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.

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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.

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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.

I watch them so you don’t have to!

As much as I’d love to do long, loving write-ups of everything I watch, there’s not enough time or energy for that. Anyway, lots of movies don’t deserve loving write-ups! I encounter plenty of stinkers in my quest for good new-to-me films.

Here are quick reviews of two such recently endured flops. I went into both of them with high hopes, but those hopes were quickly dashed.

The Richest Girl in the World (1934)

 This romantic comedy was produced by Pandro S. Berman, written by Norman Krasna, and starred Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea. In spite of all those people’s involvement, it was still disappointingly half-baked.

richest girl in the worldMiriam Hopkins plays Dorothy Hunter, a fabulously wealthy heiress and the titular richest girl in the world. Since returning from Europe to live in the US she’s been keeping a low profile, having her pretty secretary (Fay Wray) pretend to be her in public so she’s not hassled.  She meets Tony Travers (McCrea) at a party where the secretary is pretending to be her and she is pretending to be the secretary.

She swiftly falls for Tony, who seems to like her pretty well, too. However, she’s concerned that no man will ever see past her riches and love her just for herself, so she carries on with the ruse of being a secretary. She decides to test Tony by throwing the real secretary, the faux heiress, in his path. That way she can see if he chooses the supposedly rich girl for her wealth, or goes instead for the “secretary” he truly fancies.

Tony is a confusing character whose motives are hard to pin down. Not because he’s so complex and richly drawn, mind you, just because the script can’t decide who he is. He seems to want Miriam Hopkins’ character, but when she encourages him to pursue the secretary/faux heiress he goes along with that just fine, too. He didn’t seem to care too much which woman he got, actually. In the end, after some misunderstandings and further ill-conceived “love tests” concocted by Dorothy, Tony proves his love for her. Or something.  They end up married, him still thinking she is a secretary.

Having recently watched 1933’s Design for Living (a fabulous movie that deserves and will get a post of its own sometime soon), I was anxious to see more of Miriam Hopkins. And of course I’m a lovestruck fool for Mr. McCrea these days. There just wasn’t enough good stuff for either of them to work with in this movie, though. Their characters and the whole story were underdeveloped and didn’t make a huge amount of sense.

I didn’t hate the movie.  In fact parts were amusing and I kept thinking about how it could’ve been really good with some changes and more fleshing out of the characters.  As it is, it’s simply very forgettable.  On the plus side, Joel McCrea looks really young and handsome!

 A Lady Takes a Chance (1943)

 Here’s where I drive away half of this blog’s already small readership by admitting that I find John Wayne completely off-putting. Every now and then I watch one of his movies, either because I’ve heard so many good things about it (like The Quiet Man) or because it also stars someone I love (like lady-takes-a-chance-john-wayne-jean-arthur-1943Montgomery Clift in Red River), but no matter how good the movie may otherwise be, I just can’t get past my antipathy for Wayne. His swaggering, macho persona is not my cup of tea.

This time I put aside my feelings and gave A Lady Takes a Chance a try because it co-stars Jean Arthur, an actress I pretty much think hung the moon. She has her cute moments in the movie, but not so many that I wasn’t checking my watch every ten minutes, wondering when this uncomfortable experience would end.

Arthur plays Molly Truesdale, a career girl who has multiple men fighting over her in New York, but who isn’t keen on any of them. Having seen these fellows, I don’t really blame her for that.  She escapes the clamoring throng of goofy boyfriends at home and takes a vacation bus trip out West.

At one of the stops on her tour she attends a rodeo. Cowboy Duke Hudkins (Wayne) is thrown from his horse and into the stands, landing right on top of Molly. He tries to get up, but she pulls him back down on top of her, so thunderstruck is she by his cowboy manliness.

After the rodeo she chases him down for an autograph and they end up spending the evening together. During most of the evening they don’t have much to say to each other, since they clearly have very little in common. They hit a couple of bars and, of course, get into a brawl in which Duke punches people out. (I know I haven’t seen many Wayne movies, but if there’s one in which he doesn’t punch someone that’s news to me.)

Molly is interested in marriage and true love, but all Duke wants is a roll in the (literal) hay. The blatant way in which he shows and tells her that that’s all he’s interested in was surprising to me for a 1943 movie. Molly is offended by this prairie wolf and ditches him.

Having missed the tour bus during her night with Duke, Molly hitchhikes her way to meet up with the rest of the group. One of the drivers she reluctantly gets a ride with is Duke and his “better half,” an old cowboy codger portrayed by Charles Winninger. They all end up camping out together.

That night Molly makes Duke’s horse sick by stealing the poor animal’s blanket so she’d have a second one for herself, a move which made me dislike her almost as much as I disliked the charmless Duke. The poor horse got pneumonia and nearly died!  Somehow Duke is able to forgive all and take back up with Molly in spite of this, once it’s clear that the horse will be okay.

Then some more stuff happens, mostly consisting of Molly trying to use her feminine wiles to trap Duke into a life of domesticity and home cooking, Duke running away horrified, and Molly going back to New York alone. It’s no surprise when Duke follows after her, not because the two are so made for each other, but because it’s just an inevitability for this hokey film.  He meets her when she arrives at the bus station, snatching her up in his arms (after punching one of her boyfriends, if I recall correctly) and taking her back on the bus headed West.  So long to his old cowboy pal — she’s going to be his new “better half.”

I just couldn’t get into this movie at all. Duke Hudkins was kind of a jerk and Molly was much too desperate to catch him. Plus, she almost killed his horse! It was just bad.

For a city girl/cowboy romance with likeable characters and much more charm, I’d recommend Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon in The Cowboy and the Lady, which I reviewed here last week.

For a movie featuring a much more interesting bus trip, you can’t beat the incomparable It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.  That was my palate-cleanser of choice after A Lady Takes a Chance. It cheered me up immensely, as it always does.

What a wonderful scene!  One of many perfect moments in the movie. If only all romantic comedies could be as delightful and intelligent as that one.  Here’s the hitchhiking scene.  It just doesn’t get any better than this!

My search for hidden gems as great as the well-known classics like It Happened One Night is fun, and sometimes turns up something obscure but enjoyable.  On the other hand, sometimes movies are obscure for good reason.