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Pre-Code Corner: Design for Living (1933)

Updated on January 24, 2015
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Ernst Lubitsch.
Ernst Lubitsch. | Source

Welcome to Pre-Code Corner, where I take a look at films made before The Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the "Hays Code", named after Will H. Hays, who at the time was president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America). This was the code of conduct that basically governed behavior in movies: no cursing, violence, bad guys winning all willy-nilly and, above all, NO SEXY TIME! The code was instilled in 1930, but was not actually enforced until 1934. The movies during those four years are affectionately known as "pre-Code" films, which had plots that got stuff past the radar.

It's quite astonishing, what pre-Code got away with; 1932's Red-Headed Woman, for instance, had Jean Harlow's frost-hearted, gold-digging antiheroine steal husbands, take lovers, attempt murder, and dodge karma every step of the way (there's even a scene where you get a glimpse of her bare breast. 1932, people!). Maybe they're not as explicit as movies today, but pre-Code movies are still quite shocking in their daring frankness, and maybe moresore in the unassuming way the plots were framed.

My first film reviewed for "Pre-Code Corner" is directed by one of the most beloved directors of all time, Ernst Lubitsch. How beloved was the Hungarian filmmaker? His biggest fan, director Billy Wilder, had a sign in his office that read, "What Would Lubitsch Do?"

Lubitsch's films, which were typically romantic comedies, possessed a certain je ne sais quoi, a style known as "the Lubitsch Touch". What exactly is the Lubitsch touch? Here is biographer Scott Eyman's explanation, retrieved from Wikipedia:

With few exceptions Lubitsch's movies take place neither in Europe nor America but in Lubitschland, a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom... What came to preoccupy this anomalous artist was the comedy of manners and the society in which it transpired, a world of delicate sangfroid, where a breach of sexual or social propriety and the appropriate response are ritualized, but in unexpected ways, where the basest things are discussed in elegant whispers; of the rapier, never the broadsword... To the unsophisticated eye, Lubitsch's work can appear dated, simply because his characters belong to a world of formal sexual protocol. But his approach to film, to comedy, and to life was not so much ahead of its time as it was singular, and totally out of any time.

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My own definition of "the Lubitsch touch" is that Lubitsch could bring out the best in any actor, and make any situation palatable. In 1932's Trouble in Paradise (a pre-Code gem that improves with every viewing), he not only makes us root for, even like, a pair of unrepentant thieves, but he makes Miriam Hopkins - dare I say it?- tolerable and watchable. Hopkins isn't all that well remembered today, and with good reason. Too often guilty of the overdone, over-stylized acting associated with Classic Hollywood, Hopkins never met a gesture she didn't flaunt to the heavens, never met a line she couldn't shriek or growl, never met a situation she couldn't narrow her eyes at, and always had a combative stoop to her posture, as if daring her fellow actors to try to stop her. Bette Davis also tended to overact, but at least she was convincing and charismatic. In my opinion, if you picture Ginger Rogers, then take away her poise, charm, and talent, you'd have Miriam Hopkins.

But Lubitsch, God love him, reigned in Hopkins's more annoying impulses, actually making her appealing, in both Trouble in Paradise and, in today's pre-Code classic, Noel Coward's Design for Living.

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Design for Living is about a manage e trois.

Hey, what's the point of reviewing pre-Code films if I can't be blunt? Hollywood has always churned out stories involving love triangles, and they always end with someone winning in the end, but Design for Living does things differently. How differently? Well, the Hays Code was finally enforced once and for all a year after the movie's release, so that's your first clue.

Design for Living is about the three-way romance between three struggling artists in Paris. Gilda (Hopkins), a commercial artist, meets George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Fredric March), a painter and playwright respectively (it's 1930s Hollywood, Heaven forbid someone have normal job), on a train, and they all hit it off immediately. George and Tom are both attracted to Gilda, and we think the standard, love triangle storyline is going to play out, until we discover Gilda is attracted to both of them, as well. They all broach this issue and have a candid discussion about it, which made me realize how much I was going to love this movie. Gilda gives a fantastic speech addressing the double standards of not only society, but in the fictional world of love triangles:

A thing happened to me that usually happens to men. You see, a man can meet two, three or four women and fall in love with all of them, and then, by a process of interesting elimination, he is able to decide which he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice.


