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Design for Living

Noel Coward's 1932 play, Design for Living, about a menage a trois among British upper-class bohemians, had been a huge hit on the New York and London stage, starring Coward, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne as the unconventional trio. The myth is that when Paramount bought the film rights that same year, Hollywood censorship demanded that Coward's play be changed completely to take out the sexual innuendo; the result was a desecration of the Coward original, and a total failure. The truth is rather more complex.

German producer-director Ernst Lubitsch had been working in America for a decade, and was one of the most respected and powerful talents in Hollywood. His witty and ironic style of visual storytelling had come to be known as "the Lubitsch Touch." While his style was considered the ultimate in European sophistication, he had, in fact, a very shrewd understanding of the American character...something that Noel Coward, whose plays are peopled with posh upper-class Brits, lacked. Lubitsch couldn't relate to the rarefied wit of Coward, and realized that American audiences wouldn't either. And he knew the play's structure and talkiness wouldn't work on film. So he was eager to take the basic situation of one woman in love with two men, and make it his own...without losing the sexual suggestiveness. Censorship didn't really have much to do with it. In fact, although a production code of what could and could not be done in films existed in theory, in practice it was not yet being enforced in 1933.

Lubitsch first asked his favorite screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (Trouble in Paradise, 1932) to write the script for Design for Living (1933), but Raphaelson wasn't interested in revising Coward. So Lubitsch asked the playwright of The Front Page (1928) and the screenwriter for Scarface (1932) -- Ben Hecht -- to take on the task. Thus Paramount, which had paid $50,000 to Coward for the rights, had to also pay the same amount to Hecht for a screenplay. The result turned out to be just as racy as Coward's, but in a totally different way, a combination of Lubitsch's European subtlety and Hecht's slam-bang American earthiness. Hecht proudly proclaimed that he used only one line from Coward's play in his script: "for the good of our immortal souls." But ever the prankster, Hecht did throw in some lines from other Coward plays into his Design for Living screenplay.

Miriam Hopkins, who had been brilliant in Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, was the director's one and only choice to play the woman in Design for Living's triangle. Lubitsch had hoped to cast Ronald Colman and Leslie Howard in the male leads. But Colman was too expensive, and Howard didn't want to risk comparisons to Lunt or Coward. Then Lubitsch chose Fredric March and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., but at the last minute Fairbanks came down with pneumonia. According to Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman, the director then "stunned everybody" by casting action star Gary Cooper. As the production of Design for Living got underway, Lubitsch gathered the company for a pep talk. He warned them that critics wouldn't like the film, and would say they had ruined Coward's play. But he assured them that the public would like it. "Noel Coward means nothing to most of them. Gary Cooper means something to them, and they will be happy to see that he is an accomplished light comedian." The latter prediction, at least, came true. Thanks to Lubitsch's help and encouragement Cooper did, indeed, prove to be an adept comic actor. They would work together again, in Desire (1936) and Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938).

Unfortunately, Lubitsch's prediction that the critics would lambaste the film also came true. The New York Herald Tribune's Richard Watts, Jr., who called Design for Living "even more superficial than the original," was typical. And audiences seemed to agree with the critics. The film did not do well at the box office. But it's a film that has aged well, and has become more highly regarded as the years go by. Design for Living's moral attitudes, offbeat casting, witty dialogue, and Deco sleekness seem surprisingly contemporary today. And while other styles of comedy have dated, the Lubitsch Touch still works.

Producer/Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, based on the play by Noel Coward
Editor: Frances Marsh
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Costume Design: Travis Banton
Art Direction: Hans Dreier
Music: Nathaniel Finston
Principal 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).

by Margarita Landazuri



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