“It's true we had a gentleman's agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”
Design for Living is the sexiest, raunchiest, and funniest pre-code I have seen. From the moment the three main characters appear on screen you are made to laugh.
Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) is put in the same compartment on a train for Paris as two men who are sound asleep when she walks in. As they sleep she draws their faces with their funny expressions. She sits down, puts her feet besides one of their legs and his hand brushes her leg and falls asleep herself. When the men wake up they see Gilda sleeping across from them. They wake her up and thinking she is French they speak the language but when she says an American saying they get all excited and introduce themselves. George Curtis (Gary Cooper) is a painter and Tom Chambers (Fredric March) is a playwright.
Both George and Tom are having a rough time with their work they do not have enough inspiration. They are both incredibly attracted to Gilda and she is attracted to them. One night she comes over to their apartment, the two men vie for her attention by following her around when she looks at their works. Gilda tells them that she loves them both and cannot choose one over the other. She decides on a gentleman’s agreement where she will live with them and be a critic for their work but there is to be no sex.
Tom is the first to see his work take off with Gilda help. She walks into the hotel room of a stage producer and just hands him Tom’s play. The producer likes the play and signs Tom on to stage the play in London for a month. While away Tom gets a note from Gilda telling him their agreement has been broken. Almost a year later Tom returns to Paris. George is not a successful portrait artist and has been living with Gilda in a nice apartment. When Tom sees Gilda for the first time George is away for a few days. She realizes how much she has missed Tom. George comes back a day earlier, at first he is more than happy to see Tom but then he notices that he former best friend has spent the night.
Gilda runs away from their situation and marries another man she has known for a long time. All three eventually realize they miss each other. Gilda especially misses her old lifestyle she cannot stand having to be the welcoming housewife expecting to entertain for hours on end for her husband’s boring clients.
George and Tom swoop in as Gilda’s knights in shining armor and rescue her from her dull life.
If you know anything about pre-code films just by summary you know Design for Living is from that era. The story comes from a play by Noel Coward (and that is about it the film is completely different from the play) with dialogue written by my favorite screenwriter Ben Hecht. Never before this film or even after has there been anything written or directed or acted like it. The film is so quick, so risqué, and so full of innuendo that if you are a modern viewer not used to seeing films like this your head will spin and if you have seen these kinds of films you will be left smiling and pleasantly surprised. Directors today can learn a great deal when watching an Ernst Lubitsch film: all the sexuality is shown to a certain extent but is mostly implied making the whole moment or situation that much sexier and risqué. We see a look or a touch that gives all the explanation in the world as to what is going to happen next. Hecht’s dialogue is just amazing it is so loaded with innuendo, sarcasm, and wit. His dialogue brings the film right to the edge of being an all out screwball comedy but stops just before that edge, the film is still funny despite this if anything that closeness keeps the film from being too silly.
Gilda has to be the ultimate pre-code female character she was in charge and immoral and free spirited. This type of woman would be shunned and severely punished only two years later when the Code was enforced. I love how Gilda has the power over George and Tom she is the epitome of a temptress and the best thing about that is she knows it and uses it on both men. Miriam Hopkins played Gilda to perfection no one could have played the character better. She starred in several Lubitsch films which I now cannot wait to watch. Gary Cooper was wonderfully funny and so adorable. Fredric March was good but it looked like he was a little uncomfortable playing comedy it looked like he was holding back. But when he was beside Cooper March was funny especially at the end when they rescue Gilda.
My favorite scene in the film is probably the most sexual. My favorite part is when Tom and Gilda are alone together when he comes back from London. He sees his old typewriter that he told her to keep for him when he comes back. She is sitting on the bed while he is at a small table she tells him it does not ring anymore. She plays with it and rings. Tom comes over to her, she stands up, he presses his body against her and says “does it ring?” You need to see the scene to truly know how incredible I thought that moment was nothing like that has been done since even in our modern films. I thought it was so sexy and the looks on their faces just added to the sexiness. You definitely know what they did after that.
Design for Living is probably the ultimate pre-code film. It is as racy looking at it today than it must have been back in 1933. As I said nothing like this film has been done since and if it ever is people will be in complete shock. Design for Living is pre-code and Ernst Lubitsch their best.