Design for Living (1933): Lubitsch Directs Noel Coward Play Starring Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins

Paramount’s maestro Ernst Lubitsch produced and directed Design for Living, an early Gary Cooper film before he became a star.

Design for Living
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Oscar-winning scenarist Ben Hecht adapted to the big screen the famous play by Noel Coward, which is still being done in repertory around the world.  The tale, a classic romantic comedy, centers on a triangle, composed of Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins.

When Tom Chambers (March), a budding playwright, and George Curtis (Cooper), a budding painter, fall asleep on a train to Paris, they are sketched by Gilda Farrell (Hopkins), who sits across from them.

Soon they become an inseparable trio—menage a trois, as the French say. Both men are in love with Gilda, a commercial artist, and she claims to loves them both.

Sensing the rivalry between them, Gilda suggests that they all live together, on a strictly platonic basis. She then becomes their critic, spurring them on to greater heights.

Tom is off to London to have his play produced, when he gets a letter from George saying that the “gentlemen’s agreement” has broken down. Tom’s play is a hit and he quickly returns to Paris, only to find that George, also becoming known for his work, is in Nice, painting portraits.

Gilda confesses her love for Tom, but George returns next morning and is furious with them. She leaves the men arguing, departs for America with her boss Max Plunkett and marries him.

For a year, Gilda entertains Max’s boring clients at parties. But then Tom and George suddenly appear at a social gathering, and behave so outlandishly that guests leave in disgust. Max is furious, but relieved, when Gilda declares that she’s leaving him.

Happy together, the trio returns to Paris and begin a new life, based on “gentlemen’s agreement.”

On Broadway, Design for Living was a commercial and critical hit, starring Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt and Noel Coward himself.  Its risqué ménage-à-trois theme made it controversial (and increased its popularity).

Neither Cooper nor March were Lubitsch’s first choices for the male roles.  He initially wished that British actors Ronald Colman and Leslie Howard would assume the parts, but the former was too expensive and the latter was too anxious that his performance would suffer when compared to Alfred Lunt’s on stage.

The movie version was released on December 1933, just months before the imposition of the Production Code and its restrictions.

Upon release, Design for Living was not well received by critics or audiences.  It would take several decades for the movie to be reevaluated and elevated by a new generation of filmmakers and reviewers.

Cast:

Fredric March (Tom Chambers)
Gary Cooper (George Curtis)
Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrell)
Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett)
Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Douglas)
Isabel Jewell (Lipsing Stenographer)
Harry Dunkinson (Mr. Egelbauer)
Helena Phillips (Mrs. Egelbauer)
James Donlin (Fat Man)
Vernon Steele (First Manager)
Thomas Braidon (Second Manager)
Jane Darwell (Housekeeper)
Armand Kaliz (Mr. Burton)
Adrienne D’Ambricourt (Proprietors of Café)
Wyndham Standing (Max’s Butler)
Noral Cecil (Tom’s Secretary)
Grace Hayle (Woman on staircase)
Olaf Hytten (Englishman at train)
Mary Gordon (Theatre Chambermaid)
Lionel Belmore, Charles K. French (Theatre Patrons)
Rolfe Sedan (Bed Salesman)
Mathilde Comont

Credits:

A Paramount Picture.
Director: Ernst Lubitsch.
Producer: Ernst Lubitsch.
Scenarist: Ben Hecht.
Photographer: Victor Milner.
Editor: Francis Marsh.
Art Director: Hans Dreier.
Costumer: Travis Banton.
Sound Recorder: M.M. Paggie.
Based on the play by Noel Coward.