David Reviews Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living [Blu-ray Review]

With last Thursday’s announcement of a new Criterion box set, David Lean Directs Nöel Coward, slated for next March, this month’s release of Design for Living, adapted from Coward’s stage play, could be seen as a warm-up swing for their first (but hopefully not last) deluxe slipcased issue of 2012.  Or maybe not. Though the name of Nöel Coward is certainly mentioned on the packaging and discussed at length in the supplementary material, this version of Design for Living is hardly the kind of collaborative effort that Coward and Lean developed over the course of several films. Nor does it resemble the partnership between George Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Pascal in a similar campaign (captured in Eclipse Series 20) to translate famous and highly literate stage productions into cinematic language. Instead, Ernst Lubitsch’s decision to adapt Design for Living was a simple case of going with a hot talent from the world of live theater whose reputation for stirring up scandal and poking fun at conventional morality rivaled his own. The play was written in 1932, premiered in early 1933 and was greenlit early enough that year to have the film version on  screen just before New Year’s Day 1934.

That’s a pretty fast turnaround for a stage-to-film adaptation, especially considering that relatively few people had even seen the play, though it quickly established itself as a hit when it finally landed on Broadway. But to have any chance of succeeding outside the well-heeled environs of Manhattan and other such metropoli, Coward’s verbose flurry of erudite banter among a trio of British socialites slumming about in Bohemia required a drastic overhaul to become a more generally accessible comedy of dissolute Americans living abroad. As much as Coward purists then and now may want to take issue with Lubitsch and screenwriter Ben Hecht’s alterations, it’s clear that simply filming the play or even a more straightforward adaptation would have resulted in an abysmal flop. A 1960s TV supplement showing a more faithful rendition of the play included with this set demonstrates how difficult the task would have been. I laughed my head off at the highly stage-bound film of  The Importance of Being Earnest, but had a hard time latching on to Otto and Leo as originally scripted. Give me the movie’s Tom and George, and a more engaging and winsome version of Gilda, especially as rendered by the enticing Miriam Hopkins, any day.

This clip, of the brilliant opening scene, is wholly constructed by Lubitsch and Hecht. When the play begins, the menage a trois has already developed and the back story is delivered via dialog. Here we see the characters’ first encounter, a masterful demonstration of Lubitsch’s keen sense of visual humor and a reflection of his professional coming of age in cinema’s silent era:

What survived the transition besides Gilda’s name and the male character’s professions (one a painter, the other a playwright) were a scant few lines of original dialog, a narrative that hops from Paris to London to New York, and the basic structure of the story. It involves a romantic triangle consisting of two men who both love the same woman, who also loves them both, equally but for different reasons, and just can’t make up her mind about who to drop in order to achieve monogamous respectability. So after going through a few failed experiments of settling on one man for the sake of being “nice,” she finally decides to keep ’em both. But rather than suffer the inevitable heartbreak and receive the obligatory moralistic reprimand we expect in plots of this sort, Gilda and her fellas exit the story as an intact trio, kissing and laughing as they go. Shocking stuff for the early 1930s, and even in many quarters of the world nowadays, to be sure, which makes Design for Living more than just an interesting specimen of pre-Code naughty sophistication. It continues to strike notes of advocacy for female empowerment and erotic candor that still need to be heard and reckoned with today.

As a film, Design for Living seems to have been consigned by some reviewers to the ranks of “lesser Lubitsch,” though I’m not really sure what yardstick is being used to draw that conclusion. It’s clearly as brave in its flouting of convention as anything he ever did, and I found plenty to chuckle out loud about as Tom and George endure the strain on their friendship and strive to maintain their composure, finding themselves in the kind of romantic limbo that men routinely put women in without feeling all too bothered about it. And I have to say that the new blu-ray transfer, along with the classy touch-of-Deco graphics and nicely illustrated booklet, give Design for Living as polished and attractively contemporary a presentation as could be desired for a film from its era. Leads Gary Cooper, Fredric March and the aforementioned Miriam Hopkins handle their roles deftly, with Cooper playing against his taciturn action-man type. March is at his best in his scenes as a writer struggling to nail that elusive punchline he needs to bring the curtain down, and Hopkins completes her emergence from eye-catching support roles to a full-fledged star comedienne  possessed of impeccable timing and a precisely modulated poise that avoids lapsing over into slutty trampiness on the one side and ditzy naivete on the other. Hopkins’ Gilda, unlike the self-deprecating and somewhat manic woman in Coward’s play – and really, Coward’s characters are all pretty manic –  is in command of her emotions, simultaneously relishing and wrestling with the predicament she’s in without feeling the need to twist things into an angst-driven revenge scenario or issue melodramatic ultimatums. My kinda gal! And while she’s adorably sly from the moment she first appears on the screen, when Ms. Hopkins emerges late into the film wearing her marvelously slinky silver sequined party dress… well, she’s just quite a delectable sight, especially in state-of-the-art 1080p.

Speaking of high-def, let me take this opportunity to toss another volley into my campaign to get an upgrade for Trouble in Paradise,  Design for Living‘s immediate predecessor among Lubitsch films. (That is, besides the one little scene, included with the supplements here, that he filmed for the omnibus If I Had a Million, featuring Charles Laughton in a cameo bit that makes up for its brevity by being utterly memorable and highly amusing.) It’s the title routinely cited as the pinnacle of Lubitsch’s career, and I’m inclined to agree based on what I’ve seen so far – even though The Shop Around the Corner has a sublimity and universal appeal that gives Trouble in Paradise  some strong competition for that honor. But on my TV, there’s a remarkable difference in transfer quality between Design‘s luminous clarity (despite a few stubborn lines and blemishes that just won’t go away) and the charcoal-dust murk that lingers over Trouble‘s DVD rendering, by today’s standards anyway. A few years ago, I was just happy to have that film on DVD, especially after I learned about the several decades  it spent  in the no-man’s land of censored films that failed to meet the Hays Code’s standards. Design for Living suffered a similar fate for nearly as long, though it’s been available on disc for awhile as part of a Gary Cooper anthology. Now that the Lubitsch Touch has been given the deluxe Criterion Treatment, circa 2011, I can say it’s a match made in movie heaven. Let’s hope we see that match get lit again, and soon – why be stingy with the pleasure when there’s plenty enough to go around?

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