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Review: Design for Living (1933)

“Less is more” is a difficult balance to negotiate when dealing with proscribed subjects. There is always the concern that the illicit will no longer be as such if subjected to too much attenuation; or if the expression is couched in too abstract a language. Coarseness is at the nucleus of matters like sex and violence- attempt at over-refinement would be as ineffectual and absurd as giving a solemn speech to a table of revellers. In this case, less is definitely advisable, but only under the condition that it contains promises of the more.

As with Noel Coward’s Design for Living, there is barely any need for overexplicitness. The play centers on a ménage à trois in Paris 1932, during the period of Les années folles, or the “Crazy Years,” which saw the city’s artistic culture reaching an insuperable peak. Characters were drawn from real life: Coward indebted the play to his actor friends, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, whose long marriage was bedevilled by infidelities on both sides. The lines teeter on the edge of the risqué, wherein underlies a not too obscure implication of a homosexual relation. The New York audience embraced the play, though not without, perhaps, some apprehension. It became one of Coward’s seminal comedies that has been, curiously, the least revived.

For Design for Living seems in the main too contemplative and mordant for a light comedy. The three main characters intersperse their hysterical laughter with almost Freudian musings on human heart and its discontents, which, despite their lyricism, are symptomatic of none other than the weariness of the voluptuaries. But there are moments when one is moved to empathised with the characters and their self-imposed affliction- within this increasingly troublesome imbroglio somehow everyone is lone and dolorous.

Riding the coattail of the play’s Broadway success, a filmic adaptation came in 1933, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. There is very little left of Coward’s original: screenwriter Ben Hecht raffishly boasted that he eradicated all but one line: “for the good of our immortal souls.” Filmed a year before the enforcement of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code, Lubitsch and Hecht would have little qualms of making their main stars talk about sex without a sign of unease- in perhaps one of the most implausible moments in the film, Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) makes a deal with George (Gary Cooper) and Thomas (Frederic March) that their cohabitation should contain one stipulation: “No sex!” she exclaims, whilst chomping on a sausage.

The “Lubitsch touch,” whilst ruthlessly erased much of Coward’s meandering spoor, left intact the biting irony that ultimately attaches an ambiguous message to the light-hearted comedy. The film closes with the three lovers- Gilda married to her smarmy boss but leaves him to elope with the boys- joing their hands and swearing on a gentlemen’s agreement, an oath that they formerly failed to keep. In Coward’s play Gilda’s husband storms out on the knowledge of his wife’s decision to revert to her dissolute past, and the three main characters roar with laughter until they weep. I personally prefer the latter version to be the more effective.

As testament to the director’s choice of keeping the heroine’s name- therefore implicitly emphasising the character’s prime attraction- Miriam Hopkins is lovely as the amoral but perpetually high-spirited Gilda. Although there are moments when her declamatory style seems a pitch too shrilly for the film, it is her unaffected loveliness that ultimately engages us. March and Cooper are both competent in their roles but, as also in the play, they are not endowed with much substance to present a contrast, or in any respect to really counterpoint Gilda’s bold vivacity. Reading the play again I wonder if Coward were having Ibsen in mind when contrasting the heroine’s outward independence with her inner immurement. Both playwrights share in this a sceptic notion of self-transcendence- that man can never surmount the four walls of society.


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