Friday, 6 January 2012
Design For Living
Starring: Gary Cooper, Frederic Marsh, Miriam Hopkins, Edward Everett Horton
By Alan Bacchus
Tom Chambers (Marsh) is a playwright, George Curtis (Cooper) is an artist, and in between these two libidinous best friends is Gilda Farrell (Hopkins), the third angle of a unique love triangle, which in the pre-code era resulted in a coy spin on our preconceived notions of male-female sexual relations.
The Criterion Collection has appropriately dug out this delicious farce directed by the master of romantic-sexual comedies, Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise, Ninotochka), and written by the master of British wit, poise and the complexity of relationships, Noel Coward. What a team!
It’s so refreshing to watch how quickly these older movies get to the point. The opening scene features Gilda getting into a train car to Paris occupied by Tom and George. Both are sleeping against each other. A carefully framed close-up of Cooper’s hand on Marsh's might even suggest a homosexual relationship. They aren’t gay, but their proximity foreshadows just how closely they will be linked. There’s clearly an attraction between all three. Once in Paris, Gilda engages in a sexual relationship with both of them (separately).
When they find out that both of them have tasted the fruit of her loins, in order to save their friendship Gilda proposes they make a ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ to become platonic friends, professional colleagues critiquing each other’s work, but never sleeping with each other. These best laid plans go awry when, while Chambers is making it big in London, George genuinely falls for Gilda and starts up a real relationship with her. Of course, the tables switch again when Tom sleeps with Gilda after returning from London. The wildcard, which eventually causes the biggest rift, is Max Plunkett (Horton), a long-time admirer of Gilda, who manages to weasel in between the friends and steal her away. It would then take a full reconciliation of Tom and George and some social savvy to save Gilda from a dull marriage to the drab advertising man Plunkett.
As we all know, some of the sharpest and delightfully salacious sex comedies came from the pre-code, that is the brief time in the talking picture era when Hollywood could do whatever they wanted on screen – before the Hays Code (and then the Breen Code) spelled out in detail what was ‘acceptable’ to show on screen. That said, these pre-code films still exercised restraint and subtlety with their bawdy material. The word sex is mentioned on a couple of occasions in this picture, a word which immediately makes us turn our heads, especially coming out of the mouth of Miriam Hopkins, but everything is between the lines.
Gilda’s liberated view of sex can be seen as a pre-dated feminist ideal. It would be years before we would see a woman take control of and be frank about her sexual predilections. In Design For Living this comes in the form of the film’s best scene, the moment when Gilda confesses to both men that she has no problem sleeping with both of them. For the most part Gilda has this power through the film. I wonder if the Farrelly Brothers had seen Design For Living before making There’s Something About Mary, arguably an updated and grossly exaggerated version of the male obsession with women.
Coward provides a delightful witty and light tone for most of the film, but things get the most interesting when the film finds a very serious tone in the second half. While the sexual games make for fun repartee, we gradually start to feel the emotional weight of their mutual attraction to Gilda. Frederic Marsh has a great scene in which we see him break down when he discovers that George has broken the agreement and courted Gilda in his absence. The weight of Gilda’s forlorn love and the betrayal from his best friend is simply too much.
And for a film made in 1932 we’re also treated to a beautifully art decorated picture full of wondrous gothic/art deco imagery and pristine compositions and camera movement proving Lubistch’s mastery of the art form. In addition to the beautiful high definition imagery, one of the treasures of the disc is Lubitsch’s short film Clerk starring Charles Laughton, one part of the omnibus film If I Had a Million. Lubitsch’s superlative images and delirious visual techniques are a pure cinematic delight, all showcased in a matter of minutes.
Design For Living is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.