Fredric March was already an Oscar winner and a newly minted Hollywood star when he co-starred with Miriam Hopkins and Gary Cooper in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 adaptation of the Noel Coward play Design for Living. In 1929, when all the major studios were scouring the Broadway stage for photogenic leading men with trained and mellifluous voices, March had been recruited and signed by Paramount Pictures. He received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his 1930 portrayal of Tony Cavendish in The Royal Family of Broadway, but it was his split-personality tour de force as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 that brought Fredric March his first Academy Award and movie stardom.
Playwright/actor Noel Coward wrote Design for Living, a comedy in three acts, in 1932; it debuted on Broadway in 1933 at the Ethyl Barrymore Theatre starring legends of the stage Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne and Coward himself. Because of its censoriously risqué plot, the play was not produced in London, Coward’s home ground, until 1939. His story of Gilda, Otto and Leo, a sophisticated trio involved in a romantic triangle (not to say threesome), was inspired by the personal lives and relationships of Lunt and Fontanne, who were his close friends; Noel Coward would remark that Design for Living was about three people who love each other very much and that, though the play was a solid hit when it opened, no one loved it more than its three leading actors.
When Ernst Lubitsch set out to film Coward’s play, he had a particular cast and screenwriter in mind. Miriam Hopkins, who had starred for him in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Trouble in Paradise (1932), was his first choice for the female lead. He was interested in Ronald Colman and Leslie Howard for the two male leads, but couldn’t afford Colman or persuade Howard. He next turned to Paramount leading man Fredric March for the role that was Coward’s Leo but became Lubitsch’s Tom, and approached Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., to portray the character that had been called Otto but would soon be George. But Fairbanks came down with pneumonia and the director eventually settled on popular Paramount matinee idol Gary Cooper. Of the three leads, Hopkins had the least experience on-screen, but the most experience with Lubitsch. She had also co-starred with March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and her film associations with both men helped advance her career.
Lubitsch, a writer himself, had hoped to collaborate once again with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow, The Shop Around the Corner) on Design for Living. But Raphaelson was not interested in working on “another damned sophisticated triangle” (referring to The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble in Paradise) or in rewriting Noel Coward, and declined. Ben Hecht, an esteemed screenwriter and script doctor (Nothing Sacred, Wuthering Heights, Notorious) with a cynical view of the status quo, was Lubitsch’s next choice. But it was not an easy partnership. Lubitsch, who commented that the two “weren’t used to each other,” was most at home working closely with his writers and Hecht was comfortable writing on his own. But they managed.
In the end, the plot was re-engineered and the triangular situation at the heart of Coward’s play was retained.
As Leo became Tom and Otto became George, all three characters became struggling American creative types rather than the play’s free-spirited British socialites. And the situation between the three was toned down; at the beginning of the play Gilda is living with Otto and has just resumed an affair with ex-beau Leo. Lubitsch’s film would follow the amorous adventures of three young, attractive Americans in Paris, London and New York: playwright Tom Chambers (March), painter George Curtis (Cooper) and commercial artist Gilda Farrell (Hopkins). Tom and George are buddy/roommates who meet and fall in love with Gilda.
Miriam Hopkins is in her element as passionate, independent Gilda (pronounced ‘Jilda’). She commands the screen – and her co-stars – with easy charm and confidence. Hopkins was at the height of her delectable pre-Code heyday in 1933; the steamy and controversial The Story of Temple Drake was released just months before Design for Living.
In his early films, Gary Cooper is always handsome and appealing, but he does not always convince as an actor. Cast against type in Design for Living he seems awkward spouting Hecht’s snappy dialogue at times, and it isn’t hard to understand why Lubitsch had first turned to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. But the director was satisfied with Cooper’s performance and believed movie-goers would “…be happy to see that he is an accomplished light comedian.”
Fredric March, experienced in talky roles like this one, is a better fit. In a departure from the more somber roles he was better known for, he shines as dapper, jovial Tom, a character partially informed by Ben Hecht’s own background as a playwright.
Had it been released just six months later, in 1934 when the Production Code was in force, Design for Living would not have gotten past the censors. Not only do Tom and George love Gilda – but Gilda loves Tom and George. She cannot and will not choose between them, and so the three decide to live together platonically – for a while…
Gilda is able to take what was then considered the entirely male prerogative without having to pay the on-screen price – usually death – that would soon be ordained by the Code:
Gilda: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men…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 is 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 alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out, but…”
Tom: “That’s very fine, but which chapeau do you want, madam?”
The Lady Eve lives in Northern California and works in TV. Her blog posts have won CiMBA Awards from the Classic Movie Blog Association and been reprinted in newspapers and magazines.