By Peter Bogdanovich | Peter Bogdanovich July 7, 2013 at 12:35PM
Ernst Lubitsch's movie version of Noel Coward's hit stage comedy has always had a certain stigma attached to it, because Lubitsch and the ace writer, Ben Hecht, had had the temerity to use only one single line from the play and to totally alter the construction of the piece. They kept the basic premise---two men and one woman carry on an extended menage a trois---and several plot points, but otherwise they basically re-envisioned the entire story, even changing the names of the characters.
I had not been spared a certain prejudice against the Lubitsch/Hecht Design for Living, and felt over the years that it was not first-rank Lubitsch, though my index cards praise the work which I first saw in 1962, rated "Excellent," and saw again three years later and still liked (see my blog, "The Lubitsch File - Part 2"). But that was nearly 50 years ago, and I've learned a few things since then. So I just saw Criterion's new Blu-ray edition of this controversial picture, and found it to be absolutely brilliant!
Now here's the twist: It's not only better than the Coward play, it's an extraordinarily brave and daring comic version of what the great Anglo-Irish historian/novelist/poet Robert Graves used to say was the first and therefore oldest story ever told---and what he referred to as "the single poetic theme"---in the most ancient mythology, the personages were two Sacred Kings and one Love Goddess who was their muse, their lover, their nemesis. (See Graves' The White Goddess or his compilation and annotation of The Greek Myths.)
Unlike the play, Lubitsch begins at the beginning, starting with the meeting of the three (on a train going to Paris), and then proceeds to run out numerous variations on the central theme. First the three swear off sex, what the lady in the case (Miriam Hopkins) calls "a gentlemen's agreement," and they dedicate their time to bettering the men's chosen art, one a playwright (Fredric March), the other a painter (Gary Cooper). She is a potent muse and deadly honest critic (her favorite word being "rotten!"), and both men eventually achieve great success.
However, while March is getting his first play staged in London, Cooper and Hopkins can not resist their profound attraction: She stretches out on a bed with the devastating line: "I know we said it was a gentlemen's agreement---but I'm no gentleman!" March hears what's happened and, ten months later, comes to call while Cooper is away, and, naturally, Hopkins and March can't adhere to the old agreement either. Then Cooper returns while the other two are having breakfast and March is still in his tux...
And that's how it goes; so she renounces both men and marries her greatest and straightest admirer, played by the ultimate conventional square, Edward Everett Horton at his best. A marriage that works only so long as Cooper and March don't show up. Which they, of course, ultimately do, and so begins the full-out, no holds barred menage a trois, as the movie shockingly concludes. It is, like all great comedies, a tragic situation turned on its head into a blithely unapologetic happy ending.
Each scene is superbly acted. The four principals are all
surprising, especially Gary Cooper, who at the time was noted for his
laconic Westerner in things like The Virginian, but each of them really
is believable in their roles, thanks to the typically Lubitschian tempo
and style, which is unmistakable as always. Really, as years go by, I
think I enjoy being in his company more and more every time. And Design
for Living is a welcome addition to the top tier of his universe.
A historical note: This film was released in the year before the stringent and puritanical Production Code was put into full force, so that when Paramount wanted to reissue it a couple of years later, they were definitively refused. Just under the wire, Lubitsch had gotten away with his most outrageous affront to middle-class morality.