Judge Gordon Sullivan recalls the Bauhaus didn't do comedy.
"High class comedy enjoyed by everybody"—Thomas Chamber
I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, but culture is moving faster than it did a hundred years ago. Most of the time I think that's a good thing: we get more stuff to choose from and we get it sooner than we would have at the dawn of the twentieth century. However, one of the negative aspects of this situation is that it feels harder to appreciate difficult work. When a play debuted a hundred years ago, it could count on the possibility of a long run if it proved popular, and audiences knew they could see a play multiple times to catch all its nuances. A good case-in-point is Design for Living, a 1933 Ernst Lubitsch production based on a Noel Coward play. It's a simple story of a three-way love affair that was scandalous in its time. These days it plays as a fairly straightforward comedy, and most viewers would pass it by with nary a second thought. However, if you take the time to give the film a second or third viewing, it turns out this isn't a disposable comedy, but a very human film about love and relationships that bears scrutiny. That scrutiny is supported with Design for Living (Blu-ray) from Criterion, which includes a strong presentation of the film and some nice extras.
Facts of the Case
A writer (Fredric March, Inherit the Wind) and a painter (Gary Cooper, High Noon) are best friends and roommates, taking the train back to Montmartre when they meet free spirit Gilda (Miriam Hopkins, The Heiress). She falls for both of them, but doesn't want to choose between them. So, the trio makes a "gentleman's agreement" that they will live together platonically, and Gilda will foster the two artists to greatness. Of course, things don't quite go as planned.
Design for Living is one of those pre-Code films one hears about as scandalous. The Production code was adopted in 1930, but it wasn't strictly enforced for another few years and lots of productions slipped out between 1930 and roughly 1934 that wouldn't meet the Code's strict guidelines. Design for Living, with its three-way relationship and free sexuality was obviously a bit much for the conservative code.
Some modern viewers might hear this story and immediately think "I'm too modern to be shocked by a film from 1933." For the most part those modern viewers would be right. However, much has changed since 1933, and Design for Living is impressive despite being almost eighty years old. The first thing that I noticed upon finishing the film is that it doesn't have a message. Were this film to be remade in the twenty-first century, it would end either with the woman choosing one of the men (reinforcing the idea that its only possible for a woman to love one man at a time) or she'd choose neither (the better to show her as a strong, independent, modern woman). In either case it would feel like preaching rather than like the telling of a story.
What strikes me now as a viewer of Design for Living is that it's a profoundly human story, with no overt message. I've never been to Montmartre, but between Ben Hecht's excellent script (which he adapted from Coward's play by throwing away 99 percent of the lines) and Lubitsch's direction, I was pulled into the story of two friends who care about each other who don't want a woman to come between them. I was also pulled into the story of a woman who can't choose between two equally wonderful men. The fact that they're the same story is remarkable. The fact that the plot is episodic and doesn't really resolve the tension between the three by the end (for instance, though we're quite sure the trio will stay together the sexual component of that relationship is left up in the air) is similarly impressive.
And that's just the macro level. On the micro level we get three excellent performances by Hopkins, Cooper, and March, and they simply sparkle given Hecht's dialogue. Cooper is dark and broody in a way that will surprise film fans who only know his work as the stoic sheriff in High Noon. March does an excellent job as his opposite, as the more urbane and intellectual writer. Hopkins is the real revelation here. She won't allow herself to be stereotype as either the naïve waif or as the predatory vamp. She's knowing in some moments, naïve in others, and is only trying to get what she wants. When she leans back on a bed and says, "We have a gentleman's agreement, but I'm no gentleman," I can't imagine an audience not swooning. In fact, the only part of the film that feels anything close to scandalous these days it's Hopkins' dress in the penultimate scene; it's form-fitting and low-cut, but she keeps it classy.
Then there's the combo of Hecht and Lubitsch. By all accounts their collaboration wasn't a pleasant one, but it produced a film that's sexy, intellectual, but with that sophisticated "Lubitsch touch" that is still talked about today. Each line in the film is like a gem that's been polished to a high shine, and yet the film is still a film—Lubitsch frames a number of silent sequences brilliantly, revealing character in interesting ways.
This is Criterion's third major Lubitsch release (not counting the wonderful Eclipse box set), and it's their first Lubitsch Blu-ray. They pull out all the stops, though the film's age works against them. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 in an AVC-encoded transfer. I can't imagine the film looking better, but those hoping for a pristine re-mastering will be disappointed. The print used for this transfer is a bit soft, and there is definite damage to the print in the form of lines. However, they aren't terribly distracting, and otherwise the transfer itself is solid. Contrast is appropriate, black levels are good, and there doesn't appear to be any digital trickery (like noise reduction) to rob detail from the image. The LPCM audio track fairs slightly better in some regards. Though it is not as nuanced as we expect from contemporary soundtracks, dialogue is audible, while hiss and distortion are not a problem. It's a very easy-to-listen-to track.
Extras start with a short film by Lubitsch (part of an omnibus film) called The Clerk that was made in the year prior to Design for Living; it's an interesting (and hard to find) work by the master. We also get a selected-scene commentary by film scholar William Paul that runs for about 35 of the film's 91 minutes. Paul discusses Lubitsch's style, some of the film's production history, and how it was adapted from the Coward play. Next up is a 22-minute interview with journalist Joseph McBride, who spends much of the time talking about Ben Hecht, but does branch out to the film and Lubitsch more generally. To compare the film to the play, Criterion has included a British television version of Design for Living, and although it doesn't include the original cast (which includes playwright Coward), it does show just how much was changed. Finally, the usual Criterion booklet includes an essay by Kim Morgan that discuss the background of the film and its reception at the time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only problem with Lubitsch's light touch is that eighty years on it can seem a bit too light. It would be easy to watch Design for Living and shrug it off as just another wordy intellectual comedy. It repays greater attention, but it's also not the obviously brilliant or virtuosic film that Criterion usually trades in. For those unfamiliar with Lubitsch, an initial rental might be a good idea.
Criterion has done it again, preserving a film that's interesting, historically important, and just plain fun in places. Though the hi-def presentation won't wow anyone (barring a newly discovered print this is as good as it can look), the film is strong enough to withstand the less-than-perfect presentation. A small set of informative extras rounds out our understanding of Lubitsch in the period.
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