For Reel


Design for Living (1933)
January 19, 2012, 12:18 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Loosely adapted from Noël Coward’s play by arguably the greatest writer in Hollywood history, Ben Hecht, Design for Living is a pre-Code comedy with a liberalism in dealing with sex that was rarely seen in American films, even in those glorious few years before Joseph Breen’s Production Code was rigorously enforced. Neither Hecht nor director Ernst Lubitsch were prudes, certainly, and their ways with innuendo would continue well into the Hays Era, but the ménage à trois at the center of this picture depicts the human spirit at its most lustful and pleasure-seeking. What is most startling about the material is that it is a woman with a teeming appetite – not the other way around, which is mentioned as often being the case in Hecht’s script – and, as Miriam Hopkins kisses one lover after the other before the end credits, Design for Living cements itself as a proto-feminist monument unlike any other. In addition to the pleasantries that one can find simply in the freeness with which this picture deals with romantic possibilities, it is wrongfully overlooked as minor Lubitsch. The unforgettable opening sequence is the most charming of meet cutes, and in it, Lubitsch not only teases the audience with a lack of dialogue for several minutes, but he then has the audacity to have his characters speak in French. Clever, indeed, and a technique that distances the piece far from the source material into something that is self-consciously cinematic, so utterly in control by a master of his form.