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DESIGN FOR LIVING (director/writer: Ernst Lubitsch; screenwriters: play by Noel Coward/Ben Hecht; cinematographer: Victor Milner; editor: Frances Marsh; music: Nathaniel Finston; cast: Fredric March (Tom Chambers), Gary Cooper (George Curtis), Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrell), Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Douglas), Isabel Jewell (Lisping Stenographer); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ernst Lubitsch; Paramount; 1933)

“An elegant romantic farce that seems heavy-handed when it’s meant to be lighthearted.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The witty sophisticated German-born filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch (“Ninotchka”/”That Lady in Ermine”/”Trouble in Paradise”), known for “the Lubitsch Touch,” working in exile in Hollywood for the last decade,directs Noel Coward’s 1932 racy hit play, Design for Living. Co-writers Ben Hecht and Lubitsch cleanup most of the sexual tabu material for the screen, as pressure was applied to the studio from the Legion of Decency to adhere to the previous unenforced production code. By bowing to the demands of the censors, the movie version of the play was considerably lessened and Coward’s original was defiled. Adding to the woes, a miscast trio of Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins are unconvincing as free-spirited American bohemians living in Paris, who enter into a love triangle. The result is an elegant romantic farce that seems heavy-handed when it’s meant to be lighthearted. The film bombed at the box office. Over the years, the film overcame many of its negative early reviews of being too superficial to be received in a better light as it aged more gracefully. Viewing it in modern times, I thought the critics upon its theater release more or less got it right.

On a train from Marseilles to Paris, American roommates, the struggling playwright Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and the struggling artist George Curtis (Gary Cooper) meet successful commercial artist Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) in their third-class compartment. She works for prudish advertising head Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), who is currently running an ad campaign for Kaplan and McGuire’s non-wrinkling underwear in which Gilda sketched Napoleon wearing her ad agency client’s underwear. After the three-hour ride the boys both fall madly in love with the feisty girl. The worldly Gilda can’t decide which bloke she loves more and sleeps with both. Finally she comes up with a scheme to be ‘mother of the arts’ to both, but after helping Tom get his first play produced in London she moves in with George. Under her tutelage, George becomes a successful artist. When Tom visits their Paris apartment, it rekindles a love affair with Gilda. The confused Gilda, when faced again with an irate George, dumps both lovers, who flee together to China and she marries the stuffy Max. When the boys return from their self-exile to Paris, they both win Gilda’s heart and she dumps her no-fun boss to begin again a menage a trois with the fun-loving boys.

Onstage the lead parts were played by Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Coward himself. The script called for Coward’s posh idea of upper-class bohemians expressed through his lofty dialogue; while Lubitsch cleansed the movie of Coward’s rich dialogue and offered a more coarse treatment of the subject matter with the American actors making it into a Hollywood kind of romantic farce. I have no problem with the earthier makeover, but I didn’t think it was as smart as it thought was and never felt attracted to its nagging charms tacked on by Lubitsch.

REVIEWED ON 10/21/2011 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”