To Be Or Not To Be was the first film directed by Ernst Lubitsch that I had ever seen. This was about a week ago. I was so impressed I immediately bought Design For Living, a film he directed nine years earlier. The bad news is that this film is not of the same high quality as To Be Or Not To Be, but the good news is that I still enjoyed it a good amount. After seeing this film I find myself still feeling encouraged to seek out the rest of his work.
The plot of the film revolves around three characters and one minor character. On a train ride to Paris, Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) settles into a room with George Curtis (Gary Cooper) and Tom Chambers (Fredric March.) The men are sound asleep so she draws a cartoon of them and then passes out. Awaking to such a beautiful woman they inspect her drawings and come across their caricatures. She awakens and they introduce themselves. Gilda works in advertising. Tom is an unsuccessful playwright. George is an unsuccessful painter. Tom and George live in squalor together. They quickly become friends and each man falls for Gilda. Gilda is involved with a man named Max Plunkett (Edward Horton) that has courted her for half a decade to no avail. It quickly becomes obvious to Max that she has slept with both Tom and George. When she reveals this fact to Tom and George, they all decide to live together with the gentleman’s agreement of no sex being allowed.
Reading this last paragraph would make you think that this film is filthy. If it was made now it would probably be decidedly R-Rated considering the basis of the film. Instead, the film is tongue in cheek but decidedly G-Rated. The characters are frank about the fact that they are having sex with each other, but they never go into explicit detail. Considering the movie was made pre-code, Lubitsch easily could have made the film much filthier. Instead, he set out to make a funny film about polyamory that had no indication that the actions were not completely innocent. This attitude is also seen in To Be Or Not To Be, when seemingly no bad consequences befall people for loose sexual morality. Especially considering the time his films were made, Lubitsch was impressively progressive.
The film was controversial for other reasons aside from having a sexual triangle. It was widely criticized at the time for the writing. The film was based on a play by noted playwright Noel Coward, but adapted by Ben Schwartz under the leadership of Lubitsch. Noel Coward was so finely regarded that critics heaped scorn on the film. Obviously they didn’t watch the movie for what it was, and all they could see is what the film wasn’t. It’s a shame too, because they missed out on an extremely charming little film.
The film has a lot going for it. The writing is very strong. The actors are all charming with Miriam Hopkins stealing the movie from the men. Gary Cooper was impressive as a romantic and comedic lead. Lubitsch does an excellent job of directing and the finale is excellent. I may not have enjoyed it as much as To Be Or Not To Be, but it was still a great movie.
Video: How’s it look?
Criterion did a solid transfer of the film, but like similar films of that time the image is a bit soft. Overall I was very happy with the transfer, but this is not on the same page as the terrific transfer of To Be Or Not To Be. This easily could be a limitation of filming back then as opposed to the limits of technology to transfer it properly. There are a couple instances where the top of the screen is slightly warped and also a few instances where a visible line is on screen for an extended amount of time. I will give Criterion high marks for the transfer, while noting the image is not going to blow anybody’s socks off.
Audio: How’s it sound?
This is a monaural track so it is relatively limited. That said, Criterion have done a tremendous job in preserving clarity in the audio. Hiss is evident, but it is obvious that Criterion worked as hard as they could to make the audio clear. I had no trouble understanding any dialogue. I am always impressed with how clean Criterion can make even the scratchiest elements sound, and aside from the persistent hiss, this track sounds great.
Supplements: What are the extras?
“The Clerk” – A segment of the 1932 omnibus film If I Had a Million, starring Charles Laughton and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Enjoyable and super brief! In English, not subtitled. (3 min, 1080i).
Selected-Scene Commentary – In this selected-scene commentary, film professor William Paul, author of Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy, discusses the film and Lubitsch with help from clips from Trouble in Paradise. This is great stuff.In English, not subtitled. (36 min, 1080p).
Joseph McBride: The Screenplay – A new video interview, film scholar and screenwriter Joseph McBride explains the writing process of the film and the controversial choice to rewrite Noel Coward. The interview was recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2011. I loved this feature. In English, not subtitled. (23 min, 1080p).
Play of the Week: A Choice of Coward – A 1964 British television production of the original Design for Living, introduced by Noel Coward. How cool is it that Criterion included a production of the play to compare against?! An amazing addition to the film, even though it can’t hold a candle to the film version. These two could not be any more different when watched back to back! (Don’t expect this one to be true HD since it was filmed for television.) In English, not subtitled. (74 min, 1080i).
Booklet – An illustrated booklet featuring an essay by film critic Kim Morgan.
The Bottom Line
After seeing Design For Living, I feel excited to watch more Lubitsch. Design For Living is an interesting film. The plot manages to be racy while staying completely G-rated. I enjoyed the film and can’t think of any reason why anybody else wouldn’t. Criterion have done an excellent job on the supplemental features and as much as they could with the original source elements. I would highly recommend this film to anybody who enjoys comedies from the thirties and forties. I was amazed with the addition of a production of the Noel Coward play to compare against. That is why Criterion are the best in the business at fan pleasing releases. Watching them back to back I think the film version is the better of the two.