Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ten Films from the 1930's--#4 "Design for Living" (1933) Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, Fredric March

"It is not that Design for Living is filled with nudity; there is none.  Or foul language; nary a dirty word is to be had–although there is a certain frankness in the use of such ordinary, non-obscene words as “sex” (in terms of the act, not gender) that one suspects to be far more representative of the language uttered by everyday Americans than that of most intra-Code movies.

"No, Design for Living’s taboos are purely of the situational.

"Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) meets struggling playwright Tom Chambers (Frederic March) and struggling artist George Curtis (Gary Cooper) on a train to Paris.  Tom and George are roommates, and both fall in love with Gilda—who falls in love with both of them.  When Tom and George realize that she is seeing both of them, they agree to forget her, a promise that quickly vaporizes when she comes to their apartment.  Unable to choose between them herself, Gilda makes a pact to be their friend and a muse of sorts to advance their careers—with no more sex."

From a review in by "Jackson"

Well, "no sex."  That's the situation by the middle of the film anyway.

"Design for Living" is one of the famous of a certain number of American films in the category of "Pre-Code Hollywood".  This covers a period from the first year of nearly full-on sound film features (1929) to 1934, when a man named Joseph Breen, a former official with the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency, was put in charge of the enforcing "The Production Code", a set of parameters of censorship that covered everything from "crime never paying" to making sure men and women slept in separate beds even if married. 


  The reason for all this, despite the success of these films,  was that blue-nosed pressure groups became more and more alarmed  by the racy content of American films.  Traditional Hollywood studios--run mainly by first and second generation Jewish-Americans who were desperate to incorporate themselves in "the melting pot" of American life,    had always been skittish about "going too far" and angering  mostly gentile middle American organizations.   Most people I'm sure would have loved to keep th movies as they were, but they weren't organized the way church-based groups  were.


 These changes after 1934 are today generally seen by film historians as detrimental to having strong and independent female characters in movies.   Mick LaSalle, critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of "Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood" offers an overview of this period. 

"In the pre-Code Hollywood era, between 1929 and 1934, women in American cinema took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, led unapologetic careers, and, in general, acted the way many think women only acted after 1968.

"Before then, women on screen had come in two varieties-sweet ingenue or vamp. Then two stars came along: Greta Garbo, who turned the femme fatale into a woman whose capacity for love and sacrifice made all other human emotions seem pale; and Norma Shearer, who succeeded in taking the ingenue to a place she'd never been: the bedroom. In their wake came a deluge of other complicated women-Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, and Mae West, to name a few. Then, in July 1934, the draconian Production Code became the law in Hollywood and these modern women of the screen were banished, not to be seen again until the code was repealed three decades later." 


 The career of comedienne and screenwriter Mae West in particular was a target of the puritans, who seem to gather strength against the film industry as the Great Depression wore on and men became more threatened by women due to the loss of their economic status as breadwinners. 

  Ms. West's  fall from official favor was swift not because she lost her way with dialogue writing and delivery  but because her use of double-ententes and attitude of not taking male companions seriously was compromised.   The star of this film, Miriam Hopkins, was another casualty. Both ladies dropped from their status as Top Ten box-office stars after the kind of pictures the general public wanted to see them in were so altered.

Why did things change so much from the early sound era to 1934?  Mick LaSalle, author of "Dangerous Women" offers this assessment.  

There was also a loss of reality between man and women in films, especially those who weren't married to each other. 

Thankfully in that five year period when sound films were freer from the heavy hand of censorship, some very mature films of redeeming value today were produced, one of those being "Design for Living" an American adaptation of the hit Noel Coward play.  The film makes many changes from stage to screen, but the idea of a woman having a sincere regard and attraction for two men who happen to also be friends was too racy no matter how erudite and plain funny the work of Coward was , and how  screenwriter Ben Hecht and the great producer-director Ernst Lubitsch could make it sizzle.    


Some American films were re-released after the Breen Code went into effect and had to be face cuts to get by the new requirements. But when the head of Paramount Pictures, Adolph Zukor,  approached the Motion Picture Board about re-releasing "Design for Living" in 1938, he was told the whole film was a no-go for re-distribution. 


 It became something of a lost classic for a few decades until retrospective/art house  film theaters brought it back for screenings.   

          Criterion Films released a restored version of the film on DVD in 2011.  Seeing it again after a while, I can say it was probably the funniest comedy "released" this last year. Certainly the most enjoyable for me.     

In addition to the stars  there is some great work by Edward Everett Horton as Max Plukett, a rich American whom Gilda is involved with. He is played as a stuffed-shirt, an over-aged adolescent who pretends he is all for decency and prudery to impress his rich clients back in a hick burg in upstate New York.  Mr. Horton played many characters like this in films of this period and the gentle ribbing his type of figure  got from the leads (and the writers and directors) in films  like this probably was also a factor in getting so many "respectable" Americans on their virtue-bound high horses.     




  1. The clip you posted was interesting... and at first I thought I was going to need subtitles to figure it out...

    I've never heard of this movie but it still looks relevant even to a 21st century audience.

  2. You hit the mark!

    I think it is relevant today, Chuck, and a lot of the dialogue shows the real interplay men and women have about relationships. I was struck the last time I saw it how much more funny and mature this was to the Julia Roberts/J.Lo "romantic comedies" of today.

  3. I'll have to see if I can find it on Netflix.
    I would very much like to see it.

    I had to smile at your comment about it being the funniest thing "released" last year.
    Back, as it were, to the future.

  4. Sometimes it's true. I hope it's on Netflix.

  5. Well, it's there... coupled with another Gary Cooper feature: a number called Peter Ibbetson.
    I just moved it to the top of my queue, so I should be seeing it sometime this week.

    By the way, you should read some of the glowing reviews from other Neflix customers.
    The general consensus is that they like the film every bit as much as you did.

  6. That's good to know.

    "Peter Ibbetson" is a very different movie from "Design". Interesting that they would put those movies together, but they are both worth seeing. I hope when you see it you'll rop back and tell me what you thought of the film, Chuck. Thanks for your comments.