Design for Living (1933)

Ernst Lubitsch | 1hr 31min

The title Design for Living could be the name of some 1930s instruction manual, informing citizens on how best to make the most of their lives according to some pre-set, one-size-fits-all structure. And of course, it would be Ernst Lubitsch of all pre-Code Hollywood directors to gleefully flout those social expectations in the most comically flagrant manner possible, wrapping that raunchy defiance up in the same sophisticated “touch” he is so well known for. The core premise of the relationship at this film’s centre is both amusingly and elegantly stated by Gilda, a commercial artist torn between two best friends: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men.” Polyamory is the solution, and thus she sets a cohabiting arrangement that positions her as the “Mother of the Arts” in their house, offering friendship and criticism on their creative pursuits while leaving sex strictly off the table.

Even as rules are broken between the three of them, it remains clear that the issue is not with their “gentleman’s agreement”, but rather their own messy impulses and egos. None of these are fatal flaws – in fact one of the film’s great joys is in watching these affable characters playfully interact and make mistakes – but it does leave a tension as to whether they will achieve the harmonious balance they seek or simply break down, forcing Gilda into the bland monogamous lifestyle of the aristocracy. A third suitor, advertising executive Max, is right there to pull her into that tedious security, embodying the rigid “Design for Living” which sets strict expectations of how one should dress, talk, and behave. Imperfect and chaotic as Gilda’s relationship with George and Tommy may be, it is at least not as suffocating as the box Max forces her into.

Coming into this film, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, and Fredric March are riding high on waves of success, carrying a charming jubilance that slots nicely into Lubitsch’s style of gender comedy. Hopkins especially lights up the screen, her smile reaching all the way to her eyes with a wide-open honesty. It isn’t hard to see why George and Tommy fall so easily into Gilda’s lap, especially in one early scene that sees them profess their sympathies for her situation right after she expresses her struggle in having to choose between them both.

“It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately I am no gentleman,” Gilda later proclaims, finally giving into her sexual desires and dramatically throwing herself upon a bed in front of Tommy when George goes touring overseas. Even though Lubitsch had the world of sex jokes open to him in this pre-Code era of Hollywood, he plays his comedy cool in its implications, walking up to the edge of explicitness before side-stepping it with a sly turn of phrase. It is tantalisingly sharp writing from Ben Hecht that Lubitsch picks up and runs with in his comedic staging, constantly revolving two men around the woman between them. In those rotations, Design for Living keeps on refreshing itself throughout its brisk 90 minutes, shunning conventional character dynamics for something as honest as it is funny.

Design for Living is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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