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Coward’s great play, Lubitsch’s great film


Noel Coward’s Design for Living is about a trio of bohemians — a playwright, a painter, and the woman they both adore, Gilda, who is an interior decorator. She loves them both, and the play, which is one of the 20th century’s greatest, suggests the possibility that she shouldn’t have to choose between them. Like all high comedies, Design for Living establishes an exclusive world, an aristocracy, with its own rules and rites, but in this case it’s an aristocracy of temperament and intellect, and the outsiders — the enemy — are those who conform to society’s conventions.

Paramount got the movie version of Coward’s play in under the wire in 1933, before the Production Code kicked in; it would be another three decades before anyone could film a play that presented this kind of sexual behavior non-judgmentally. But though it’s utterly charming, Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living — a rarity on view, next Thursday only, at the Harvard Film Archive — really isn’t Noël Coward’s. The screenwriter, Ben Hecht, preserves the plot: Gilda’s to-and-fro-ing between her two swains and her desperate marriage to a conventional (and basically sexless) third admirer before she realizes where she belongs. But Hecht boasted that he’d changed all of Coward’s lines but one. That’s the braggadocio of a writer who has taken up the challenge of making the source material his own.

One of the distinctive qualities of a Coward high comedy is its aftertaste of melancholy, which comes from the very modernist sense of despair beneath the frantic, madhouse action. Hecht sweeps that away almost entirely; it’s apparent only in brief moments like the shot, through the tilted windows of the protagonists’ shared Paris flat, of Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) and George (Gary Cooper) returning home after they’ve packed Tom (Fredric March) off to London for rehearsals of his first produced play. It’s the most beautiful shot in the movie, which is superbly directed, with Lubitsch’s trademark mix of buoyancy and delicacy.

Hecht’s dialogue is marvelous; you won’t miss Coward’s, especially since Hecht isn’t so much replacing him as proposing an alternate version. The script is sharp-witted and slightly lunatic — the Paramount rendition of high comedy. The lines have extravagant flourishes and a special, sprung rhythm. “It’s clear that you’ve been behaving like a rather ordinary rat,” Tom complains to George when he learns that George and Gilda have violated the no-sex “gentleman’s agreement” all three entered into when they took the apartment together. (The original arrangement was meant to be a sort of miniature artists’ colony, with the tough-eyed Gilda nurturing — and criticizing — both men’s work.) Dictating a letter to his friends from London, Tom writes affectedly, “My heart is in the highlands of Montmartre, and the night finds me pale and thoughtful.” When Gilda explains to the men why she doesn’t want to choose between them, she compares George to a slightly misshapen straw hat and Tom to a piquant fedora worn over one eye that you have to watch carefully on windy days.

Hecht must have written that last line to suit the actors: the stylish, insouciant March and the corn-fed Cooper are a study in contrasts. Cooper isn’t ideally suited for high comedy, but he’s astonishingly handsome here and terribly likable. March is brilliant as Tom; he’s hilarious, and you can see from the way he plays the few remaining tonal shifts that he would have been just as fine in Coward’s version. The madcap Hopkins turns her wondrous technique on the role of Gilda, which in the movie has been changed slightly. She’s now a commercial artist, and the man she marries in the final moments of the second act (Edward Everett Horton) is her former boss. Hecht reconfigured the philosophical conflict so that the forces aligned against each other aren’t convention and bohemianism but business and art. Max marries Gilda because it’s good for business; when she walks out on him at the end to rejoin her beloved Tom and George, she says that will be even better for business, and it frees her to return to the world of art. Hecht’s script may not be Coward’s, but it’s just about perfect.

Issue Date: July 12-19, 2001

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