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.

Duck Soup (1933)

Leo McCarey | 1hr 8min

If there was ever a serious challenger to auteur theory, it would be the collective group of the Marx Brothers. Leo McCarey is a decent director, and certainly brings a good eye for symmetry to some of Duck Soup’s ensemble musical numbers, but there’s no mistaking the mark of the Marx’s. Rapid-fire gags, tightly coordinated slapstick, subtle witticisms that undercut authority – this is 1930s comedy at its most zany and brutally eviscerating.
Whether one finds this sort of humour funny or not is a matter of taste. Though I have softened towards the Marx Brothers over time, I still don’t find myself laughing at every joke. Some physical gags run for longer than necessary, and bring everything else to a grinding halt. But it’s hard not to admire the go-for-broke commitment with which they attack every single quip.

Groucho Marx, the rare comedian who is both a gifted physical actor and a rapid-fire wordsmith.

Groucho, Chico, and Harpo’s characters are agents of chaos with streaks of blatant incompetence, and yet they are tasked with responsibilities of national significance. Rufus T. Firefly is appointed leader of Freedonia, “land of the brave and free” as its citizens proudly proclaim in their vague, generic national anthem. He announces upfront how terrible a leader he will be, but his followers celebrate him regardless, dancing along to his jaunty tune. All three of the brothers are easily distracted, going off on comedic tangents that incidentally make the high stakes of the narrative secondary to whatever has caught their immediate attention.

Doppelgangers, role switching, physical comedy, culminating in the brilliant mirror gag scene.

Firefly is a man of pettiness and great ego, riling himself up over a perceived insult from a foreign leader that never occurred, and thereby declaring a completely avoidable and unnecessary war. In a bombastically patriotic musical number, the rest of Freedonia is brought down to his level in their excitement for the coming conflict, falling on their backs and kicking their legs in the air like children. The chaotic absurdity of the Marx Brothers is infectious, and no one in Freedonia is immune to the hysteria they whip up.

Never afraid to match the ludicrousness of their real-life political targets with their own outlandish satire.

In the thick of battle, Firefly doesn’t distinguish between ally and foe, shooting happily at whoever is unfortunate enough to get in his way. While his soldiers die on the frontlines, the madman stays up in his tower, pulling down blinds as if that will stop the bombs flying through. There might be better comedic sequences elsewhere in the film, but this final act is where the full weight of the political satire sets in. This war doesn’t end with one side winning over the other, but with Firefly capturing his foe in battle and pegging fruit at him. By applying their knack for satire to the incompetent, narcissistic political leaders of the western world, the Marx Brothers ultimately hit on comedy gold and deliver perhaps the best work of their careers.

The absurd war finale, these political leaders acting like self-serving children.

Duck Soup is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.