops down on it several times, in a fit of indecision over which man to choose. The way she flops, and her ignorance of the dust is hilarious. But the poofs of dust are also like drum beats in the comic rhythm of the scene. They break up the constant flow of dialogue with something else, something fresh.

Hopkins and Horton are perfectly tuned to Lubitsch's touch, Cooper and March less so. Andrew Sarris pointed out that critics of the 1930s complained that the men were miscast in this movie, while Sarris argued that Lubitsch's skill overcomes any miscasting. The men use their leading man status to up the ante in the struggle for Gilda's love; they each deserve her. But there's still something about them that holds back the production just a hair; they can't completely let go.

No matter. This is the first Lubitsch available on Blu-Ray, from no less than the Criterion Collection, and it's a matter for celebration. It looks exactly like the 1930s should look: black-and-white trains, and artists' flats, and theater lights. I hope that more Lubitsch movies follow; since he made his final film all the way back in 1943, he has been somewhat forgotten in the annals of American film, which is a shame.

Extras on the Blu-Ray include Lubitsch's short segment -- starring Charles Laughton -- from the anthology film If I Had a Million (1932); this little film clearly demonstrates the "Lubitsch Touch" in the form of opening and closing doors. Film scholar William Paul provides a "scene-select" commentary track, and there's a 1964 TV production of Coward's play, introduced by Coward. SFSU professor Joseph McBride provides a new interview on Lubitsch and screenwriter Ben Hecht. Critic Kim Morgan writes some sexy liner notes.

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