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Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933)

By The Lady Eve

Fredric March was an Oscar winner and a newly minted Hollywoodstar when he co-starred with Miriam Hopkins and Gary Cooper in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 adaptation of the Noel Coward play Design for Living. In 1929, when all the major studios were scouring the Broadway stage for photogenic leading men with trained and mellifluous voices, March had been recruited and signed by Paramount Pictures.

He received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his 1930 portrayal of ‘Tony Cavendish’ in The Royal Family of Broadway, but it was his split-personality tour-de-force as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 that brought Fredric March his first Academy Award and movie stardom.

March as Jekyll and Hyde
March as Jekyll and Hyde

Playwright/actor Noel Coward wrote Design for Living, a comedy in three acts,in 1932; it debuted on Broadway in 1933 at the Ethyl Barrymore Theatre starring legends of the stage Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne and Coward himself. Because of its censoriously risqué plot, the play was not produced in London, Coward’s home ground, until 1939. His story of Gilda, Otto and Leo, a sophisticated trio involved in a romantic triangle(not to say threesome), was inspired by the personal lives and relationships of Lunt and Fontanne who were his close friends; Noel Coward would remark that Design for Living was about three people who love each other very much and that, though the play was a solid hit when it opened, no one loved it more than its three leading actors.

Alfred Lunt, Noel Coward, and Lynne Fontanne in the stage production of <em>Design for Living</em>
Alfred Lunt, Noel Coward, and Lynne Fontanne in the stage production of Design for Living

When Ernst Lubitsch set out to film Coward’s play, he had a particular cast and screenwriter in mind. Miriam Hopkins, who had starred for him in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Trouble in Paradise (1932), was his first choice for the female lead.  He was interested in Ronald Colman and Leslie Howard for the two male leads, but couldn’t afford Colman or persuade Howard. He next turned to Paramount leading man Fredric March for the role that was Coward’s Leo but became Lubitsch’s Tom, and approached Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., to portray the character that had been called Otto but would soon be George.  But Fairbanks came down with pneumonia and the director eventually settled on popular Paramount matinee idol Gary Cooper. Of the three leads, Hopkins had the least experience on-screen, but the most experience with Lubitsch.  She had also co-starred with March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and her film associations with both men helped advance her career.

Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, and Director Rouben Mamoulian on the set of <em>Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde </em>
Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, and Director Rouben Mamoulian on the set of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Lubitsch, a writer himself, had hoped to collaborate once again with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow, The Shop Around the Corner) on Design for Living. But Raphaelson was not interested in working on “another damned sophisticated triangle” (referring to The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble in Paradise) or in rewriting Noel Coward, and declined. Ben Hecht, an esteemed screenwriter and script doctor (Nothing Sacred, Wuthering Heights, Notorious) with a cynical view of the status quo, was Lubitsch’s next choice.  But it was not an easy partnership. Lubitsch, who commented that the two “weren’t used to each other,” was most at home working closely with his writers and Hecht was comfortable writing on his own. But they managed.

In the end, the plot was re-engineered while the triangular situation at the heart of Coward’s play was retained.

As Leo became Tom and Otto became George, all three characters became struggling American creative types rather than the play’s free-spirited British socialites. And the situation between the three was toned down; at the beginning of the play Gilda was living with Otto and had just resumed an affair with ex-beau Leo. Lubitsch’s film would follow the amorous adventures of three young, attractive Americans inParis,LondonandNew York: playwright Tom Chambers (March), painter George Curtis (Cooper) and commercial artist Gilda Farrell (Hopkins). Tom and George are buddy/roommates who meet and fall in love with Gilda.

Miriam Hopkins
Miriam Hopkins

Miriam Hopkins is in her element as passionate, independent Gilda (pronounced ‘Jilda’).  She commands the screen – and her co-stars – with easy charm and confidence. Hopkinswas at the height of her delectable pre-Code heyday in 1933; the steamy and controversial The Story of Temple Drake was released just months before Design for Living.

