Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#592: Design for Living

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)

Design for Living probably couldn't help but disappoint me. The concept of Lubitsch adapting a Noel Coward play for pre-code Hollywood was simply too amazing for expectations to be realistic going in. The actual film certainly has its moments, but doesn't rise to the level of either man's best work. I might go so far as to say it probably shouldn't be in the Collection - it's a good but far from great movie that's mostly noteworthy for the two names attached.

Still, there are some classic Lubitsch moments here, and much of the dialogue is really snappy. Then there's a young Gary Cooper looking dashingly handsome (in impeccably tailored suits, I might add), while Miriam Hopkins remains a strong Lubitsch lead - though she's not nearly as clever and charming as she is in the far superior Trouble In Paradise. The film is also interesting just an artifact of a time when Hollywood had a lot more leeway when it came to sexual subject matter - this film would have been very different if it was made just a few years later.

Coward, for his part, isn't really to blame since Lubitch and his writing partner almost entirely rewrote the play (according to Wikipedia the only lines Coward claimed to have remained included such vital dialogue as  "Please pass the mustard"). That makes a lot of sense: anyone who knows the styles of the two men well can see that this bears every mark of a Lubitsch movie, while Coward's handiwork is difficult to recognize.

It's not that Design for Living is a bad movie, and I'd happily watch it again. But I don't see any real merit in immortalizing it the way films like Trouble in Paradise and even Heaven Can Wait deserve it. Is it nice to see a film like this get a home video release? Yes, but I don't think the occasional pleasurable screening on TCM would have been the worst thing ever, and at the dawn of the age of streaming (when the film could have easily been tossed onto Criterion's Hulu page) there is starting to be even less of a case for physical releases of the completist variety.

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