After watching Trouble in Paradise, the one thing that I said I wanted more of was Miriam Hopkins. I got that in Design for Living. In the film, Hopkins works within the confines of a love triangle once more and chews up the scenery yet again. The recipients of the brunt of her performance this time are Gary Cooper and Fredric March as best buddies who become rivals vying for the heart (or body?) of Hopkins. This is not a romance though. This instead is a film more about passions and carnal desires more than romantic love. And as always, Lubitsch’s light touch and comedic treatment is able to make the material funny and breezy.
Gilda Farrell (Hopkins) is a commercial artist who draws artwork for advertisements. While on a train in Paris, she meets a two roommates: Struggling artist George Curtis (Cooper) and a struggling playwright Tom Chambers (March). She takes a liking for them instantly; and them for her, which ends up with Gilda sleeping with both of them secretly, much to the chagrin of her long-time friend Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton). Naturally, this causes trouble when it becomes clear to everyone that Gilda has been cheating on both roommates with the other. A confrontation with the three of them ensues and the resulting arrangement has Gilda living in but having sex with neither of them. Instead she simply remains as their “Mother of the Arts” to help them both succeed with their respective pursuits. The sexual tension however, is palpable, and the arrangement is soon broken, which throws the trio against each other once again.
Design for Living has the always-dependable Lubitsch wit, class and sophistication, but remarkably the least so out of the top-tier Lubitsch films. The dialogue is smart, snappy and witty, though that’s always the case with this director’s films. Hopkins is marvellously feisty, saucy and painfully sexy, while Horton is as reliable as needed being a frequent collaborator of Lubitsch. Cooper and March however, are both merely serviceable in their roles. While far from being “bad” per se, they don’t exactly make the story vibrant either. Cooper in particular has been maligned by some as being this film’s weak link, but most of those criticisms are gross exaggerations. His performance is typified by being more brawn and less finesse, which is slightly antithetic to the Lubitsch aesthetic, but still fairly decent. March, on the other hand, is characterized by a certain haughtiness that makes me think the role could have been more apt and appealing if played more sympathetically.
If anything, Design for Living shows how much Lubitsch’s films depend on his actors as much as it depends on the so-called “Lubitsch touch.” While Hopkins is totally game – maybe even more so than she was in Trouble in Paradise – nobody else really is in the same way, which unfortunately makes Design for Living something of a “lesser Lubitsch” compared to the other four films of his that I included in this marathon. It’s a film that’s fuelled by sassy sexiness and titillating innuendo as much as the comedy but regrettably neither fully comes to life nor reaches its full potential.
Rating: C+ (average)