“Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of 100-percent virtue and three square meals a day,” opines Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton) on more than one occasion in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933). The film then goes out of its way to prove him wrong, which might seem a little shocking to today’s audiences in such an old movie. In pre-code Hollywood, it was surprising what they got away with—and never more so than in the final pre-code year of 1933. Actually, even for a pre-code film it was surprising that Lubitsch was allowed to make a film from Noel Coward’s play—no matter how much it was toned down—since the subject matter was and remained a ménage à trois. In this case, the partners are writer Thomas Chambers (Fredric March), painter George Curtis (Gary Cooper), and self-proclaimed “mother of the arts” Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins)—and three prettier people in 1933 Hollywood would be hard to find. Of course, any actual reference to a threesome or bisexuality never made it into the film, but there’s more subtext than you can shake a stick at (if that’s your idea of a good time) and the ending—well, where else can it go? (If you see the film, you’ll know what I mean.) Coward purists dislike the film, largely because almost none of Coward’s dialogue was left and the characters had been Americanized for the stars, but no one else need worry about that. For Lubitsch, the film would mark the end of his most creative period at Paramount (1929-1933)—and a fine final bow it is.
Even while Design for Living fits in far better with the six features (and segments in two others) Lubitsch made in those years than it does with anything that follows, it has a slightly different feel to it. First of all, the heavy use of a musical track underscoring the action is nowhere to be found. More important, however is that it is probably the most “American” film he ever made, which seems odd considering that the film’s entire action takes place in Paris, London, and on a train passing through the French countryside. Yet all four of the film’s major characters are pointedly Americans living abroad. This is probably due in some part to the cast, especially Cooper, who was never conceivably anything but American (see the 1938 Adventures of Marco Polo).
However, a lot of this attributable to Ben Hecht writing the screenplay—his only credited association with Lubitsch. What’s interesting is that Hecht’s wisecracking, roughneck cynicism and Lubitsch’s flair and his fabled “touch” go together very nicely. In fact, the oh-so-typical Lubitsch scene toward the end—when George and Tom in Hechtian fashion break-up a fancy soiree while the camera in (Lubitschian fashion) remains on the doors through which they entered—is one of the funniest in his filmography, yet it owes a good bit to Hecht. It’s unclear as to whether it was censorship, Lubitsch, or Hecht that made the screenplay use nothing but the title, premise, and single line (“good for our immortal souls”) from Coward’s play. Likely, all three enter into it, but it’s easy to imagine—despite Hecht’s own boughts of “artiness”—that Hecht delighted in rewriting the whole thing. Hecht had little patience with anything “high class” —unless it was his own, of course (you’ll note this didn’t keep him from casting Noel Coward in his own, very highbrow The Scoundrel two years later). And though it’s heresy to say this, I frankly think Hecht’s screenplay is considerably funnier and more clever than Coward’s play.
After this film, Lubitsch would go over to MGM (never a particularly smart move artistically) to make his final—and least—Maurice Chevalier-Jeanette MacDonald musical comedy The Merry Widow (1934). Following that, he took over as head of production at Paramount, a job that kept him out of the director’s chair for three years (unless you count his supervision on Frank Borzage’s Desire in 1936, which resulted in a movie that feels more like Lubitsch than Borzage). When he returned in 1937 with Angel something had changed. It and the movies that followed were still clearly his, but the sense of cinematic inventiveness was missing. Did three years as a studio executive do this? Maybe. Maybe it was just changing styles, since none of the great cinema stylists of the first half of the 1930s—Lubitsch, Sternberg, Whale, Mamoulian—were ever quite the same in the latter half of the decade. Whatever the case, we at least have those films from the early 1930s—and one of the best of them is Design for Living.