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Delicacy is the banana peel under the feet of truth

Design for Living (1933)

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Two American expatriates in Paris, best friends Tom Chambers (Frederic March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper), meet beautiful fellow American, Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins), on a train.  Tom is a struggling playwright.  George is a struggling painter.  Gilda is a commercial artist with wit to spare, strong opinions about life and art, and an independent streak a mile wide.

Soon both Tom and George are in love with Gilda, and Gilda is in love with both Tom and George, much to the chagrin of her boss and admirer Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton).  Tom and George secretly make love to Gilda behind each others’ backs.  When the truth about that comes out, the fun really begins.

  A thing happened to me that usually happens to men.  You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination he’s able to decide which one he prefers.  But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice.  Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out…

Rather than risk losing either of them and not wanting to ruin Tom and George’s long friendship by coming between them, Gilda suggests an unorthodox arrangement.  She will move into the run-down bohemian garret the boys share, providing them both with encouragement and criticism for their work.  She will be a “mother of the arts.”  There’s only one proviso – there must be no sex involved.  The three make a “gentleman’s agreement” that they will keep things platonic.

Gilda is true to her word.  She pushes George and Tom to pursue their art, at times encouraging them and at times criticizing them mercilessly.  She uses her moxy to make sure the right people know about George’s paintings and about Tom’s play, Goodnight Bassington: a comedy in about three acts with a tragic ending.  (Ha!  I wish I could see that one.)

Soon, thanks to Gilda’s help, Tom’s play is set to be produced on the London stage.  He reluctantly parts ways with Gilda and George, planning to see them in five weeks at the play’s premiere.  Being alone together proves to be too much temptation for George and Gilda, however, and the two are soon throwing over the gentleman’s agreement and moving in alone together to pursue their passion.  Tom is heartbroken when he hears the news in a letter from George and Gilda, just days before Goodnight Bassington’s premiere.

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Nearly a year later, Tom returns to Paris.  When he visits Gilda and George’s apartment, George is out of town.  There is still a lot of sexual attraction between Gilda and Tom, and they spend a passionate night together before George comes home unexpectedly early the next day.

Once again Gilda has come between the two friends, and this time she tries to spare them from the destruction of their friendship by running away to marry Max Plunkett.  Max is all business and no passion, and soon Gilda is bored out of her mind by the endless dinner parties at which she is forced to play “20 Questions” and other idiotic parlor games with Max’s advertising clients.

Luckily Tom  and George return from China, where they’ve been off licking their wounds, and rescue her.  They all decide they’ll give it another try as a threesome, moving back into their old garret apartment.  There’s just one thing – no sex.  It’ll be a gentleman’s agreement.  And so it begins again.

design for living

Though it was based on Noel Coward’s play of the same name, little of the original play remains in the movie version of Design for Living.  Just one line is the same, in fact.  Gone are the hints of homosexual attraction between Tom and George.  Also gone is Noel Coward’s particular brand of English wit.  In its place is a delightful combination of the sassy, fast-talking American style of Ben Hecht’s screenplay with director Ernst Lubitsch’s European sophistication.

The performances are all top-notch.  Frederic March and Gary Cooper are very funny, especially together.  The scene in which they drown their sorrows after Gilda ditches them both is easily one of most amusing drunk scenes I’ve seen anywhere.  The two actors have a marvelous rapport and make it easy to believe that Tom and George have been friends for many years.  March is great as the more cerebral, verbally witty of the two.  Cooper displays a gift for light comedy as the slightly less bright but more sexily “barbaric” George.

Most sparkling of all is Miriam Hopkins’ Gilda.  If it had been played differently, the character could’ve been unlikeable – a flirtatious, loose woman toying with the affections of two men.  (Three if you count Max Plunkett, though it’s hard to care too much about the feelings of a man who goes around saying things like “Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day!”)

But Hopkins makes Gilda very likeable.  You understand why Tom and George are both so taken with her.  She’s flirty and fun, but also passionate and serious when it’s called for.  She’s sexually free and not ashamed of it, but she never comes across as a floozy at all.  You can understand and empathize with Gilda’s inability to choose between these two talented, ridiculously attractive men, both of whom she genuinely loves.  She’s honest with both of them and doesn’t play games.

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Plus, Gilda is very, very funny.   Miriam Hopkins’ delivery of her lines is deliciously sharp and zingy.  She is a great physical comedienne in the role as well, throwing herself dramatically onto dusty settees, gesturing wildly with her small, expressive hands while arguing with Max.

Now listen, Plunkett, Incorporated. You go to those customers of yours and give ‘em a sales talk. Sell them anything you want, but not me. I’m fed up with underwear, cement, linoleum, I’m sick of being a trademark married to a slogan!  Don’t you tell ‘em I’ve got hiccups. Tell them I’ve got the advertising blues. The billboard collywobbles! Slogans and sales talks morning, noon, and night, and not one human sound out of you and your whole flock of Egelbauers!

(Is that Ben Hecht or is that Ben Hecht?  Love it!)

Gilda Farrell is supposed to be from Fargo, North Dakota, but Miriam Hopkins was from Georgia and hearing her deliver her feisty dialogue with the hint of a Southern accent in her voice is completely adorable throughout the film.

Sometimes pre-code movies can still surprise me with just how racy they are. Of course by the standards of our depressingly vulgar times Design for Living seems fairly tame.  But the frank sexuality of the characters, especially Gilda, with her ideas about trying on multiple “hats” before buying them, is impossible to imagine in a post-code movie.  Sometimes when watching classic films it’s easy to imagine that nobody before the 1960s knew what sex even was. Pre-code movies take those illusions away pretty quickly.

design for living

I highly, highly recommend this movie.  It’s witty, silly, quotable, scandalous, and thought-provoking when it comes to the topics of romance, art and friendship.  Most of all, it’s just plain fun.

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4 thoughts on “Delicacy is the banana peel under the feet of truth

  1. “Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day!”

    Haha. Cracks me up every time when he says that.

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