It’s not unusual for a student of film to think back on film history and wonder what might have been. What if Citizen Kane had been a resounding success and Orson Welles was eventually embraced by the studio system? What if sound had been introduced either ten years earlier or ten years later than it had? What if the Hays Code had never been implemented?
That last question is one that is specific interest to me. I’ve always wondered what film would have become- and when it would have become that- had Joseph Breen never put the morality code into action. And, when watching Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living, we can have some idea of the answer to that question. We get a glimpse of some alternate universe in which filmmakers were freely allowed to make movies for mature adults. Gone would be the constant hand wringing about whether certain things were appropriate. The artists would have been allowed to produce their art and the audience would be free to choose whether or not they were going to see it.
The story of Design for Living is very simple on the outside, yet very complex on the inside. In Paris, a couple of American friends (Gary Cooper and Fredric March) happen across Gilda, a brash and stunning young woman (Miriam Hopkins), who proceeds to enter into a romantic relationship with both of them. At first, she tries to keep her relationships separate, but she is unable to keep that up for very long. Soon, the three are having a serious conversation that, even these days, would raise eyebrows. Rather than Gilda simply choosing which man she would like to be with, they decide to try to make a go of it as is. Each man has different qualities. Tom (March) is very eloquent, classy, and romantic. George (Cooper) is rough and impulsive and exciting. How could she possibly expect to choose between such different men?
Sure enough, though their “gentleman’s agreement” works for a while, it’s only a matter of time before hearts are broken. Gilda eventually chooses George, though we’re pretty sure this happens because Tom is required to live in London for several months. When Tom hears the news of his friends’ decision, he is shattered. Not only has he lost the woman he loves, but his best friend.
After a year, Tom visits Paris. He stops in, only to find that George is traveling. Sure enough, with George temporarily out of the picture, Gilda and Tom pick right up where they left off. When George arrives home earlier than expected, he is furious. He asks Tom, “Do you have any idea how I feel?” Tom replies, “Yes, I do. I felt that way once.”
And so the three attempt to figure out exactly how to handle this delicate situation. Gilda’s idea, and Tom and George’s eventual response, makes Design for Living a remarkably unconventional film. Its messages- about social expectations, bohemian living, loyalty- all seem to conflict with each other with a messiness that one rarely sees in what is ostensibly a romantic comedy. The film explores the pressures that we often feel to compromise what we want with what is expected of us. But, just when we think the film is satirizing middle class morality, the characters themselves have a hard time completely committing to their freewheeling lifestyle.
It is a film that is, more than anything, extremely human. These characters are constantly juggling what they truly want with what others want for them. They neither want to be selfish nor completely selfless. “The heart wants what it wants,” as the saying goes, but sometimes the heart wants completely different things at the exact same time. Which takes priority?
This strange love triangle is only one aspect of the film, albeit the primary aspect. Something else that the film explores is the lifestyle of artists. All three characters are struggling artists whose work improves as they interact with each other. Their individual feelings for each other begins to get wrapped up in their artistic endeavors, until there isn’t a great deal of space between them.
Soon, as they discuss the specifics of their romantic situation, our protagonists invoke the name of art itself. They are artists; they cannot and will not be constrained by a conformist society. As we watch this, our first instinct is to roll our eyes at their pretensions. However, upon looking deeper, it would appear that they are merely using art as a way to try to convince themselves that what they’re doing is okay. More than simply creative expression, art is a philosophy; one that they aspire to, but have a hard time reconciling themselves with. One eventually starts to wonder if these three make these life choices because they are artists, or if they have chosen art as a way to justify their life choices.
