The One about Ernst Lubitsch’s “Design for a Living”

Today’s selection for my cinema blog post goes to Ernst Lubitsch’s “Design for a Living”.

Bold, stylish and a pre-code non-musical film by Ernst Lubitsch, “Design for Living” receives new life with the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of a film which showcases radicalism but a wonderful performance by its talent Fredric March, Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins.

It was 1932 when filmmaker Ernst Lubitch’s contract with Paramount had run out. Having completed the musical film “One Hour with You” with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald (featured in Criterion’s “Eclipse Series #8: Lubitsch Musicals”), Lubitsch was a hot filmmaker which United Artists and Columbia were going after.

But for Lubitsch, he wanted to try something different. He wanted to direct for the stage in New York City but instead re-signed with Paramount for a three-film contract and what is most significant about this contract is the two films that he developed that were non-musical romantic comedies. One was his masterpiece “Trouble in Paradise”(as part of the Criterion Collection #170) and his other was “Design for Living” (1933).

“Design for Living” is loosely based on Noel Coward’s play and features a screenplay and earlier work by legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht (“Scarface”, “Notorious”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Spellbound”, “His Girl Friday”).

Whenever I watch an Ernst Lubitsch film, I pretty much know that I’m going to have a great time.

He has a way of approaching a storyline and directing and utilizing his talent with enormous efficacy, it’s no surprise of why he is considered such a legendary filmmaker. But while he is remembered for films such as “Ninotchka”, “Shop Around the Corner”, “Trouble in Paradise”, “To Be or Not to Be” to name a few, “Design for Living” is an interesting and unique Lubitsch film because it takes on social morals and in this case, not love by two people but love by three people.

You are not going to find many films within the last 90-years that features a menage a trois as part of a romantic comedy storyline. Even in today’s society where you may see the banal gigolo with his women, in this case, its two men who love the same woman and woman who loves both men.

How do you approach a story with that kind of relationship. For one, that was the challenge for filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch and earlier in his career, Ben Hecht. In Hecht’s adaptation, both men would not follow Noel Coward’s film verbally, but still maintain the adventure of the three individuals. While, the film adaptation would feature Max Plunkett as forgettable man.

But its the performances that manage to take this film and literally make it entertaining. We know that Tom is the more decent man of the three, Tom is more of the man who can’t wait to have sex with Gilda and Gilda is a woman who is very intelligent, carefree and she manages to hold these two men on a string, making them part of her Bohemian lifestyle and acknowledging that they have their own ethics, their own lifestyle.

There really is no true or threatening drama, no risky high point that challenges the three on their morals. No government, not society telling them what they are doing is indecent. Only Max Plunkett, Gilda’s boss and the film’s clown.

So, the film is audacious, its absurd but it’s witty and mischievous to the point that that makes you intrigued that a Hollywood film like “Design for Living” was ever created. And yet, it possible was a film that was ahead of its time, or maybe easily to take in today than it was then. While the film did do well in the box office as many came to see a Noel Coward film, like the critics, reviews were mixed because this film was nothing like Noel Coward’s play. But at the same time, it probably was best that Hecht did stray from the original as the fear was that people watching film would not understand Noel Coward dialogue.

But I felt it was a smart move on Lubitsch’s part to have Hecht craft the screenplay and distance themselves from Noel Coward’s work. From various books that I have read, this was a film he agonized about for quite a while before taking it on. And the only reason why he took it on was because he didn’t have to make the film adaptation exact to the original play. So, all that does remain of Noel Coward’s play is just the title and the theme.

Overall, “Design for a Living” is one of the bolder Ernst Lubitsch films out there.