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15 March 2012
Not every pre-Code film is equally intelligent, of course, but the best of them are marked by an intelligence about sex in particular that was essentially rubbed out for thirty years, and is still only occasionally reached by U.S. filmmakers; we are, culturally, still far more adolescent than we were back in those days, still reeling from the libertine excesses of the 1920s, arguably the most sexually sophisticated era in the country's history (whatever is true of the "peace through fucking" moment in the '60s and '70s, unusual sophistication is not among its merits). Our current subject, the 1933 Design for Living, is an unusually clear example of what I'm talking about, for it is a movie - a movie that was new when your grandparents or great-grandparents were young adults, think about that for a moment - all about the emotional highs and lows of a ménage à trois. That's still a subject that would spook a lot of mainstream filmmakers; in the whole of the 21st Century, the only prominent English-language film I can think of that hinges on such a relationship even briefly is Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which is still awfully skittish about the whole thing, and was anyway mostly produced on Spanish money.
The awesome thing about Design for Living is that it's not even particularly showy about its plot; it is far more a comedy of manners than a sex farce, which undoubtedly owes a great deal to the two people most responsible for its existence. It's based on a play by Noël Coward, one of the most archly sophisticated playwrights of his generation; it was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, quite possibly the most elegant comedy director in the history of cinema. In between those two, it was written by Ben Hecht, who left virtually none of Coward's dialogue intact (I am told; I've never read nor seen the play), a man who even at his cleverest (the plays The Front Page and Twentieth Century) was never exactly a sophisticate, and is as well-known for his hard-boiled urban work as his comedies; perhaps there was some Hechtian roughness and immediacy that knocked the sharp corners off the archness that both Coward and Lubitsch frequently highlighted, and gives it a slightly fleshier, sexier quality. The distinction I might draw between Design for Living and, say, Lubitsch's ecstatic 1932 Trouble in Paradise - my pick for the single most sexually vivacious film of the pre-Code era - is that where we can certainly tell that the the leads in that film are sexual beings who enjoy each others bodies as much as their minds, there's an intellectual brittleness that keeps the actual sex toned down; but in Design for Living, you can tell when the characters have just been fucking. A word much too crude for the rarefied world of Lubitsch's farces, even if the censors would have let it slide; but there is, I think, a distinction between "making love" and "fucking", and as much as the characters in this movie love each other with sincere and true emotion, they're definitely fucking.
The characters in question are Tom Chambers (Fredric March), George Curtis (Gary Cooper), and Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins), three American expatriates in Paris; Tom is a writer, George a painter, and Gilda an advertising graphic designer working for the stuffy Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton). Tom and George are already friends and compatriots living together in a small apartment when they meet Gilda on a train; they both become smitten with her, and she with both of them, and they decide to all live together, though Gilda has one very particular rule: "Let's forget sex". That works for only a very short time, during which the presence of such a tremendously personable muse leads both Tom and George to do the best work of their careers, and when Tom makes a trip to London to work on the premiere of his first staged play, Gilda and George give in on their well-intentioned rules.
The direction the plot goes is not nearly as compelling as what it does with the characters along the way; in point of fact, it suffers rather distinctly from a third act that keeps losing more and more air as it goes along, though the very last scene freshens things up again, mostly. This alone is enough to keep the film out of the top tier of Lubitsch pictures of the early '30s, in despite of its engagingly frank treatment of the subject, anchored by three absolutely terrific performance - four, if we include Horton, who plays the character the same way he played pretty much every other one of his roles as an easily-distracted square with a vein of disapprobation running through him. Hopkins is the best, as can be expected: it was the third and last of her collaborations with the director, and she fit his style about as well as any performer he worked with in the sound era. Like everything else about the movie, she was better in Trouble in Paradise, but there's still a great deal to love about what she does here, and how much it informs the movie overall: her light, easygoing approach to the material is exactly the same as the director's, and the way she plays Gilda's attitude towards sex - it's awfully fun, even when it gets in the way - is basically the movie's theme, on top of being shockingly progressive in a world where movies about female sexual agency are almost never made, and when they are it's typically in the form of drearily messagey feminist-theoretical documents, rather than breezy, eager-to-please comedies.
The movie is absolutely in love with Hopkins (female sexual agency or no, it's coming from an unmistakably male point of view), which gives March and Cooper much easier jobs than Hopkins has; "easier" in the sense that Lubitsch comedies are still high-wire acts, and these are not inherently two actors given to the kind of sparkling playfulness of the genre. Cooper especially, who was not at that point as stuck in his "brooding hero" mode as he'd become by the start of the 1940s, is an unusually lugubrious choice to headline a dialogue-driven sophisticated comedy, but much like the contribution of Hecht, his durability and shrugging American-ness keeps the movie more in touch with its physical side than March and Hopkins do, as immensely adroit as they are slinging the epigrammatic dialogue at each other (that's not an insult, by the way; Lubitsch's best sound comedies all involve some degree of dialogue that plays like a series of verbal fencing moves rather than actual human speech).
Still, the star of any Lubitsch film is always Lubitsch's direction, so famously wry and arch and artificial, mired in theatrical tradition but wholly cinematic. Design for Living isn't his fleetest work, or most sustained, but it has moments of unbridled genius, such as the opening sequence in which the three characters meet in an extended pantomime sequence before they all start throwing French at each other before they finally realise that they're all three U.S. natives, or the unimpeachably grown-up and hilarious sequence of moments the morning after Tom and Gilda sleep together a year after he left for London. And as perhaps the most sexually explicit of the director's films, it's fun to watch how he navigates the line of being overt enough to tell the story while also being coy enough about what's going on that it's still a game - Lubitsch being better than any other '30s comedy director at letting the viewer connect all of the dots for themselves. It's a cliché that is only somewhat true that filmmakers were better when they had to be more clever about depicting sex through the restraint of the Code; as Lubitsch proved, they were better when they got to pick and choose where to be clever and where to be direct. Design for Living is by no means a masterpiece, but it is one of the best demonstrations of how the director's control of tone worked, for by virtue of its relatively overt scenario, it calls the most attention to how the director is manipulating the scenario. And lest that make it sound like some dry exercise, allow me to end by insisting on the film's absolute success as a comedy: three perfectly timed performances and a script packed full of potent quips, observations, and turns of phrase, and such a joyful awareness of how great it is to be a living human being, could hardly leave it otherwise.