Friday, April 1, 2011

Design for Living (1933)

Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins
With the list of names on board for Design for Living, it had better be incredible, and thankfully it does not disappoint. Ernst Lubitsch directs a Noel Coward play, starring Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Frederic March, and Edward Evertt Horton, and every one of them has got their game face on, and how. The dialog sparkles with impossible wit. Nobody speaks like this, but we don't watch movies to see real life; we have real life for that. As is often the case with Lubitsch's films, Design is interested in how human beings, with their own agendas for their sex lives, fit into a society, which frequently imposes on them a radically different agenda. Design approaches this question in the context of the clash of the worlds of advertising and art, of the difference between the things that really matter to people, and the things that someone has a vested interest in making them think matter.

"Immorality may be fun," advertising exec Max Plunkett (Horton) cautions both March and Cooper in turn, "but it isn't fun enough to take the place of 100 percent virtue and three square meals a day." The general message of the film, however, seems to be that only the first part of this advice applies. Immorality is fun, and people need to have more fun in their lives. When they stop having fun and start worrying about how to be successful, they lose track of the things that matter most. Real success--the kind that makes you happy, not just wealthy, comes from following your heart, not your bank account.

Cooper was Miriam's first choice.
Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins), is a woman who knows exactly what, or more precisely, who, she wants: whatever man she's with at the time. She's not dishonorable, she is simply confident in her own sexuality and wants to eat her cake and still have it around to eat again whenever the mood strikes her, and it strikes her pretty often. At the slightest suggestion you see the hunger ripple through her body and shine in her ravenous eyes. "It's true we have a gentleman's agreement," she acknowledges, "but unfortunately, I am no gentleman." Hopkins combines a voracious sexuality with a little girl charm and a prim modesty that makes it easy to see why she has all the men drooling over her.

March was her second.
I can forgive her for leaving Gary Cooper for Frederic March, although I'm less than thrilled with the idea. When she ditches them both to marry Edward Everett Horton, though, that makes perfect sense. I'm not talking about the hasty revenge marriage that was a common move for jilted starlets once upon a time (think Ginger Rogers' marriage to the ludicrous Erik Rhodes in Top Hat). No, Miriam is simply obeying a bit of pithy advice that underlies most of the action in Design for Living: "Don't mix business with pleasure." Marriage, you see, is business, while a not-so-subtly implied three-way love affair with Gary Cooper and Frederic March is most emphatically pleasure.

And in the end, she decides she wants both.
If the Hays office had had a crack at this one, it never could have existed at all. By the time you took out everything objectionable, there would be nothing left. That is, of course, pretty much the point: the things that Hays doesn't want you to see are always the most important. Miriam loves two men, and any attempt to choose between them only hurts all three. Leaving them both for someone else only makes matters worse. The only way she or they can be happy is to embrace the unthinkable: that a conventional long-term monogamous relationship between a man and a woman is not the only way to be happy. The point of the film is not really to glorify the virtues of non-traditional relationships, but to suggest the idea that every individual must decide what sort of relationship works best for them, rather than accepting societal norms without question. When it comes down to brass tacks, societal convention is nothing more than a collective form of advertising, a mode of communication whose sole purpose is to make you buy things you don't want.

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