DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933) B/W 90m dir: Ernst Lubitsch
w/Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Isabel Jewell, Harry Dunkinson, Helena Phillips, James Donlin, Vernon Steele, Thomas Braidon, Jane Darwell, Armand Kaliz, Adrienne D'Ambricourt, Wyndham Standing, Nora Cecil, George Savidan, Cosmo Bellew, Barry Vinton, Emile Chautard, Mrs. Treboal
From Molly Haskell's seminal book, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies: "In Design for Living, Hopkins plays an American in Paris who gives herself --- first professionally, and finally sexually --- to two men, taking their hearts and careers in hand. The official consensus held that the film was a poor second to the play. It was blasted for Ben Hecht's piss-elegant screenplay, for Hollywood's toning down of the racy dialogue, for Lubitsch's casting of Hollywood types instead of the original stage cast (for and about whom the play had been written) of [playwright Noel] Coward and Alfred Lunt as the playwright and the painter, and Lynn Fontanne as the girl they both love. But it is precisely the casting of such unsuave Americans as Fredric March and Gary Cooper as the playwright and painter, and Miriam Hopkins as the girl they meet on a train, that makes the film iconoclastic and moving and disinfects it of the sexual innuendoes of the original cast that would have become more obvious on the screen.
"While the triangle of the film is equilateral, the triangle of the play is isosceles, with the characters based on Lunt and Fontanne --- Otto the painter and Gilda (in the play, an interior decorator) --- forming the central, quasi-marital relationship to which the Coward character, the 'mercurial' Leo Mercure, is the outsider. Critic Richard Corliss has suggested that in adapting the play, Hecht may have shaped it to express the relationship between himself, Charles MacArthur, and Helen Hayes, MacArthur's wife, but if that had been the case, it is very likely (given Hecht's esprit de buddies) the woman would have gradually receded from view, with the Front Page-back-room boys taking over completely. And the relationship between the two men would probably have come full circle: from the perverse shadings of the Coward play to the male ethos of 'love without pain or anger,' which Hecht celebrated as his credo. The perfect balance of the triangle, three people in a state of permanent , breathless suspension, can only be the work of Lubitsch. Like the enchanting threesome in Trouble in Paradise, the March-Hopkins-Cooper relationship is rooted in the Lubitschian faith that while women may --- indeed must --- have the same moral (or immoral) disposition as men, sexually they are far from interchangeable. Perhaps the greatest and fullest relationships, like the greatest art, come from the imaginative, rather than physical, exchange of sexual characteristics, from a spiritual, rather than literal, identification of one sex with the other.
"Hopkins is caught, in Design for Living, between the Puritan work ethic and antipuritanical Eros, between a gentleman's agreement and her own uncivilized impulses. Lubitsch's choice of Hopkins for the part was a masterstroke. Who could match the sly, saucy gentility of her innocent abroad, a woman who wants sex partly because she wants it, but mostly because she's never had it. Who could give quite the same earnestness to the complaint she makes that men are allowed to try on different women, like hats, until they find the right one, whereas women have to take the man that happens to fit at the right time. To remedy this inequity, and solve the problem of being in love with both men at the same time, she proposes a ménage à trois, substituting work for sex. The two artists will pursue their respective muses while she, having abandoned her own career as a commercial artist to invest in their more promising ones, enforces discipline. This unconventional arrangement is topped --- and toppled --- in the delicious moment when Hopkins breaks her own rules. March has taken his play to London leaving her alone with Cooper, whom she finds she can no longer resist. 'It's true we have a gentleman's agreement,' she says reflectively, then, flopping back on the bed, 'but I'm no gentleman.' Whether the scene implies, in the later words of the Production Code, that the 'low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing,' it is surely one that wouldn't have passed the censor after 1934. The number of sacred cows gaily demolished by the film --- premarital virginity, fidelity, monogamy, marriage, and, finally, the one article of even bohemian faith, the exclusive, one-to-one love relationship --- is staggering. And though Hopkins gives up her own career to further those of the two men, she does it not as a housekeeper, bedmaker, or meal provider, but as an agent-manager and inspiration, to wheedle, discipline, criticize, and take an active part in their work. She doesn't put all her emotional --- or professional --- eggs in one basket, and each artist has the benefit of a full-time agent, half-time woman, and plenty of time for work.
"The candor and innocence of the relationships, male-male and male-female, preclude any taint of perversion or coyness and enable the film to go beyond sex to its true spirit which is not carnal but romantic, the collusion of kindred souls, of blithe spirits in a working relationship that works.
"Coward's characters suggest elegantly ambisexual cosmopolites, but Lubitsch takes the trio farther in feeling. His casting is gently and decisively heterosexual; far from indicating any inclination for the kind of closed and infantile buddy system found in so many American films, March and Cooper suggest two individuals who, without Hopkins, would probably get on each other's nerves after a while. At any rate, Lubitsch is the antithesis of the kind of puritan director or writer in whom sexual subthemes appear as the latent content of his work. It is out in the open as one of many possibilities in the human comedy, a spectacle in which fulfillment is neither a male nor a female value, neither exclusively a private and personal matter. If Lubitsch's women are hard to grasp hold of and categorize, it is because they are busy turning in different directions and realizing the multiple sides of themselves."