Design for Living is, in one, an opening salvo, declaration of war, and funeral pyre for open regard to sexuality in Hollywood. As its title suggests, this is a treatise, a vision by which one can live. There are men, women, and sex, but the cornerstone of this way of life is honesty. Frank, unadorned honesty for all facets of life. In the opening scene, Miriam Hopkins’s character shares the train bunk with Gary Cooper and Frederic March, awakening them both literally and figuratively by placing her legs upon the bunk between them. She is open about admiring them both, wanting them both, and proceeding to sleep with both. There is a fracas, to be sure, but there is a gentleman’s agreement by which they are to share her friendship and no sex will be involved.
This is bollocks, of course, since there is desire in the air and little reason to curb it. She provides them with companionship, and blunt assessment of their career paths. Cooper plays an artist, and she informs him that after appraising his painting with a friend of hers, that friend never spoke to her again (burn). March is a writer of unpublished plays, and while he defends his writing to her, she simply repeats “rotten” until he starts to hear the word (serious burn). Well, they are both terrible at what they do, which is why they live in a filthy Parisian flat and subsist on miracles. Cooper strolls down to the laundry to obtain some clean shirts from the pudgy woman who runs it, “mustache or not”, since he has no money. Still, after they have shared this extraordinary woman, and they acquire some perspective, their fortunes look up. Their work is featured, and success comes from it, in no small part due to her salesmanship and connections in the business world. Such good fortune cannot last, however, as love clashes with practicality, and her insistence on “no sex” becomes more of a guideline than a rule.
The film is filled with droll wit, adapted from a play by Noel Coward, and as directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is briskly paced with a playful ear for dialogue that largely dispenses with the original play of all its contents bar the title. It invited the ire of censors, and despite (or because of) box office success it was later refused a re-release by the Hays Office. As it turns out, decency must be the murderer of honesty, in real life as it was in the film. The Hopkins character is an archetype of a rare woman in film – the liberated. She loves men and has little use for shame, that being an emotion better suited to puritans or the underdeveloped. She has a friend who is devoted to her to the point where he warns the two artistic ruffians to stay off his turf. “You never got to first base, did you?” is March’s sarcastic reply. This friend is made a mockery in Design for Living, as well he should be. He desires the libertine, only to control her, as he should not be the only repressed one. “Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day.”† His is a laughable attitude, but representative of the moral guardians who would soon muzzle American film. Lubitsch has no misgivings with making a joke out of this line, later featured in one of the men’s stage plays with a howling audience.
Strange how a film from 1933 remains timely. Even today men and women have the most extraordinary difficulty being honest with each other about what is truly wanted. Cooper and March’s characters have the same problem, as their gentleman’s agreement is trampled upon. Hopkins later admits “I am no gentleman.” Still, the Madonna-whore still corners the market on how men view women, and what is expected from their behavior. A woman like Hopkins would be desired as much as she would be reviled, often by the same person, even today. Lubitsch wished open conflict upon this attitude, as well as the idea that men and women cannot be flexible in love, friendship, and heavy pumping. This is his thesis, and a genuinely great film – his Design for Living.