Welcome to a new Film Friday and the conclusion of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the naughty Miriam Hopkins (1902-1972). We’ve covered some of her most delightfully Pre-Code films (all released by Paramount) over these past five weeks, including The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1932), Trouble In Paradise (1932), and The Story Of Temple Drake (1933). Today…
Design For Living (1933)
An independent woman can’t chose between the two men she loves. Starring Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, and Edward Everett Horton. Screenplay by Ben Hecht. Based on the play by Noel Coward. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
This Pre-Code adaptation of one of Noel Coward’s most forward-thinking plays is simultaneously an improvement and a diminishment of the iconic playwright’s risqué stage comedy. However, despite a completely rewritten text, the basic premise remains in place, giving Miss Hopkins (as with last week’s The Story of Temple Drake) the chance to star in one of early Hollywood’s most scandalous Pre-Codes. And, believe me, this one may even surprise you most devout Pre-Code watchers!
The plot: “Two Americans sharing a flat in Paris, playwright Tom Chambers and painter George Curtis, fall for free-spirited Gilda Farrell. When she can’t make up her mind which one of them she prefers, she proposes a “gentleman’s agreement”: She will move in with them as a friend and critic of their work, but they will never have sex. But when Tom goes to London to supervise a production of one of his plays, leaving Gilda alone with George, how long will their gentleman’s agreement last?” Not too long, for soon Tom is sent a ‘Dear John’ letter, and Gilda moves in with George. Later, when both George and Tom have achieved success, the latter visits Gilda and the two make love. George returns the next morning, and Gilda breaks up with them both, running off to Manhattan to marry Max, her stodgy former boss. But the two gentleman can’t let that be the end of their relationship with Gilda.” (The first part of this summary is brought to you courtesy of IMDb.)
This is an excellent film that is exceptionally entertaining, but it is not without its flaws. For fans of the Coward original, you may be disheartened to know that very little of the text was actually written by Coward. That’s right; the whole script: rewritten. And that’s always a shame, because Coward excelled in witty character-driven dialogue that is often too smart for its own good. At the same time, this also is a blessing for the picture — allowing it to really take on a life of its own and stand as a work separate from the play. Yet, the biggest change from the stage (aside from the more definite three act structure, that doesn’t include the film’s added beginning) is the total removal of the gay subtext between George and Tom (called Otto and Leo in the play). In Coward’s text, there’s no doubt that all three characters have feelings for each other; it’s an honest-to-goodness love triangle. This sophistication manages to be the best part about Coward’s play, and its removal at the behest of the censors (which did exist, but with limited power) is probably the most disappointing loss.
However, Hecht’s script is, as mentioned above, a completely different affair, and one that succeeds and fails in its own right. The biggest flaw of the actual film is the pacing, which finds the story going through several periods that lack the necessary captivation inherent in the rest of the picture. And while this is true of most films, its odd that pacing would be a problem in an Ernst Lubitsch film, who was known for the “Lubitsch touch,” which among other things, referred to the fluidity of his cinematography and the briskness of his stories. But, Lubitsch (and Hecht) succeed far more than they fail, and honestly, though I’ve never had the privilege of seeing Coward, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne play the trio onstage, I believe the film is largely an improvement over the original text. For instance, the film shows the two gentlemen meeting Gilda, and the three of them living all together. This is necessary, I think, in establishing characters and actually heightening the sexual tension, which in some ways is more overt than in the play (believe it or not). And with a whole new introduction, the first two acts of Coward’s play — in which Gilda is with one of the boys but sleeps with another (which happens twice) — are reduced, allowing for more textual variety. But Hecht triumphs most in the rewritten final sequence, a hilarious crescendo in which Gilda’s two beaus crash her husband’s business party. This becomes the best part of the film, perfectly illustrating the story’s screwbally naughtiness. It works far better in the film than in the play.
And because the script is not Coward, one doesn’t feel shortchanged to see three non-British actors who could probably never handle his material as adroitly as Coward, Lunt, and Fontanne playing the roles. Instead, this new trio become the characters as designed by the screenplay — and marvelously too. March and Cooper are perfectly matched in comic ability here, and their styles are different enough to make them seem like completely different characters (a minor complaint I had with Coward’s original text), while similar enough to make a friendship — not an attraction, as in the play — seem entirely plausible. Additionally, Edward Everett Horton turns in an exceedingly memorable performance that provides the picture with some of its biggest laughs; a complete improvement over what his character was given to do in the original play. He nearly steals the show.
Of course, the star is Miriam Hopkins, who scintillates and seems to ooze sexuality throughout the film. (It’s easy to see why these two men are attracted to her!) As we’ve tracked her Pre-Code career on Film Friday, it’s marvelous to see her comedic skills grow and develop. Her sensibilities are on fire here, and she carries the picture — even during its slow periods. The success of the final sequence, written by Hecht, is really a testament to her talents, as its her frazzled mania that ratchets up the stakes and allows for the development of riotous comedy. Though Hopkins was certainly an extraordinary (and underrated) dramatic actress — as illustrated in last week’s post — this may be her best work. Comedy was her racket, and Lubitsch really gives her the chance to shine in this motion picture. And though it’s not Noel Coward, Design For Living truly is one of the best Pre-Codes I’ve covered on this site. It comes highly recommended to every reader. It’s sometimes silly, often racy, and always fun.
Come back next Friday for a new series of posts on a spotlighted Pre-Code star! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!