I just saw Design for Living (1933) for the first time and I'm going to gush a bit. Ernest Lubitsch and Ben Hecht, the best director and writer of this type of material adapt a Noel Coward play with Frederick March, Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins. The result is one of the wittiest, sexiest comedies in a decade jam packed with such gems. George Curtis (Gary Cooper) a starving painter and Tom Chambers (Frederick March) an unpublished playwright, meet a commercial artist, Miss Glinda Ferrell(Miriam Hopkins) on a train to Paris. Unable to choose between the two, Glinda enters into a "gentleman's agreement" to live together with them with "no sex." In return, she offers them hard nosed criticism and their art greatly improves. As one can imagine this "no sex" thing doesn't last very long. As soon as Tom goes out of town, Glinda makes a move on George, attacking a lower button on his coat with an offer to sew it back on. George attempts to resist her seductive seemstressing by insisting she go take in the new Tarzan movie. "Glinda, please, Tarzan" he says helplessly. Moments later Glinda is sprawled across the sofa saying "we had a gentleman's agreement. Fortunately, I am no gentleman."
George and Glinda make a go of it for a while as his career takes off. Meanwhile in London, Tom is heartbroken, but his play "Goodnight Mr. Basington" is a massive hit. I love the play within a play which somehow involves a mandolin, a love triangle and the immortal line, "it may be fun, but not more fun than 100% morality and three squares a day." After meeting a mutual friend, Max Plunkett (the always brilliant Edward Everett Horton) in London, Tom decides to go back to Paris to find Glinda. While Tom is away painting a commission, Tom seduces Glinda by going over the finer points of typewriter mechanics. If ever a movie needed the slightest pretenses for a love scene, it was Design for Living. George arrives home early and punching ensues. Again, unable to choose, Glinda leaves them both for Max Plunkett who wastes no time in marrying her. Much of the plot of the movie is delivered through dictated letters and telegrams and one of the most delightful is the one Max writes to his mother telling him of his upcoming nuptials. We learn among other things that Max has no romance in his soul and that Glinda is originally from Fargo, North Dakota. As a fellow North Dakotan, I have to thank Noel Coward (or perhaps Ben Hecht?) for that one!
The comedy really gets cooking when George and Tom join forces to retrieve Glinda. I think Gary Cooper struggles a bit in other parts of the movie, trying to find his feet as George. The minute he and March get genuinely wacky he really starts to come alive. The last 15 minutes of the movie are out and out screwball comedy and certainly do add greatly to the argument that the Production Code was not a necessary element in that genre. Of all the pre-code movies I've watched in the last few weeks, Design for Living is far and away the most entertaining. I don't mind telling you, I'm loving Design for Living.
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