Design for Living (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 12.6.2011)
Design for Living is not one of Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpieces, but this 1933 film is thoroughly entertaining and provides a wonderful example of the sexual content Hollywood could get away with before the advent of the Production Code. Beyond the title and the basic premise, the film has little to do with Noël Coward’s 1932 play. Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a commercial artist working for an advertising agency in Paris, meets George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Frederic March) -- a painter and a playwright respectively -- and falls almost immediately in love with both, while fending-off the advances of her stuffy boss (Edward Everett Horton). Some rash decisions are made, leading to misery for all concerned -- until an unconventionally happy fade-out.
In 1933, Lubitsch had just made Trouble in Paradise -- which many consider his masterpiece -- and Design for Living is a similarly sophisticated comedy. Employing numerous double entendres, phallic images and implied sexual acts, Lubitsch and screenwriter Ben Hecht make the film as risqué as possible. Hecht, who famously refused to read many of the novels and plays he adapted, greatly expanded Gilda’s role, helping Hopkins give the liveliest, sexiest performance of her forty-year career. March could be a heavy-handed drag, but he also seems liberated by the script.
In Americanizing and streamlining Coward’s play (only one line from the play remains in the film), the screenwriter of Nothing Sacred actually improves it. This is particularly evident when compared to the bland 2001 Broadway revival and the badly-cast 1964 British TV version included here as an extra.
William Paul, author of Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy, compares similar scenes in Design for Living and Trouble in Paradise, in order to explain what has come to be called The Lubitsch Touch. Paul also notes that Lubitsch’s women are often smarter than his male characters. Film historian Joseph McBride analyzes Hecht’s contribution, notably his attack on middle-class morality. (McBride sees Tom as a self-portrait of Hecht.) In an accompanying booklet, Kim Morgan covers the film’s virtues (especially Hopkins) quite well. Also included is The Clerk, a brief segment Lubitsch directed for the 1932 compilation film If I Had a Million.
The transfer on this disc offers inkier blacks and more luminous whites than an earlier Design for Living DVD, but there is a distracting line down the screen during the final minutes of the film. Nonetheless, this is another solid release from Criterion. -- Michael Adams