In his early films, Gary Cooper is always handsome and appealing, but he does not always convince as an actor. Cast against type in Design for Living he seems awkward spouting Hecht’s snappy dialogue at times and it isn’t hard to understand why Lubitsch had first turned to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. But the director was satisfied with Cooper’s performance and believed movie-goers and would “…be happy to see that he is an accomplished light comedian.”

Fredric March, experienced in talky roles like this one, is a better fit. In a departure from the more somber roles he was better known for, he shines as dapper, jovial Tom, a character partially informed by Ben Hecht’s own background as a playwright.

On the set of <em>Design for Living</em>
On the set of Design for Living

Had it been released just six months later, in 1934 when the Production Code was in force, Design for Living would not have gotten past the censors. Not only do Tom and George love Gilda – but Gilda loves Tom and George.  She cannot and will not choose between them, and so the three decide to live together platonically – for a while…

Gilda is able to take what was then considered the entirely male prerogative without having to pay the on-screen price – usually death – that would soon be ordained by the Code:

Gilda: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men…a man can meet two, three or even four women and fall in love with all of them and then, by a process of interesting elimination, he is able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it’s alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out, but…”

Tom: “That’s very fine, but which chapeau do you want, madam?”

Gilda: “Both”

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The Lady Eve is the editor of the fabulous classic film blog The Lady Eve’s Reel Life. She recently hosted the outstanding blog event A Month of Vertigo and is currently featuring essays on the popular television show Mad Men.

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Jill Blake

Jill Blake is the owner of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Black Maria and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.

Comments

kimalysong
Reply

I love this movie and actually think it is bit underrated. A lot of Noel Coward fans don’t like that pretty much all of Coward’s dialog is changed. I love Coward but I still thought Ben Hecht did a great job and he was always one of my favorite screen writers.

That being said Raphaelson might have been a better fit for Coward but I still enjoyed Hecht’s script. Also I think just following Coward’s play doesn’t necessarily make a better movie. Just look at Privates Lives from 1931. Yes it’s Coward Play exactly but when watching it you feel like you are watching a play not a fillm. Lubitsch does a great job I think taking a stage play and making it into a movie with Design for Living.

Criterion includes Coward’s play on their new DVD/BR, haven’t watched it yet but I think that is a fantastic extra.

Anyways although I love the ending and who Hopkins chooses, if it was me I would have chose March no question ;).

The Lady Eve
Reply

I would personally have loved to see what a Lubitsch/Raphaelson script might have been – their other work together was inspired. Coward, however, may not have been satisfied with anyone’s adaptation. Of this one he sniffed that the only lines of his that survived were akin to “please pass the mustard.” Like you, Kim, I think Hecht and Lubitsch did a fine job in taking the play to the screen. It is talky at times, but effective and doesn’t seem at all like you’re watching a play that has simply been filmed..

ClassicBecky
Reply

One of your always-wonderful reviews, Eve! I am shocked to realize that I, a huge fan of March and Noel Coward, have not seen this movie! I think March is one of the best actors of the 20th century. Now I want to have a Freddy marathon!

The Lady Eve
Reply

Thanks, Becky. I only recently saw “Design for Living” for the first time myself.

Fredric March certainly deserves this blogathon tribute – and kudos to Jill for conceiving and putting it all together. He is one of the great film actors who has become relatively forgotten over time. I’ve enjoyed every film of his that I’ve seen and would also love to see the version of “Death of a Salesman” in which he starred.

ClassicBecky
Reply

I have a copy of March’s Death of a Salesman, Eve, and would lend it to you if I could! March’s version was criticized in that critics felt he played Willie Loman in a more emotive manner than others, but I thought he was marvelous. I don’t think he ever did a bad performance!

The Lady Eve
Reply

Agreed – Fredric March never gave a poor performance that I’ve seen either. I remember him best for “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Inherit the Wind” (a joy to watch him battling Spencer Tracy onscreen), but his filmography is long and rich.