Gilda does truly love both men for their different qualities (she compares George to a comfy straw hat, and Tom to a stylish cap worn over one eye), so they have a "gentlemen's agreement" to keep things platonic. "No sex!" Gilda sternly declares. Don't you love it when a screenplay refuses to mince words?

Gilda acts as a tough coach to whip these men's careers into shape (but she doesn't give up her own, so good for her). Tom's play finally sells and he briefly leaves for London. But one night, alone with George, Gilda succumbs to temptation and sleeps with him (offscreen, of course). "It's true we had a gentleman's agreement," she tells him with a sigh, "but unfortunately, I am no gentleman." They decide to date exclusively (but not marry) and send a wire to a heartbroken Tom.

Time passes, Tom becomes the toast of the theatre world and decides to pay a visit to George, now a successful painter. It turns out he's out of town, but Tom gets to meet George's "secretary" Gilda. Gilda is thrilled to see Tom, and the feeling is very, very mutual, and temptation strikes again...

Hijinks ensue and Gilda, not wanting to ruin George and Tom's already tenuous friendship, runs off and marries longtime admirer Max (everyone's favorite prissy cuckold, Edward Everett Horton), but, again, this seemingly familiar cycle resolves itself in a much more interesting way than you'd imagine.

Design for Living undoubtedly got the censors hot and bothered because it shows how someone can genuinely love two people at once, not be able to "choose", and yet isn't painted as wrong for failing to do so. Gilda is a wonderful character because she isn't the romantically confused victim, nor is she depicted as a slut, nor is she (shudder) the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She genuinely loves both men, and you know what? Why can't she have them both? Who is she hurting, really? They're adults, and they actually end up solving this dilemma in an adult fashion. Why can't more love triangles be solved this way? Why must there always be melodramatic handwringing, or callous disposal of one or the other, or one person be "punished" for their choice ( the person in question is almost always the woman)? Even dorky Max isn't framed as a villain or the Ralph Bellamy, and Gilda's departure from him is handled with remarkable sensitivity. She never meant to hurt him, and even he is forced to acknowledge he married her for the wrong reasons, but neither are bad people for it.

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Lubitsch not only brought out the best in Hopkins, but also Gary Cooper. I'm sorry, but I run hot and cold towards Cooper, and it's mostly cold. I finally figured out why: far too often, he comes off as incredibly dense and vague. I failed to be charmed by him in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, didn't think he earned the Oscar for Sergeant York, and he was hopelessly out of his element as iconoclast Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. In the latter movie, you can tell he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about, and seems to have learned his lines by rote (to be fair, The Fountainhead is a terrible movie to begin with). What's frustrating is that Cooper wasn't dumb in real life; he originally came to Hollywood to be a cartoonist, and he was fluent in French (which he utilizes in Design for Living). Maybe ol' Coop was more comfortable in plain-spoken cowboy roles (he's great in High Noon). Still, Lubitsch brings out a sparkling, debonair side of Cooper I've never seen before, and he delivers the zesty dialogue with easy aplomb (and, I have to admit, he's never looked handsomer).

Though it apparently bears only a passing resemblance to Noel Coward's play, Lubitsch was the right director for Design for Living. He has an easygoing elegance that helps Coward's cheeky, daring material translate beautifully onscreen. The succulent, entendre-laden dialogue flows with fountain-like grace from everyone's mouths.

Tiresome Rant for the Day: Again, women in the 1930s could dress! Miriam Hopkins gets to wear a mouthwatering array of gowns, from the dark "secretary" dress when she's reunited with Tom, to her wedding dress that shames Claudette Colbert's from It Happened One Night, to her dazzling, sparkly backless number worn at the end. Dammit, dresses with sleeves need to make a comeback now!

For all our alleged sophistication and modern sensibilities, I highly doubt Design for Living could be made today. It features adults in an adult situation, but at the same time refuses to take itself too seriously. We can't handle that sort of tone anymore; screenplays are either drenched in forced irony, or treat trivial situations like the end of the world.

I don't think Design for Living is anywhere near an immoral film; on the contrary, I think it makes us question what we believe to be moral and what isn't, and why. It pokes gentle good fun at our preconceived notions of proper behavior, but never feels smug or pious in doing so. This is indeed one of the breeziest of pre-Code films, and certainly one of Lubitsh's best.

As the Schoolhouse Rock song taught us, "three is a magic number", right?

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