That all of these things are explored in what seems to be a fun romantic comedy- without ever stretching the genre to its breaking point- is a testament to Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch’s light and breezy touch, along with the leads’ wry performances, make Design for Living appear to be a very different film than what it is. To be sure, it is often very funny, but there is a kind of social maturity that we rarely find in films of that era. Perhaps a good reason for this is because the film was made before the Hays Code, so characters could speak a little more plainly about what they think and feel, rather than dance around some arbitrary list of dos and do nots. These are characters that firmly believe in always trying to be honest with one another, even if that honesty hurts. They certainly wouldn’t give each other knowing looks as they spoke in an all age appropriate code of some sort; they would say what they thought. If they were talking about sex, then they would come out and use the word “Sex.”
Design for Living is a film that is very refreshing in its willingness to challenge its audience. Even now, we bring our own social pressures and expectations to the viewing experience, and this film- which is about 80 years old- has just as much power to challenge now as it did in its days. Of course, if it had been made a mere five years later, it would have been a very different film. The dialogue certainly wouldn’t have been as frank as it is, and the nature of the relationship would only ever be hinted at.
That is assuming that the film be allowed to exist at all.
David and I have talked in the past about the unintended benefits of the Hays Code; specifically, that it challenged artists to communicate their messages cleverly in order to maneuver around the censors. This made for some interesting choices, but, when I watch Design for Living, I am left shaking my head with frustration. Too often, people look back on classic films as quaint and outdated. And, in many cases, that view has some merit. But, when we look at this film, we realize that it didn’t have to be that way. Film could have been a medium that fully acknowledged that there were just some things that are more complex than Joseph Breen would care to admit, but that everyday adults are perfectly willing to wrestle with.
As we discuss this film in relation to the Hays Code, I’m reminded of a character in the film. The appropriately-named Max Plunkett is a friend of Gilda’s, who looks at the love triangle with disdain, not at all willing to listen to anything Gilda has to say in her defense. In that way, he is much like Breen himself, whose unwillingness to approach film as anything other than a corrupting influence would inform attitudes that still exist today. There is a key line repeated by Plunkett throughout the film that I feel is worth noting.
“Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day.”
As is pretty standard, Criterion’s release is really visually beautiful. These characters inhabit an elegant world, so it would seem somehow counter intuitive for the transfer to be muddy and grainy. There are numerous special features, including scene specific commentary and a delightful short film called “The Clerk,” directed by Lubitsch and starring Charles Laughton. The film is part of a larger omnibus called If I Had a Million. In the short, Laughton plays a lowly clerk who discovers that he has been given a million dollars. Obviously, he doesn’t have to keep his job, so he matter-of-factly walks to his boss’s office and announces his resignation. Lubitsch directs with smiling, patient anticipation and Laughton plays it with uncharacteristic restraint. The film is only about three minutes or so, but that doesn’t keep it from being a lot of fun.
Another feature is a very informative interview with film scholar Joseph McBride, whose insights on the filmmakers (specifically screenwriter Ben Hecht) are very informative. I found the interview to be refreshing, in that McBride is willing to go against the grain of his fellow critics and scholars by putting forth the idea of “multiple authors,” rather than the widely accepted “auteur theory.” His admiration for Lubitsch aside, his assertion that Hecht is just as responsible for the film is pretty convincing, especially when one realizes that literally only one line is retained from the original Noël Coward play.
And about that play. Another feature is a production of the play from British television. Upon watching that, you realize just how huge of a role Hecht and Lubitsch played in discarding basically all of the dialogue and retaining only the relationships. Certainly, the play is very good (though the characters are, I think, considerably less likable than in the film), but if Lubitsch had committed to directing the play as is, I think it wouldn’t have been as cinematic. Still, inclusion of the play makes for a very interesting contrast.
There is also an essay written by critic Kim Morgan. She approaches the film from a more feminist point of view- which the film certainly bears out. However, Morgan- like McBride- puts a lot of effort into defending the casting of Gary Cooper. In the right role, Cooper could be great. Unfortunately, in this film, I consider him to be the weak link. His performance is fine, but seldom rises above that. With sparkling dialogue racing by, he seems in over his head and struggling to keep up. Morgan believes that Cooper’s rugged good looks more than make up for his rather lumbering performance; I don’t. Either way, the essay is worth a read.