[To read Part One of this essay, click here. To read Part Two of this essay, click here. To read Part Three of this essay, click here.]
IV. Design For Living: Screwball Before There Was Screwball
In Trouble In Paradise, with its depictions of thieves living happily ever after, Ernst Lubitsch had pushed the limits of pre-Code permissiveness; with his next picture, Design For Living, he blew right past those limits. Design For Living was by far the naughtiest movie he made in a career filled with naughty movies.
The story of a woman who loves two men and makes them like it, Design For Living was based on Noel Coward's play about his own tangled relationship with Broadway's most famous acting couple, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a triangle marked by professional and romantic jealousy, and self-destructive egotism. So personal was the story, Coward refused to stage it until Lunt and Fontanne were available to appear in it, with Coward himself playing the third lead.
After acquiring the film rights to the play, Lubitsch initially asked Broadway playwright Samson Raphaelson, fresh off the success of Trouble In Paradise, to handle the screenwriting chores. Raphaelson declined, I suspect because as a Hollywood screenwriter he knew he couldn't produce a script faithful to the original play, and as a creature of Broadway, had no desire to cross a man of Coward's reputation.
So Lubitsch brought in Hollywood's foremost screenwriter, Ben Hecht, who had written the script for 1932's gangster classic Scarface (and would later pen Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious). Like Raphaelson, Hecht had had success on the stage (with The Front Page), but he'd made his name as a journalist covering Chicago's seamy, violent underworld and had no patience for the pretensions of Coward's characters. Hecht kept the relationships, the settings and the plot, and discarded the arch dialogue and the self-pitying tone. He also re-imagined the European male leads, Otto and Leo, as the distinctly American Tom and George. More importantly, he shifted the focus of the triangle onto the female character, Gilda, which served to turn a play about the limits of a man's sexual ego into an exploration of female empowerment. (To read more about Hecht, click here.)
Coward had been pleased with Hollywood's adaptation of Private Lives, starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery (read my review of it here), but he refused to even see what Lubitsch had made of Design For Living. "I'm told that there are three of my original lines left in the film—such original ones as 'Pass the mustard,'" he quipped later.
Despite criticism at the time, I think Lubitsch and Hecht were right to go off in another direction. The subject matter, with hints of bisexuality, was intensely personal and would have been daring stuff, even for a pre-Code movie. And although the play has its moments (I've read it, but never seen it performed), it is not now regarded as one of Coward's better efforts and is rarely revived. As Coward himself admitted, Design For Living "was liked and disliked, and hated and admired, but never, I think, sufficiently loved by any but its three leading actors."
It's no wonder Lubitsch and Hecht took liberties with the text.
"I offer no apologies to Coward," Lubitsch said, "who knows very well that no picture ever lives up to a play if filmed word for word."
As the movie opens, George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Fredric March) are, respectively, an unsuccessful painter and an unsuccessful playwright—deservedly so judging by samples of their work. On a train to Paris, they meet Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a commercial artist not the least bit embarrassed to earn a living painting advertisements of Napoleon in long underwear. She immediately recognizes the innate quality of both men and is determined to give George and Tom the pointers they need to become great artists while taking advantage of their soon-proven talents as lovers.
"A thing happened to me that usually happens to men," she says. "You see, a man can meet two, three or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then, by a process of, uh, interesting elimination, he is able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it's alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out, but—"
"That's very fine," says Tom, "but which chapeau do you want, madame?"
Ironically, a few years before, Lubitsch had before faced the same dilemma in real life—his wife Helene Kraus had an affair with his best friend, writer Hans Kraly—which resulted not in the sophisticated comedy of his movies but in a very public scene and an acrimonious divorce.
Lubitsch sought Ronald Colman and Leslie Howard for the male leads, but Colman wanted too much money and Howard didn't want to risk the comparison to Alfred Lunt, then the most respected actor on Broadway. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was cast opposite Oscar-winner Fredric March, but fell ill shortly before production began, and the part finally fell to Gary Cooper.
For the female lead, Gilda Farrell, Lubitsch turned again to Miriam Hopkins, who had starred in The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble In Paradise. Hopkins is perfect in the part, never veering too far into either smug certainty or guilt-wracked introspection. Lubitsch always wrote interesting female characters, and Gilda is one of his best. We think of feminism and the sexual revolution as primarily modern movements, a product of baby boomer discontent, but in fact, many movies in the pre-Code era were about strong women insisting on sexual and economic freedom. Barbara Stanwyck's Lily Powers, who sleeps her way to the top in 1933's Baby Face, was the most ruthless incarnation of the pre-Code feminist, but Lubitsch's Gilda may well have been the strongest.
Edward Everett Horton provides his typically wonderful support as a disapproving stuffed-shirt who finds himself caught in the middle of this ménage à trois.
Design For Living doesn't hit as many notes as Trouble In Paradise, but it tackles the triangular dilemma presented by the former head on and comes up with a perfectly logical, if perfectly insane, solution. Had the pace and performances in Design For Living been a touch more manic, you could credit Lubitsch with inventing the screwball comedy, that distinctly American form of humor that features crazy situations and aggressively loony characters. As it is, you can see that a key component of the screwball style is an inherent lack of sympathy with the screwball character's plight—you're not rooting for him to solve his problem, you're waiting for him to grow up and realize he is the problem—and to the extent that he succeeds or fails determines whether he is the hero or the villain. While the distinction of creating the screwball comedy was reserved for Frank Capra's It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks's Twentieth Century, both released a year later, Design For Living fits neatly within the tradition and should be mentioned when discussing this beloved art form.
Although Mordant Hall of the New York Times praised the film as "a most entertaining and highly sophisticated subject," most critics took Lubitsch to task for departing from the text of Coward's play and panned the movie. But though it won no awards, audiences, at least, were pleased—Design For Living was one of the year's top ten grossing films.
As with its immediate predecessor, Trouble In Paradise, the Hays Office did not certify Design For Living for re-release after the Code took effect in 1934 and the film languished unseen in studio vaults for decades. Even now, it is available on DVD only as part of The Gary Cooper Collection, which also includes such titles as Beau Geste and The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer. It is well worth searching out.
[To read Part Five, click here.]