Created in a more enlightened age, DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933) comes from a Noel Coward play adapted by Ben Hecht, two of the theater’s more ‘free’ spirits. Miriam Hopkins stars as a commercial artist in Paris who moves in with fellow artist expats Gary Cooper and Frederic March (they have superb comedic rapport). Good as they are, it’s Hopkins’ show all the way, sparkling with sex, intellect and assurance. Even in today’s cinema it’s difficult to find a female character as assured as Hopkins’ Gilda. She becomes a muse to both men, yet that doesn’t mean cleaning up after them or taking their shit. She never flinches or backs down as she ruthlessly criticizes their work. Cracking open their male egos rather than coddling them, Gilda hurls the pair towards successes beyond their wildest dreams. Unfortunately neither man can avoid being jealous of the other, and they drive her back to the chaste but devoted arms of her effeminate boss, the ever-present Edward Everett Horton.
Decades of being buried in the studio vaults (thanks to its “dangerously progressive” attitudes towards sexual relationships outside wedlock) made the collective cinema consciousness pass this gem by. It was never released on VHS and finally arrived–with no fanfare–buried inside the GARY COOPER SIGNATURE COLLECTION, where it was exhumed by those of us who’d read and dreamed about it.
And now, tomorrow, Tuesday 12/6/12! Criterion has released it in the stand-alone glory it deserves, replete with extras and an essay by the great Kim Morgan.
Here’s some more Design praise I wrote a few years ago in an earlier Bright Lights post:
Imagine if Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston decided to live together and share Brad Pitt! How hot would that be? But no, now we live in a much more (as in less) enlightened age, but once, long ago, these sorts of things happenedâ€¦in pre-code filmsâ€¦ to Miriam Hopkins.
Sure, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow, etc. are all hot and brilliant, but often they are too full of snickering sarcasm and/or aloofness to be sexy in the demure, warmly inviting way we shy sensitive guys secretly long for.
Hopkins is the benchmark for our sort of inviting sexiness. She can even convincingly hook up with old E.E. Horton! She’s a nerd! She’s what Zoey Deschanel tries to be.
You can see it all over DESIGN FOR LIVING, when she falls onto the dusty bed in a semi-feigned swoon in the Parisian garret shared by Frederic March and Gary Cooper or when she calls Gary Cooper “barbaric” and her eyes glaze over in dreamy lustâ€¦ or check out the warm sapphic frisson generated with Claudette Colbert in THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (avail in the Lubitsch Musicals collection from Criterion). Hopkins was an actress who could maintain incredible poise and confidence all the while yielding totally to the tide of gushing sexual desire. The tide of sexual desire actually made her smarter! Her whole body and soul seemed to waken and respond to it, like a wave of summer heat on a cold day.
Perhaps it’s this rare gift which makes Hopkins so great in ensemble work: her sense of liberated sexuality overflows the boundaries of the two-person pair-bond. One just can’t imagine her “making do” in a conventional post-code relationship.
Thus, in pre-code films, Hopkins became the ideal third party for any menage a trois-as in Lubitsch’s DESIGN FOR LIVING. If a menage a trois almost happens but ultimately is not be-as in THE SMILING LIEUTENANT-Hopkins still makes time to work things out with the other woman. She even tries to do this later on in the decade with mean old Bette Davis. Babs or Jean Harlow would be more inclined to “settle the score” with a gun, but sweet Hopkins visits her rival with cheek-turning sisterly goodwill and shared tears, be it with Colbert in LIEUTENANT or Kay Francis in TROUBLE IN PARADISE.
Even in the nightmare reflection of this civilized approach she is faced with doubles, forced to endure a DEAD RINGERS-style meltdown dealing with Frederic March x2 in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931). Her pleading with Jekyll for protection from Hyde is the stuff of childhood nightmare.
Hopkins’ penchant for menage a trois action would continue even in post-code films where she played romantic rival/best friends to Bette Davis (THE OLD MAID, LONGTIME ACQUAINTANCE) and for her troubles was forced to pretend she liked George Brent (the censorial inquisition equivalent of being broken on the rack). Davis called Hopkins a real bitch to work with, but that bitchiness doesn’t show much on screen. One wonders if it’s not that Hopkins just aged better than Davis, and was able to convey effortless sexuality and warmth while Davis could only rage along on her splumes of egotistic grandeur. I can’t imagine Davis being a desirable or willing third party in a menage a trois, not unless both other parties payed sole attention to her and ignored each other. Davis almost makes it happen with Warren William and Joan Blondell in THREE ON A MATCH, but gets stuck with the nanny job instead (she’s too practical, eschewing the dope habits and reform school charm of her peers in favor of a drab life in the stenographer’s pool).
Bitch or not, the character Hopkins plays in DESIGN FOR LIVING stands tall in cinema as one of the few free-thinking women who challenge the pair-bond system without flinching, backing down or succumbing to a third act change of heart. Even today that’s just not done. God knows how many of my friends I’ve had to watch “chicken out” of their radical stances and go marry the Edward Everett Horton of their real life mise-en-scene. Thank god for Miriam Hopkins, who walked it like she talked it, ’til Joe Breen slapped her down!