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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”


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.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Like so many of the most famous big breaks in Hollywood, Fredric March’s role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde almost never happened.

It’s hard to imagine the film without him, which is testament to his greatness. After all, without March’s perfectly realized dual performance as both the arrogant, demanding Dr. Jekyll and the domineering, belligerent Mr. Hyde, would this adaptation be even half as great as it is? And yet, when the film was made, March was hardly even on the radar to be in it. John Barrymore was first up for the role, having made an impression in the 1920 silent version, but being under a new contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he was out of the running. Other actors were suggested, including Irving Pichel, but one central question came over and over again: could they find an actor who could play both aspects of Dr. Jekyll – the wholesome and the villainous?

Ironically, there was much doubt about March’s ability to pull off the same feat. At the time the film was made, March was known more for lightweight roles in romantic movies, and studio executives saw little to suggest that March could pull off the swagger, violence, and menace necessary for Mr. Hyde. Nonetheless, director Rouben Mamoulian saw promise there, and argued for March to get the part, finally getting the studio head to agree – a decision which led not only to March’s first Oscar win (albeit a tied victory with Wallace Beery), but also the real birth of his career as a leading man. Even now, more than seventy years after the film’s release, March’s performance is a dazzling accomplishment, one that casts a long shadow over anyone who wants to try to take on the role.

Much has been made of the phenomenal makeup effects that aid in the transformation between Jekyll and Hyde, and with good reason; by using colored makeup and lights that slid from red to green, Mamoulian created a gradual transformation between the two that holds its own with any CGI version you could come up with today. But as incredible as the effects are, they’d be empty spectacle without March’s performance, which creates two characters so incredibly varied and different that it would be easy to think they were played by two different actors if you didn’t know any better.

Take, for instance, March’s rendition of Dr. Henry Jekyll. Introduced through an impressive point-of-view sequence, March’s Jekyll is an accomplished scientist in the long tradition of Dr. Moreau – one whose knowledge and confidence leads him to believe that he not only knows more than those around him, but knows better.

And, to some degree, he’s right here – his accomplishments are staggering, his lectures well-respected and attended, his medical work outstanding, and his reputation spotless. By the time we’re fifteen minutes into the film, we’ve seen him help a crippled girl walk, operate on charity cases, win over an incredulous crowd, play an organ beautifully, and charm his beautiful and wonderful fiancee. In other words, he’s a man who has it all, and if he has an ego, isn’t it a deserved one?

But after his future father-in-law once again refuses to push up his wedding date, we start to see the other side of Jekyll, one that he’s hidden from us so far. It’s a man who has little patience for fools and simpletons, and grows angry when he doesn’t get his way. It’s the sort of man who, when discovered kissing a woman of, let’s say, less than perfect virtue, laughs it off and tells his offended friend that there’s nothing wrong with it in the world. It’s a man, then, who feels that the rules shouldn’t apply to him, and that the world should accept his greatness and give him the freedom he deserves. In other words, it’s the perfect sort of man to have an untapped dark side that’s threatening to overtake him, and a man who needs a vent through which that darkness can escape.

Are we really prepared, though, for just how brutal that darkness is going to be? Because as embodied by March, Jekyll’s alter ego, Mr. Hyde, is a violent sociopath, more beast than man. Berating waiters, assaulting those who dare to speak back to him, seizing everything he wants, beating women simply for the fun of it, March’s incarnation of Hyde is a swaggering, violent force of nature, channeling every dark impulse of Jekyll’s and becoming a rampaging, unrestrained id in every imaginable sense. And I do mean “every,” because rest assured, this is definitely a pre-Code horror film, even if the (in)famous nude shot is removed from the version you’re watching. Hyde takes up with a woman, paying for her abode for the girl of moving in with her, abusing her sexually and physically whenever he wants and expecting her to be grateful for the chance and for the money he’s throwing at her in the process. Cackling with glee at her terror, threatening her with little more than sheer imposing presence, and exuding menace and horror, March’s Hyde is a terrifying figure.

What’s even more incredible, though, is how much is done through nothing more than his acting and his posture.

There’s a phenomenal shot late in the film where Jekyll transforms with his back to the camera, and all we see is the trembling, uncertain Jekyll slowly straighten up and fill with confidence. He almost appears to grow in front of our very eyes, and we know that Jekyll’s dark side has emerged once again, all without a single effect. Moreover, March changes so much about himself – his voice, his volume, his body language, the rhythms of his speech – that the makeup is hardly necessary.

Of course, the film does have its makeup, and it uses it phenomenally in those aforementioned transformation sequences that could never have been accomplished with color film. And there’s no denying the impact that Mamoulian’s direction has on the film, from the lurking shadows to the brilliant use of mirrors and doubling to emphasize all of the film’s themes and ideas. But the truly horrific nature of Hyde or the arrogance of Jekyll – all of that is March, and there’s little denying that the film wouldn’t be the classic that it is without his incredible performance. And that’s appropriate for this story; at its core, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has always been a story about the darkness within the human soul, so if the film was more about effects and visuals, it wouldn’t resonate as much
as it does.

Instead, what lingers after you finish Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the glee as Mr. Hyde beats a waiter who sneers at him, or the cackling as he forces a girl to sing for him, or the unbridled glee as people react in terror to his visage. The other thing that lingers, though, is Jekyll’s realization of just how damaged and damned he may be, but knowing that it’s not an “other” that can be blamed; it’s all him. Even seventy years later, there’s an element of that fear of one’s own self that resonates with us all, and keeps the film relevant – and even scary – after all this time. And the secret to all of that impact is March’s fearless, go-for-broke, fascinatingly dualistic performance, a performance that not only made him a star, but deserved to be every bit as recognized as it was and then some.


Josh Mauthe is a high school English teacher who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s known Jill since high school, which is an embarrassingly high number of years ago for both of them. You can find his reviews of every movie he’s seen and book he’s read since 2004 at