DESIGN FOR LIVING (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)

I have never read Noel Coward’s play Design for Living or seen it performed, but I understand that Ben Hecht’s script for the film, which Ernst Lubitsch, no less, directed, retains just one of Coward’s lines, presumably at least in part because, shortly before Hollywood imposed its production code, Coward’s risqué dialogue was considered too sophisticated for American rubes. That said, a smattering of lines cracked me up—such as when, asked by painter George Curtis, why she didn’t like a specific painting of his, Gilda Farrell snaps with delicious sarcasm: “It creaks of originality. Lady Godiva on a bicycle.” Gilda, played with free, naughty modernity by Miriam Hopkins, gets another good line to speak. Referring to their ro-romantic relationship, she says to George and his playwright-compatriot Tom Chambers: “Let’s talk about it from every angle, without excitement. Like a disarmament conference.” All this comes from the first and best part of Lubitsch’s film, which swerves into unappetizing marital melodrama before rediscovering its bohemian soul and comical élan.
     Both George and Tom (Gary Cooper and Fredric March, with March giving the film’s best performance) love Gilda, although Gilda obstructs their favorite relationship, which is with each other—a platonic conversion of Coward’s sexual inclination, perhaps. But what I like most about this film, which otherwise I don’t much like at all, is the shabby, impoverished Paris apartment that George and Tom share—one which the filthiness of these two bachelors further assaults. A high point arrives when Gilda, visiting, plops herself on a couch from which a cloud of thick dust, disturbed, rises. Gilda takes no notice; she knows the boys’ hard times from her own experience.
     Let’s just say that Gilda’s dainty derrière delivers a blow with something more than “the Lubitsch touch.”

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