In 1934 the organization which would one day become the MPAA started to enforce a set of censorship guidelines dubbed the Motion Picture Production Code. While the potential pitfalls and merits of such regulation are still hotly debated to this day, there is no denying that the transition to such rigidly moral restrictions had a limiting affect on artistic expression. Topics which could once be broached and discussed openly were now taboo, and for a time some American films seemed to present a slightly altered reality to the one in which we live, where couples slept in separate beds and the very idea of sex was deemed obscene. For many, this is exactly the type of squeaky clean image that comes to mind when one thinks of American cinema prior to the mid-sixties, but in reality that wasn't always the case and there was actually a brief pre-Code era where sound films delved into some comparatively risque subject matter. Acclaimed director Ernst Lubitsch's 1933 comedy, 'Design for Living,' is such a film. With great performances and a hilariously subversive, witty script, the movie manages to stand the test of time, and even after nearly eighty years, still feels remarkably fresh and relevant.
A struggling playwright, Tom (Fredric March), and a struggling artist, George (Gary Cooper), both fall in love with an irresistible woman named Gilda (Miriam Hopkins). The trouble is, Gilda can't decide between the smitten pair and soon develops strong feelings for them both. With few options, the trio decide upon a rather unconventional solution to their problem. Entering into a "gentleman's agreement" of sorts, they try their hands at all living together as friends. As one might expect, the situation doesn't go as smoothly as planned and physical desires eventually get the better of the group leading to some very humorous consequences.
Adapted by screenwriter Ben Hecht, the script is a complete re-working of Noel Coward's original play, keeping only the general gist of the plot, characters, and situations. Though Coward's work shouldn't be dismissed, there is no denying that Hecht brings his own original voice to the film. With biting dialogue that fuses wit, innuendo, and a refreshingly rare frankness, the script presents line after line of endlessly quotable jabs and exchanges. The characters often speak in rapid fire punches, bantering back and forth in thinly veiled code. The quippy metaphors used to describe fairly racy topics not only allow such material to be discussed at all, but also fuel much of the film's playful humor.
With that said, there are instances in which the clever implications and wordplay are tossed aside altogether in favor of plain, straightforward, nonchalant references to sex. Despite what censors at the time must have thought, when Gilda mentions making love to George and Tom the movie doesn't come to a screeching halt, audiences don't run screaming from their seats, the world doesn't suddenly burst into fire, children don't inexplicably lose their innocence, and kittens don't cry out in a chorus of shock and horror. Instead... the world keeps on spinning undeterred and the movie plays on without missing a beat. Hard to believe, right?
Famous among his admirers for a certain light but still slightly subversive charm (christened the "Lubitsch Touch") director Ernst Lubitsch brings a wonderfully playful quality to the proceedings. Beginning with our initial introduction to the characters -- expressed through visuals and facial expressions alone as Gilda first meets George and Tom on a train -- the director's unique style is already immediately evident. Even when the gang does start to talk, it's at first only in French, presented without subtitles. The body language and tone of the performances alone clue us into what's happening, and even though most of us can't understand the dialogue itself, the way Lubitsch and the actors present the material makes the gist of what's happening clear. This reliance on visual expressions, physical interaction, and blocking continues throughout the proceedings, and perfectly complements the fantastic dialogue.
For the most part, the visual style itself is fairly basic, but Lubitsch throws in some artistic flourishes every now and then. Deliberate camera movements, cuts, and thoughtful compositions help to bolster the content onscreen. Humorous visual metaphors pertaining to potentially sexual content (including a dusty bed and a phallic shaped plant) act as a kind of cinematic counterpoint to the film's many similar verbal insinuations. Music is used sparingly with Lubitsch instead relying on the rhythm of the dialogue and performances to create a steady beat to carry us through the briskly paced narrative.
The love triangle at the center of the story is brilliantly realized by the headlining trio of Cooper, March, and Hopkins. As the sometimes bumbling pair of love stricken artists, the two male leads make for a very entertaining duo. Their chemistry with Hopkins is wonderful, but it's actually their feuding friendship that ultimately provides the film with many of its laughs. In a great example of a strong female lead, Miriam Hopkins is exceptional as the spunky, free-spirited Gilda. A polar opposite to most contemporary portrayals of women in Hollywood, she is the real driving force of the picture. Without giving too much away, the character is eventually confronted with a taste of mundane, domestic life in the film's final act, and the manner in which Hopkins reacts in horror to the banality of her very ordinary situation is absolutely hilarious. In fact, the movie's final sequences are among my favorite of any comedy, and really demonstrate a perfect union of direction, writing, and performance.
While 'Design for Living' might be most famous for its unique place in film history as a rare example of a pre-Code Hollywood comedy, the reality is that beneath its relatively risque subject matter is an exceptional, funny, and simply wonderful piece of cinema that is worthy of great praise regardless of its context. There is a certain life-affirming exuberance in its characters and images that is absolutely infectious. The "Lubitsch Touch" is evident in every frame showering the viewer with a montage of devious charm. Intelligent, sexy, and playfully coy, it's what every romantic comedy should aspire to be.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'Design for Living' in their standard clear case with spine number 592. The BD-50 region A disc comes packaged with a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Kim Morgan.
The movie is provided with a black and white 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. While not quite stellar, considering the film's age, this is a perfectly fine presentation.
The source is in pretty good shape with some light to moderate grain, but there are periodic signs of minor damage including specks, scratches, and various vertical lines. Some sporadic flickering and image stabilization issues are also present but are very rare and don't really hurt the viewing experience. Detail is nice but the transfer features a fairly soft appearance with several shots looking a little hazy and flat. This seems to simply be a result of the original shooting methods, however, and not any overzealous processing. Black levels are consistent and whites carry nice contrast without overpowering the image.
'Design for Living' isn't among the most impressive looking classic film transfers I've come across, but considering that the movie is almost eighty years old, this is still a nice looking picture that has been cleaned up well.
The movie is presented with an English LPCM mono track with optional English SDH subtitles. Almost purely dialogue driven, this is a basic but completely satisfactory mix that gets the job done.
Dialogue is clean but does have a slightly hollow quality that is common for recordings of this age. There is also some faint background hiss that is audible in several scenes, but I didn't find this to be much of a distraction. Music is almost nonexistent and effects work is negligible, but the track does a decent job with both when necessary. Dynamic range is mostly flat and bass activity is essentially nonexistent, which again, is to be expected for a 1933 soundtrack.
Despite some age related hiccups, the mix sounds exactly like it should and delivers the film's memorable and instantly quotable dialogue clearly with very little distortion.
Criterion has put together a solid collection of supplements, including a selected-scene-commentary, short film, and a televised production of the original play. All of the special features are presented in high definition with Dolby Digital mono audio and no subtitle options.
'Design for Living' is a charming, clever, and effortlessly subversive comedy. Though it's almost eighty years old, its themes and subject matter still feel fresh and its witty dialogue is as funny as ever. The video and audio transfers do show the film's age but still provide a very solid viewing and listening experience. Supplements aren't quite as in depth as some other Criterion releases, but what is included is definitely worthwhile. This is a strong disc for a great film. Highly recommended.