Meanwhile, I’m on a quest for “Death of a Salesman” – at least I know it’s out there.

R. D. Finch
Reply

Eve, some great background on this film. I saw it a couple of years ago and found it delightful. I know that Gary Cooper was very popular in his time and is still admired by many lovers of classic film, but I’ve never been a real fan. That said, this is one of the films I actually like him in. I thought he seemed uncharacteristically relaxed and warm. Maybe that was down to working with Lubitsch, who seemed to have a way with actors, or the support of his costars. This film, “Trouble in Paradise,” and “The Smiling Lieutenant” show Hopkins at her best. She seemed to do her best work for Lubitsch and William Wyler. Later she developed a brittleness that could be off-putting. March, of course, amazes after what you rightly call his tour-de-force performance in “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde” and his personality and acting style are a nice contrast to Cooper’s. He seemed equally at ease in heavy dramatic roles, dashing romantic ones, or comedies like this. I wish he had done more comedies. I’ve read that he was one of many actors who turned down the lead in “It Happened One Night” and that Hopkins was one of the many actresses who did the same!

The Lady Eve
Reply

R.D. – Like you, I’m not a great fan of Gary Cooper – though I like him in “Morocco” and “High Noon” (talk about two different roles at two different stages of his career…). I think he’s fine in “Design for Living” but once I learned Lubitsch had wanted Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., I couldn’t help thinking “what if…”

I wasn’t much of a Miriam Hopkins fan either (the chilly/brittle factor) until I started watching her pre-Code films – which changed my view completely – at least regarding that period in her career.

In researching Fredric March’s career, I learned that he had originated the role of James Tyrone on Broadway in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” – with his wife, Florence Eldridge starring as Mary Tyrone. Both were nominated for Tony Awards and he won (his second). How I wish this production had been captured on film (much as I admire Sidney Lumet’s film with Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson).

whistlingypsy
Reply

Eve, I’m sorry I missed your post yesterday, but it is certainly worth the wait. I saw “Design for Living” several years ago, and I recall being fascinated by the implications of this risqué trio, but I can’t help wonder how much more frankly the stage version depicted the relationships. Your reference to the inevitable end for these women, a few short months later, had me in stitches (shades of Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman). I share the same feeling regarding Miriam Hopkins and her later films, but I find her delightful in the pre-code film roles. My favorite Gary Cooper films, “Meet John Doe” and “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town”, are due in part because of the actor’s chemistry with his leading lady. He works well with both Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins, but like you, I can’t help but wonder what Doug Fairbanks, Jr. would have done with the role.

The Lady Eve
Reply

‘Gypsy – Thanks so much for commenting here at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and on my blog, too – you are so considerate!

I thought I’d add that since I’ve become more familiar with pre-Code films, I flinch when watching mainstream Hollywood movies from the mid-’30s to mid-’60s that feature female characters who’ve taken a ‘walk on the wild side.’ If it’s not death, it’s a living death for them!

kittenbiscuits
Reply

Eve,

Thanks so much for your wonderful contribution. Design for Living is one of my favorite films, despite the changes in the screenplay.

I said this in my comment at your site, but I would love to see Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Gary Cooper’s spot. I’m not a huge Cooper fan. He is alright in this, but I can’t help but think what Fairbanks could have brought to the role. (Plus he was quite handsome!)

The Lady Eve
Reply

Jill,

Congratulations on a wonderful tribute to Fredric March. I became reacquainted with his career as I researched the backstory on “Design for Living” and realized just how underappreciated he’s become over the years. Few have had film (and stage) careers to match his, but he has been gone a long time and he was more actor than star or celebrity – and he didn’t die young – so, sadly, he became relatively forgotten. I’m hoping March-in-March has gone a long way to remedy that.

And you’re right – Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was incredibly handsome…

Talk to me!

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