Design for Living (1933)

Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March in Design for Living

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)

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall from Trouble in Paradise

It’s been said that Miriam Hopkins was an actress who often tried to upstage her fellow actors. She supposedly had a tendency to overact, and the purpose was to outshine everyone else. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that story, but if that was the goal in Trouble in Paradise, then consider it a success. The only thing I wanted more of after watching it was Miriam Hopkins.

In the film, she plays the role of Lily, a svelte thief masquerading in Venice as a Countess. The target of her next score being a certain Baron Lavalle who – unbeknownst to her – is also a fellow crook named Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), and she is his next score. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, they expose their true identities to each other over dinner. As if a potent aphrodisiac, the revelation makes them fall lustily for one another. They team-up and then swing from Venice to Paris where a third party enters the story in the form of Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). Initially eyed by the thieving couple only for her bejeweled purse, an amusing turn of events eventually puts Gaston in Colet‘s household as her secretary with Lily as his assistant. From here, it doesn’t take very long before Madame Colet is captivated by Gaston and shows jealousy towards Lily.

The dialogue is witty, clever and snappy, and the plot is evidently something that will be borrowed from by romcoms and con films for many decades. But what characterizes Trouble in Paradise the most is that it’s a film filled with silky sophistication. From the romantic setting to the high society crowd that Colet surrounds herself with, everything in the film floats with softness and grace. Marshall’s performance in particular is the epitome of the cool and composed smooth-talking gentleman, while Francis sashays elegantly across the screen with every move of her body. Even the camera follows in theme as it glides from side to side and up and down as Lubitsch himself chooses to move the frame and transition with fade ins and outs instead of employing quick cuts.

As beautiful and light the film is to behold though, everything seems like it’s a little bit insincere. There’s a hint of something hidden beyond face value. There is playful innuendo, but no action. There is disappointment, but no anger. There is worry, but no distress. It’s a film about people being fooled and robbed, but all the emotions seem stifled, which makes the film occasionally uninteresting. It keeps on gathering momentum, but never really takes off.

The exception to this of course, is Lily. In a picture where everything is made out to look sleek and where characters maintain the utmost poise, Miriam Hopkins gives a performance that doesn’t care if things have to be loud and dirty. Hers is a role that wears her heart on her sleeve and that is what makes Hopkins shine. That is why people want to see more of her. When she is happy, she is ecstatic. When she is mad, she is livid. In a picture full of tempered emotions, she is the one that gives the film life, fun, passion and spirit.

Rating: B (good)